In what is likely to be the new government’s first big defence contract, India may hammer out a ~17,500-crore deal with the United States for naval helicopters before the year end, two senior officials familiar with the navy’s modernisation said on the condition of anonymity.
India is buying 24 Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky MH-60R helicopters to strengthen the navy’s anti-submarine/anti-surface warfare and surveillance capabilities.
The multi-role helicopter (MRH) purchase is being made under the US government’s foreign military sales (FMS) programme, which involves a direct government-to-government sale.
A critical operational necessity for the navy, the MRHs are being bought as a replacement for the Sea King 42/42A fleet, which went out of service nearly two decades ago.
“We hope to conclude the contract with the US by October-November. The deliveries are expected to begin 18 months after the contract is signed and all the MH-60Rs should be in by 2022. The helicopters will plug a key capability gap,” said one of the officials cited above.
Armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, MK 54 torpedoes and advanced precision kill weapons system rockets, the twin-engine helicopters can operate from frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers. The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified the Congress of the possible MH-60R sale to India in April.
“The 24 MRHs have been overdue for years and their induction would hugely benefit the navy. The choppers will be a concern for our adversaries. Perhaps we are going to need more and one hopes that we will look for pan Indian armed forces platform commonality in light and heavier helicopters,” said military affairs expert, Rear Admiral (retd) Sudarshan Shrikhande.
The navy is also pursuing a plan to build 111 naval utility helicopters (NUH) in India under the strategic partnership (SP) model to replace its outdated fleet of French-designed Chetak choppers. The technical bids of the foreign firms competing for the project were opened on Monday.
US firm Lockheed Martin, European Airbus Helicopters and Russian Helicopters are eyeing the ~21,738-crore project that involves manufacturing the choppers locally in partnership with Indian firms.
The opening of the bids will be followed by technical evaluation, field trials, staff evaluation and technical oversight before commercial negotiations begin.
The SP model lays down the template for cooperation between Indian and foreign firms to build high-tech weapons in the country through transfer of niche technologies. Next-generation submarines, fighter planes and armoured vehicles are covered under the SP model.
The navy uses NUH for search and rescue, medical evacuation, communication duties, anti-piracy and anti-terrorism operations, humanitarian assistance, surveillance and targeting.