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Naval Aviation at the CUSP of Enlarging OP Envelope

Given the emerging geo-economic competition, Naval Aviation is on the threshold of enlarging its envelope over Indo-Pacific and make maritime security even more powerful

Issue: 1/2022 By Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd)

The pace of initiatives being taken by the government for enlarging the maritime aviation envelope in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is not only significant but also an acknowledgment of:

  • Importance being attached to India’s maritime sector overcoming the sea blindness baggage of the history and
  • We are plugging the gaps in the sector that we have accumulated over years.

Today, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of $5 trillion economy needs full support from all sectors of the state as also of insurance needed to secure commerce flowing in and out of Indo-Pacific. We are witnessing that unfolding. The export has gathered momentum and so has manufacturing towards the end of current Financial Year. Post the presentation of national budget, it is evident that the government is backing its words with adequate financial support.

Naval Aviation is at the cusp of enlarging its envelope over Indo Pacific and make maritime security even more powerful, given the emerging geo-economic competition which may turn into contestation, worse a conflict. Navy must be battle worthy and battle ready to deter any misadventures by competing and conflicting adversaries.

Maritime Patrol and Long Range Anti-Submarine Aircraft

As a replacement to Tupolov 142 the Navy pushed hard to get P-8I Poseidon aircraft built on Boeing platform. Though, within the Navy there was much debate on choice of aircraft but ultimately the government saw the merit in Navy’s projected operational aim of keeping surveillance right across the IOR. 8 aircraft were signed for and when it joined the air arm, entire navy breathed a sigh of relief. Not only could it patrol for longer but also had state of the art radar and modern Air to Surface Missiles to prosecute a hostile surface target. It has data link which is on line with Navy’s robust MDA (Maritime Domain Awareness) network. It can talk to ships and update the surface picture of areas of immediate interest.

The Government and Navy took a bold decision to buy 24 MH-60R, very advanced ASW helicopters

What’s more, it has very advanced submarine detection capability and equally modern anti-submarine weapons which can prosecute a suspect submarine.

After the first 8 aircraft, option clause of another 4 was utilised and the aircraft have started joining the Indian Fleet based at Goa. The IL 38s are ageing and need replacement. The total requirement of MMMR and LRMRASW aircraft was projected at 21 in 2006. Subject to Budgeting, these could move forward.

Anti-Submarine Warfare Helicopters

The obsolete Sea King Helicopters (42 A, 42 B and 42 C) needed replacement quite sometimes back. The Government and Navy took a bold decision to buy 24 MH-60R, very advanced ASW helicopters. Three of them have been handed over which are now being used for crew training right now. While helicopters begin to arrive, possibly they will operate from a central pool and embark ships when they move out of harbour. As the numbers increase, they will get allocated to individual ships. These are highly specialised machines to locate submarines using variable depth sonar, sonobuoys and possibly Magnetic Anomaly Detecting device. They are armed with accurate weapons to destroy an adversarial submarine. Short range Air to Surface Missiles could also neutralise ship targets. We are headed into better operational regime.

Shore based Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) MK III Navy have been inducted to meet the close distance ASW and Surveillance tasks, search and rescue even by night will be possible being twin engine helicopter. Fillip to HAL. The ship borne version is still some distance away.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)

Since 26/11, UAVs have been integral part of Naval Aviation. They were procured from Israel to meet the immediate task of surveillance, since Navy didn’t have adequate Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft. Searchers and Herons have done yeomen service since then.

Later, post formation of QUAD, accelerated by fast changing geopolitical seascape Indian Navy was leased Predator Long Range UAVs which added much fillip to surveillance capabilities in the southern IOR. It has made Navy’s MDA even more robust. It is understood that armed Predators could be in the pipeline. Made in India long range UAVs too should join sooner or later.

There has been larger proliferation of smaller drones which will meet certain local surveillance necessities.

Fighter Aircraft for IAC Vikrant and Follow on Aircraft Carrier

As we go to press, the Shore Based Test Facility has been used by French Rafale M fighter aircraft to demonstrate launch from Ski Jump which is fitted to the Aircraft Carrier Vikrant. The Rafale is a catapult launch aircraft onboard the FNS Charles d’ Gaulle and therefore its ability to launch from ski jump was tested. This will be followed by similar capability demonstration by Boeing F-18 Super Hornet. Subsequently these aircraft have to prove their ability to traverse on the carrier lift to and from deck and hangar for maintenance. Thereafter extensive trials from the carrier to prove the Naval Air Staff Requirements. In the final analysis the Government will take a call where there is cost benefit, which could accrue if both Navy and Air Force select the same aircraft. Even the manufacturer would have economy of scale and transfer the manufacturing plant to India under Strategic Partnership Model (SPM). Since Indian aviation hasn’t grown as well as other platforms in aviation sector, we have a lot of catching up under SPM. Till then the Government would have to support imports to maintain a credible defence in the IOR. Also, airborne ASW technology is quite advanced worldwide whereas Indian Navy’s needs being small, indigenous manufacturing are unwise and hence import option works better.

In the overall analysis the Navy is poised to take a maritime air power leap giving it the ability to locate anything which is in the air, on the surface of sea and under the surface of water anytime and anywhere.