Notwithstanding the dramatic images of a Coast Guard Chetak helicopter, rescuing stranded firemen atop Mumbai’s Lotus Business Park, for the men in white, charged with India’s maritime security, the scenario is that of an unending nightmare. And it concerns the helicopter fleet of the Indian Navy (IN) and the Indian Coast Guard (ICG). No sizeable acquisition in over a decade, an unforgiving procedure and the ghost of the AgustaWestland scandal have together ensured that the helicopters that these forces have been asked to make do with are rapidly dwindling, both in numbers and capabilities.
Such is the situation that when on Saturday, Defence Minister Arun Jaitley chairs his first meeting of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) – Ministry of Defence’s highest decision-making body, he is likely to find this flagged up, right at the top.
From protecting own ships to tracking and attacking enemy ships and submarines, the use of a helicopter for a war-fighting force can be overlooked only at the cost of compromising national security.
A senior naval officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “The manner in which the navy and the MoD went about this in the past proves their clear lack of vision. Simply inducting more and more ships is not enough. How well are we enabling these ships is as important.”
Investigation revealed the navy has a mess on its hands.
Modern platforms, often built at a staggering expense to the exchequer, are roaming the seas without helicopters onboard. Many warships, which have two hangars onboard are steaming past without even a single helicopter onboard. For instance, between the six Talwar class frigates, which include the recently inducted frigates Teg, Tarkash and Trikand, only three carry a helicopter. Some other frigates don’t have even one helicopter between them. Coming to larger ships like the destroyers, one Kamov helicopter is being shared between five Rajput class ships. Remarked a senior naval officer, “The availability of helicopters is at 20 per cent of what it should be. We are sharing helicopters to ensure the show goes on. It is a tragic situation.”
With a requirement of over 100 helicopters across different categories, and yet going nowhere, the navy’s predicament is clear. Said an MoD official, “The Indian Navy had to get 16 choppers as a direct replacement for Seaking 42A helicopters which came with the INS Viraat in 1987 and were decommissioned by the end of the century. Categorised as ‘Multi Role Helicopter’ acquisition, it is yet to take off even today.” Then there is the Naval Multi Role helicopter deal to replace the Chetaks which were first introduced into the Indian armed forces in the 60s, and the Naval Utility Helicopter deal. It is all hanging in balance.
At present, officers from the navy say, their MRH quest has landed them with two shortlisted probable vendors of which one has a ‘link’ to Finmeccanica, the parent company of AgustaWestland. “Though nobody will say so on paper, we have been asked to go slow on this,” said a MoD official.
As for the NMRH, the navy shall soon float a Request For Information (RFI) whereas the NUH is not even there.
Facts and figures
-Delhi class of destroyers can carry two helicopters.
-Kolkata class of frigates can carry two helicopters.
-Shivalik class, Betwa class and Godavari class of frigates can carry two helicopters.
-Landing Ship Tank (Large) can carry two helicopters.
-Talwar class of frigates can carry one helicopter.
-Offshore Patrol Vessels can carry one helicopter.
-INS Viraat can carry eight helicopters.
-INS Vikramaditya can carry 12 helicopters.
-However, only 20 per cent of the requirement of these ships is being met in terms of availability of helicopters.
Indian Coast Guard
The biggest hurdle in doing its duty is its malnourished fleet of under 20 ageing Chetak helicopters and two Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv both which are deployed solely at Porbandar to keep an eye on the International Maritime Border Line (IMBL) with Pakistan. Efforts of more than 15 years to acquire a modern helicopter have been reduced to nothing. To top it, on orders of the previous administration, ICG was asked to ‘gift’ one of its ALH helicopters to the Maldivian National Defence Forces (MNDF), last year.
Given this situation, the ICG has no option but to position merely one or two Chetaks at every air station. “Plus Chetaks being single engine helicopters, can’t fly for too long,” said a source. India, he said, would rank among the very few countries of the world where a maritime force is making do with a single engine helicopter. “You may not be aware but the DGCA norms do not allow a flight over water by single engine helicopter,” he added.
“To patrol when a ship moves, the helicopter onboard is meant to fly around and enhance the reach and surveillance of the ship. If you take the helicopter out, a ship’s capability drastically reduces,” explained a senior MoD official.
On an immediate basis, the ICG requires 16 light helicopters, for which it has chosen the indigenous ALH Dhruv Mark III and hopes to get Jaitley’s nod in the upcoming meet as well as 14 10-tonne plus, heavier helicopters, where its technical evaluation has zeroed down the scope between the European EC725 and American S90.
“For a while now, we have trained ourselves to ignore that our ship can even house a helicopter,” a Commanding Officer of a Coast Guard ship said. “When terrorists struck Mumbai in 2008 and a frantic search was launched to track down the point of entry of the terrorists, it was a Coast Guard helicopter which located the ship, MV Kuber that they had hijacked. Hope the government doesn’t forget that,” he added.
“It is not fair to simply say that the MoD or procedure fails to arm the services. In fact what many do not know is that the entire process of acquisition is largely driven by the services themselves. What happens is that the very often the Qualitative Requirements (QRs) framed are too unrealistic or the paper work has flaws and the project flops. Attempts made at introducing professional assistance to services in this department has been resisted by the services.”