US government in a hurry to get new sub-hunting helicopters into the hands of the Indian Navy

by Dave Makichuk

To say the Pentagon is concerned about China’s military expansion would be an understatement — just ask the Indian Navy.

According to a report by Paul McLeary for Breaking Defence, the US government was in such a hurry to get sub-hunting helicopters into the hands of the Indian Navy that the Americans gave up some of their own helicopters to fill a rushed delivery early next year.

“This really was one of the higher priorities the [Indian] navy had, to get these aircraft delivered,” Tom Kane, director of Sikorsky’s Naval Helicopter Programs told reporters last week. “I requested that the aircraft be made available on an accelerated basis. So I think there is an urgent need.”

The urgency stems from the decade-long process India has undergone to replace its ageing fleet of British-made naval helicopters, as Chinese navy ships, underwater drones and so-called maritime militia civilian-flagged fishing boats spread further into the Indian Ocean, Breaking Defence reported.

With New Delhi in a hurry to begin getting the state-of-the-art helicopters into use, and the US government eager to pull India closer as a hedge against growing Chinese naval capabilities, the US Navy allowed Sikorsky to take three of its brand new MH-60R Sea Hawks and begin modifying them to Indian standards to deliver next spring.

According to The Economic Times, the US$28 million “Romeo” Seahawk helicopters have advanced combat systems like sensors, missiles, and torpedoes to track and hunt enemy boats and submarines — enough to strike fear in a submarine Captain’s mind.

The Navy will receive new MH-60R’s in a few years to replace them. The remaining 21 helicopters will be delivered in 2023 and 2024, Breaking Defence reported.

Most of the changes being made to the aircraft are in the communications and data sharing realm, Kane told reporters.

“They want the ability to talk to their satellites obviously, so there’s an Indian indigenous SATCOM data link. Also,they can talk to their ships so there’s a link to that they’ve asked us to install, and there’s some other modifications like a floatation system, and other things that we’ll have to [change] from the standard US Navy configuration,” he added.

The MH-60R was born to be a sub hunter, however, and that mission will remain central to the Indian configuration, Breaking Defence reported.

“They’ll come off the line as ASW [anti-submarine warfare] aircraft so they’ll have the active dipping sonar,” the AN/APS-153 radar “and things that you would normally see on a US Navy configuration,” Kane told reporters. 

According to Defence News, the helicopters are to be armed with multi-mode radar, Hellfire missiles, Mark 54 torpedoes and precision-kill rockets.

They are also to be used in limited intelligence gathering roles, for surveillance missions, and in search and rescue efforts, Defence News reported.

The deal is the largest contract Sikorsky has signed with the Indian government. Unlike most other programs, it’s not subject to the “Make in India” effort launched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Breaking Defence reported.

The company did not sign an offset agreement with India on the project, “so we will put more indirect work over in India,” Kane said.

The Indian defence industry will also likely be involved in any maintenance and retrofit efforts on the aircraft in the coming years.