When India and the United States sign a $2.6 billion deal today to procure 24 MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopters, it will be after a tense 14-year wait for the Indian Navy. Six of the Sikorsky-built helicopters will be delivered early next year, with the remaining 18 to follow in batches over two years. For the navy, they couldn’t possibly be arriving sooner. And the journey to this point, like several other procurement programs, highlights the troubling stomach the Indian armed forces are compelled to have for delays.
Confirming that the deal would be signed today, US President Donald Trump said in Ahmedabad yesterday, “I am pleased to announce that, tomorrow, our representatives will sign deals to sell over $3 billion in the absolute finest, state-of-the-art military helicopters and other equipment to the Indian Armed Forces.”
The second deal that will be signed today, that Trump refers to, is for 6 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for the Indian Army as options on an earlier IAF procurement. But it is the deal today for MH-60Rs that merits a closer look back.
The 24 Sea Hawks being contracted today are a twisted culmination of an erstwhile Indian Navy procurement program called the Multirole Helicopter (MRH) that was first articulated in 2006-07. The MRH sought to quickly, but competitively, choose and procure 16 naval helicopters to augment and replace the Indian Navy’s Sea Kings. The navy operates Westland Sea Kings and a flight of Sikorsky UH-3H Sea Kings that came as part of the USS Trenton supply deal in 2007. It was amidst plans to upgrade and extend the life of its Sea Kings that the navy decided at the time to forward plan for replacement helicopters.
Five years passed before the contest reached anywhere close to finality, with India left to decide between the European NH90 and Sikorsky’s S-70B Sea Hawk. A protracted and unusually ill-tempered contest, it seemed that amidst the turbulence of an annoyed Indian Navy and the AgustaWestland helicopter scandal (AgustaWestland’s parent company owns 32% of NHIndustries), it seemed for a while that the Indian Navy was being empowered to award the program to Sikorsky for 16 S-70Bs.
All through the contest, Sikorsky had pitched the MH-60R, a higher capability helicopter based on the same Sea Hawk airframe as the S-70B, but the Indian Navy had held off on the offer, saying it would consider the more expensive Romeo helicopters for the the separate Naval Multirole Helicopter (NMRH) program that sought to procure 44 helicopters. In 2015, Sikorsky was bought out by Lockheed-Martin Inc., which put significant energies into persuading the Indian government that the MH-60R was the way to go in a no-fuss government-to-government deal. In consequence, the troublesome MRH procurement then went into familiar limbo for two years, with no official word on whether the Indian MoD planned to announce a decision one way or the other. During this time, there was significant debate within the Indian Navy whether to abort the program entirely, or keep it alive.
In August 2017, the Indian Navy made a dramatic announcement. The erstwhile NMRH requirement was rebooted, with the number of airframes nearly tripled from 44 to 123, and a degree of detailing in terms of a split between multirole utility and special operations. But what about the dormant MRH? Almost exactly a year later, things became clear.
In August 2018, days before the crucial ‘2+2’ dialogue between India and the United States, the Indian MoD cleared the Indian Navy to pursue the acquisition of 24 Sikorsky MH-60R helicopters. Less than two years later, that deal will be signed today by India and the United States under the latter’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. The MRH program was never officially laid to rest, but with the 24 Romeos to cost $2.6 billion, the navy will be hoping it can keep the NMRH program for 123 such helicopters alive. The latter program is to be executed under India’s ambitious Strategic Partnership (SP) model.
On the back of today’s deal, the MH-60R will hold an obvious advantage going into the NMRH program, if and when it happens as proposed. Not surprisingly, the NH90 which vied for the original MRH program won’t be a player in the NMRH. Instead, NHIndustries’ majority shareholder Airbus Helicopters has decided to pitch the H225M Caracal. The latter is also a contender for the Indian Coastguard’s procurement competition for 14 twin-engine heavy helicopters (TEHH) cleared by the MoD last year. The Caracal goes up against Sikorsky’s S-92.
The 24 MH-60Rs and the 123 NMRH helicopters (if that numbers holds steady) will operate off aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, the upcoming indigenous aircraft carriers Vikrant, the three Shivalik-class stealth frigates, the follow-on P-17A frigates as well as current and future destroyer types, the Delhi-class, Kolkata-class and Visakhapatnam-class.