The Future of Indian Naval Aviation

An IDC Analysis


New Delhi, 04 February 2004

The Indian Navy has been in the business of Naval Aviation since Independence and it is a professional force and is tasked to support the fleet, and now looks forward to operating from the Gorshkov with MiG 29Ks by 2008, when its potency will increase. But as of today the arm is equipped with aging Harriers GR 51 with Pegasus engines and Blue Fox radar, flying off the INS Viraat which is due to decommission in 2008, when the Gorshkov will be inducted.

The helicopter fleet consists of Seakings Mk 42 and Ka 28 and newly arrived KA 31 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) helicopters. These are supported by a few Dorniers equipped with the Elta Maritime radar. The Navy has also inducted trial ALHs but the naval ASW version of the Indian built Dhruv is quite some distance away and the Navy will have to look for helicopter replacements.

The Government recently cleared a Rs 400 crore plan to refit the old Seaking helos supplied by Westlands, which had suffered from want of spares when the Americans imposed sanctions after the 1998 nuclear tests. The first of the contracted nine airborne early warning (AEW) Ka 31 helicopters ordered from Russia have just arrived on the scene and in time they will mesh into the fleet for long-range detection and targeting. The Duke of Wellington had confessed that he had spent all his life guessing what lay over the hill. AEW today is the technological answer for all Navies and the Indian Navy knows this. All its missiles of the present –– Klub in the Talwar class, Uran KH 35 in the Delhi class and the future induction of BrahMos missiles will demand AEW.

The Navy’s confirmed mission statement is that India’s position in the Indian Ocean demands that it acquires true “blue water capability”. The Navy has to therefore follow the dictum that without integral air, the fleet would be ineffective. Hence its naval aviation role will have to increase and the Navy will have to face the challenges ahead.

On the Maritime Reconnaissance front the Navy has been operating the large TU-142M four-engine fuel guzzling turbo props in its 312 Squadron. These are large and cumbersome to operate in tropical conditions, as they need air conditioning before start up. Despite modifications to fire ASM missiles, EW and radar suites, the future Indian Navy knows it will need more agile and capable MR platforms.

The Navy also operates the ageing IL 38s (3 plus 2) upgraded to IL 38N, thanks to two planes provided by Russia from their surplus stock. Two IL 38s were lost in a mid air collision on 1 October 2002 near Goa. The IAF is poised to get three Israeli Phalcon with Elta 2085/2075 systems on A-50 Beriev/IL 76 platforms for AEW in the coming years, which can support the Navy too –– but the Navy will have to chart its own long term needs at sea.

With easing of US technology restrictions on India, Lockheed Martin Marietta have offered the surplus P3C Orions with promises of refurbishment, and the Navy has reviewed the Harpoon too as an option. Northrop Grumman have pitched in with their E 2C Hawkeye, with inducements to try to study if the plane can fly off the Air Defence ship with reduced payload.

The Naval aviation of the future has its course charted out.

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