India is finally concluding a procurement contract for multi-role helicopters the navy has publicly labelled as “most important”. Defence Ministry sources confirm a contract will be signed in November with the US Department of Defense (the Pentagon) for 24 Lockheed Martin MH-60R Seahawks for $2-to-2.6 billion.
These choppers with foldable blades will be stationed on naval warships to perform a range of combat missions. These include anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASuW), combat search and rescue (CSAR), vertical replenishment (VERTREP) and medical evacuation (MEDEVAC). The Seahawk is also used to fly in Special Forces for commando missions.
For decades, the Indian Navy’s Sea King Mk 42B/C helicopters carried out these tasks. But with the Sea King being retired, helicopter hangars on board an entire generation of Indian warships are empty, severely reducing the warships’ combat capability.
The navy’s ten-odd Sea Kings are being shared between an aircraft carrier, 14 destroyers, 15 frigates and three ASW corvettes. Several other warships in production will also require multi-mission helicopters when they enter service.
Given this urgency, the navy is buying 24 MH-60R Seahawks in flyaway condition, and then plans to build another 99 in India through the Strategic Partner (SP) route.
For building them here, Lockheed Martin, the “original equipment manufacturer” (OEM), will have to transfer manufacturing technology to an Indian SP firm.
Given Lockheed Martin’s burgeoning partnership with Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL), it is likely that TASL will be designated the SP for the task. The two collaborate in building a range of aerospace components in Hyderabad and have announced a partnership to build the F-16 fighter in India if the Indian Air Force buys the aircraft.
The first 24 Seahawks are being procured through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route – a US-led process that involves no tendering. Instead, the Pentagon, acting as a paid agent of the buyer (the Indian Navy), negotiates price and supply terms with the OEM (Lockheed Martin).
In most such deals, the foreign buyer usually manages to procure the equipment more cheaply than the US military did for itself. This is because the Pentagon fixes as a benchmark the price the US military paid for its last procurement of that equipment. Upon that, the Pentagon then imposes a price reduction, demanding greater production efficiency and the continual amortisation of overhead costs during the production run.
FMS procurements also come with US government guarantees on weapons and equipment performance.
The MH-60R Seahawk helicopter – originally built by US firm Sikorsky, which was bought by Lockheed Martin for $9 billion in November 2015 – has had a long production run. Introduced into the US Navy in 2006, there are 300 Seahawks in service, including in the US, Danish, Australian and Saudi Arabian navies. South Korea is considering the purchase of 12 Seahawks.
The Seahawks the US Navy bought have since been upgraded with the AN/APS-153 multi-mode radar, making them highly effective at detecting the periscope of enemy submarines. India will be getting the upgraded version.
Lockheed Martin says the Seahawk has a 98 per cent availability rate and the lowest life-cycle cost in its class (costing less than $5,000 for each flying hour).
The defence ministry gave the go-ahead for buying 24 Seahawks on August 25, 2018. On April 2, the US Congress was informed about the potential sale “for an estimated cost of $2.6 billion”.
This includes the cost of 24 fully kitted and armed helicopters, along with 12 spare engines, six spare multi-mode radars and six multi-spectral targeting systems. The deal includes 1,000 sonobuoys, or portable sonar systems, for detecting enemy submarines; and Hellfire missiles, rockets and torpedoes to destroy surface and sub-surface targets.
A range of communications equipment is also being transferred, enabled by the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) that India and the US signed in September 2018.
Sikorsky has an illustrious legacy in helicopter building. It built the first helicopter to carry the US president and, even today, the US president’s helicopter – designated “Marine One” – is a Sikorsky machine. The famed UH-60 Black Hawk, a variant of which was used in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is a Sikorsky helicopter.
In a separate, ongoing, navy procurement for 111 naval utility helicopters, Lockheed Martin is offering its smaller Sikorsky S-76 helicopter. This sale is also being progressed under the strategic partner route, but will not be a foreign military sales (FMS) contract.