NEW DELHI: The US will hand over three of the 24 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters to India, ordered last year, between June and September, keeping to the timeline agreed upon before the covid-19 pandemic.

The three helicopters are expected to be handed over to the Indian embassy in Washington, two people familiar with the development said Tuesday. The Sikorsky-Lockheed Martin made Seahawks are to replace the British made Sea King helicopters that New Delhi acquired in the 1970s.

The MH-60R is currently in service with the US Navy, Royal Danish Navy, Royal Australian Navy and Royal Saudi Naval Forces. It has also been ordered by Greece.

The $2.6 billion dollar deal for the 24 Seahawks was cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) last year in February before former US President Donald Trump’s visit to India. The 24 are to be acquired through the government to government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route.

The helicopters India is to get are the fourth-generation MH-60Rs with torpedoes and missiles. Once in India, the helicopters are expected to bolster the Indian Navy’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities in the Indian Ocean region given the rising activities of the Chinese navy including submarines in the region in recent years. Along with the Boeing P8-I which the Indian Navy is already operating and Sea Guardian drones that the Indian Navy has leased from a US company, India’s submarine hunting capabilities are expected to acquire a lethal punch.

In recent years, the Chinese vessels including navy ships and submarines have been increasingly spotted in the Indian Ocean, seen as a major west to east trade route. In 2017, China opened its first overseas base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, in a move seen as aimed at protecting its overseas trade routes. China has also built a port in Gwadar, in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, that looks out into the north Arabian Sea, close to India. Last year, the Indian Navy had described the Seahawks as “a force multiplier."

The deal for India includes training, spares and air-to-ground weapons and support. A team of Indian Navy pilots and ground staff are expected to travel to the US soon to receive training on how to operate and maintain the helicopters, one of the people cited above said. Some of the Seahawks will be used for training before they fly to India, the person added.

Besides anti-submarine warfare, the helicopters for India will be able to carry out anti-surface warfare operations as well as naval special warfare, search and rescue and medical evacuation, the second person cited above said.