It wasn’t difficult for the Indian Navy to grab headlines this week. Kick-starting a historically ambitious $5 billion effort to acquire 234 helicopters in a world of shrinking arms budgets is a big story no matter which way you slice it. But amidst the clatter over big figures and audacious airframe numbers lies nestled, almost demurely, a nugget of capability that throws big light on the navy’s recognition of a growing new threat.
The 111 light naval utility helicopters (NUH) that the Indian Navy officially declared interest in this week will replace the roughly 40 HAL Chetak/Allouette III light utility helicopters in service. The Chetaks, sturdy and dependable in their day, are no longer easy to support and keep available. But the navy doesn’t just want the new NUH to replace the Chetaks in their logistics and SAR mission profile. The navy wants its Chetak replacement to also be a fully capable submarine hunter, a mission its light utility helos has never been able to perform.
In its global request for information (RFI) published this week, the Indian Navy has stipulated that the fully configured version of the NUH needs to be capable of sub-surface targeting. Top naval sources confirmed to Livefist that this explicitly meant the ability to deploy torpedoes and depth charges and indicates a major emphasis on extending anti-submarine capabilities across platforms. Apart from the Sea King Mk.42Bs, the navy’s current rotorcraft assets with anti-submarine capabilities include the Ka-28s and Dhruvs. The larger number of NUH platforms will mean giving existing and new ships a limited capability against submarines. The big bottomline: the Indian Navy wants virtually its entire rotorcraft fleet to be capable of engaging submarines.
The move is very significant in the context of heightened Chinese submarine activity in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), a singular factor driving other planning and acquisition imperatives.
The navy’s interest is specific and the RFI details its requirement — and it isn’t a small ask. For instance, it wants the NUH to be able to hover out of ground effect (HOGE) from sea level with two pilots and an under-slung load of one light weight torpedo, proceed at least 30 nautical miles from its ship at cruising speed and deploy its weapon payload and return back to ship with 20 min reserve of fuel. The navy has also listed the torpedo capabilities it wants on the NUH:
As with the naval multirole helicopter (NMRH) requirement, the NUH contest will be executed under India’s new Strategic Partnership policy. The new contest is also a fresh avatar from the detritus of India’s troubled reconnaissance and surveillance (RSH) helicopter contest intended for the Indian Army and Indian Air Force. While the RSH has decided on the Russian Ka-226T Sergei (a final lock on the Make-in-India programme is still awaited), the navy’s earlier requirement of 56 light utility helicopters has expanded with the addition of coastal security and blue water mission requirements.
Likely contenders in the NUH fight include the Airbus Helicopters AS565 Panther, Bell 429, LockheedMartin-Sikorsky S-76D and, perhaps the AgustaWestland AW 109.