The MRH Saga – A Blue Water Navy Without Multi-Role Helicopters
Seaking Mk 42B has been the mainstay of our airborne Anti-Submarine Warfare operations. Should it remain so?
- The Indian Navy has been looking to replace its ageing Sea King helicopters for many years
- We are no closer to inducting the Multi-Role Helicopters (MRH), so vital to our Navy, and that’s not going to change for a long time
- MRH helicopters are the crucial eyes, ears and long arms of the fleet
- The most striking feature of our process, which leaves us with no MRH, is that nobody is answerable and accountable for the mess
- All stakeholders – the Defence Ministry, Defence PSUs, and the private sector – need to implement vital changes
The Sea King Mk 42B has served the Indian Navy with distinction since the 80s. But the long years in service without any upgrades have rendered its avionics and sensors obsolescent.
A case was moved in the new millennium for a suitable replacement for the Sea King Mk 42/42A helicopters, and came to be known as the case for 16 Multi-Role Helicopters (16 MRH).
Meanwhile, the Indian Navy has taken vast strides in modernisation and indigenisation. Warships from Projects 15, 15A, 17, 17A, 28, Fleet Tanker, etc, have been rolled out consistently year on year.
The Indian Navy has been looking for a replacement for its ageing Sea King helicopters for many years now. The Sea King Mk 42B has for long been the mainstay of our airborne anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations. The older Sea King Mk 42 and 42A were retired from active service almost two decades ago.
Integral Helicopters for Indigenous Warships
Then there are bigger decks like aircraft carrier Vikramaditya, Indigenous Aircraft Carriers (IAC) and Landing Platform Docks (LPD) which would also have their own helicopter squadrons. In 2008, the total helicopter requirement of all these ships was aggregated by the navy in a massive case for over 120 MRH. The other services had their numbers, too.
For economies of scale, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) directed that long-term helicopter requirements of all three services be examined as a tri-service project named ‘Indian Multi Role Helicopter’ (IMRH).
Quite predictably, the MoD quietly let slip the IMRH project into the hands of public sector aerospace giant Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), and they started their parleys with potential partners to pursue the project through a co-development, co-production route.
With diverse requirements of all three services threatening to stall their plans and the lessons learnt from the advanced light helicopter (ALH) project still fresh, the Navy steered a separate project titled Naval MRH (NMRH).
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Fleet replacement programmes come with their own pitfalls and have large lead times. Each service therefore soft-pedalled the IMRH case and evolved alternate strategies to ensure survival of the ongoing, smaller helicopter programmes.
To an extent, the IAF and army were successful in their efforts and inked contracts for medium-lift helicopters, attack helicopters, ALH etc, while partaking in IMRH discussions noncommittally.
As of date, Indian warships bristle with the latest radars, sensors and weapons. MiG 29K fighters thunder off the carrier Vikramaditya’s decks, naval fighter pilots train on Hawk AJTs, a naval satellite is up in space, while our indigenous nuclear submarine is out at sea.
But we are no closer to inducting the MRH so vital to our navy. And it’s not going to change for a long time as I see it.
Taking into account recent developments, my estimate is that it may take another 15-20 years before the NMRH flies off our decks. It could even take longer if we do not redraw our priorities and evolve new strategies.
Recent news reports indicate that the navy’s much-vaunted tender for 16 MRH has been scrapped. After almost a decade of confabulation, bids, technical evaluations and field evaluation trials that eventually saw the Sikorsky S70B Seahawk emerge as the sole contender, we are back to square one.
‘Operation Successful, But Patient Dead’
A “partial ban” was imposed by the Defence Acquisition Council in 2014 on Finmeccanica – the parent company of AgustaWestland – which was embroiled in a high-profile helicopter kickback controversy with the Indian MoD.
That eliminated the other contender NH-90 NFH (developed by a European consortium NH Industries and fielded by AgustaWestland for the 16 MRH programme). In August 2015, the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar tabled a written reply in Parliament that the price escalation was not found acceptable by the 16 MRH contract negotiation committee.
As per news reports, contract negotiations have now been terminated with the only remaining contender, as the commercial bid was way above our benchmarked price and neither side was willing to relent.
This is yet another case of ‘operation successful, but patient dead’. It takes two to tango and even the companies who were in the fray would not escape culpability for the deal falling through.
A Critical Void
In any operation at sea today, modern multi-role helicopters are the crucial eyes, ears and long arms of the fleet. The only platform that can strike fear in a submarine captain’s mind is the fleet’s integral air element of anti-submarine helicopters.
For India, with neighbours who are consolidating their fleets with potent submarines, lack of capable MRH in adequate numbers is a critical capability gap that is ever-widening even as we continue to roll out indigenous warships. When the balloon goes up, without helicopters, these ships will be playing a blind man’s buff in waters where a submarine holds the advantage.
To put things in perspective, we inducted the Sea Kings in 1987 – roughly 20 years after the Royal Navy did (1969). The contract for Merlin – RN’s Sea King replacement – was awarded in October 1991 and entered service in 1999. Twenty years later, our Sea King replacement programme is still on paper.
In 2006, the Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme (MSCP) began to create 30 upgraded Merlin Mk 2s to keep the RN helicopter fleet up to date. Having inherited our bureaucracy from the British, one would think we should have fared better than them.
Naval Helicopter Cases in Disarray
Diligent staff at naval headquarters have been drafting plans that have repeatedly come a cropper in the byzantine corridors of MoD (Navy) where there is full authority and zero accountability. The state of our key helicopter programmes are languishing at various levels:
- The advanced light helicopter (Dhruv) failed to meet navy’s expectations due to ship integration issues and challenging tri-service specifications riding on a 5.5-ton class helicopter.
- The much-awaited case for replacing ageing Chetaks (Alouette IIIB, 1960s vintage) with naval utility helicopters (NUH) that started in 2008 has returned to pre-Request For Proposal (RFP) stage.
- A mid-life upgrade (MLU) case for the Sea King Mk 42B ASW helicopters which progressed till field evaluation trials (FET) was shelved after the navy and OEM AgustaWestland fell out on proprietary issues.
- The I/NMRH programme runs the risk of getting stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire if a clear strategy is not evolved to navigate through all kinds of vested interests that will be at play in this big-ticket project. Most of these helicopters are required by the navy as of yesterday, but the project remains on paper as on date.
- A contract for mid-life upgrade of 10 ASW Kamov-28 helicopters was finally signed in 2016 after meandering for over a decade. This is probably the only Indian helicopter upgrade programme that is ‘on track’ as we speak.
It is quite likely that some of the ships that originally carried these helicopters may either be decommissioned or have little residual service life left by the time the helicopters return from upgrade – the cost of dithering over minor issues.
There are thousands of reasons why cases can run aground in the MoD. Bureaucrats sitting on either side of the divide have mastered the art of sending back files with notations rather than building consensus or working out a coherent strategy to get the services they need.
Even a single query raised on file can set a case back by a few months. And here we have had more than a fair share of setbacks.
What Is The Way Forward?
Collectively, all stakeholders must shoulder the blame for this state of affairs. Here are a few quick suggestions to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself:
For the Indian Navy
All cases start with laying down specifications in broad terms. While writing down the naval staff qualitative requirements (NSQR), please reflect on the consequences they may have on the project in the long term.
What use are perfect NSQRs which get us nowhere? Many RFPs had to be withdrawn and some resulted in single vendor situations because of untenable SQRs.
Second, ensure that the right people are selected for the job. Directorates that handle such projects require staff with expertise in multiple fields that include rich operational experience, technical knowledge and exposure to military grade testing and certification, among others.
They should grasp the underlying principles of aerospace and be able to interpret and apply them to acquisition work – a sort of expert-generalist – the new-age term. Not everybody fits this bill.
Third, avoid frequent change of key members involved in the project (typical of any navy where we have to ‘move places to go places’) so that continuity is not lost at critical junctures.
Fourth, link key ship projects to multi-role helicopter acquisitions wherever you can. Today we have the KM-31 AEW helicopters because they came with the Krivak Class stealth frigates. The UH3H helicopters, however old, came with the Jalashwa (ex-USNS Trenton). The MiG 29K fighters came with INS Vikramaditya. But no MRH came with any major ship programmes because we delinked ships and helicopters and continued working in silos.
Lastly, the prices of defence weaponry have always been nebulous – hence, the need for great care and rationalisation in benchmarking – a task where we are still evolving. Where required, employ specialists and rationalise costing models relevant to our context. Who can deny the hidden costs of doing business in India?
To Ministry of Defence
We have renamed organisations without bringing about real change. The ‘integrated headquarters of the MoD’ is a misnomer as even lessons learnt by other services remain closely guarded secrets.
There is no knowledge transfer across acquisition directorates of the three services and the MoD has done little to facilitate this. That is the biggest weakness. Then there are others.
Please wake up and smell the coffee. Even if you don’t listen to the navy, there are enough think-tanks that will tell you the sheer stupidity of acquiring bigger and bigger ships without ASW helicopters while our adversaries keep arming themselves to the teeth with better submarines.
Second, put better policies in place because the present one is not delivering the results on time. Our L1 policy needs to be rethought. It has ensured nothing but ruin for armed forces procurements.
Third, acknowledge the fact that fleet replacement projects require ‘subject matter experts’ and cross-functional leadership over teams that must work to a common purpose. Some of the bureaucrats need to get off their high horses and work alongside our uniformed officers and men towards that common purpose.
Fourth, do not watch on smugly when the services procrastinate. Maybe they need your help. Do not disassociate yourself from individual services’ projects. Most projects keep lurching from one crisis to another due to lack of policy direction from higher levels.
Fifth, allow greater autonomy to each service. Encourage them to work through smaller numbers. Do not blow up every case into a balloon destined to burst. Don’t needlessly bunch together tri-service requirements in the name of economies of scale. We are the only armed force in the world that operates helicopters from sea level to super high altitude. There are peculiar challenges only we face.
Sixth, mandate the use of project management models. Treat each case as a project with defined timelines and fix accountability. Have frequent reviews. If timelines are not met, heads must roll, even if they belong in the ministry.
Seventh, review policies frequently. If it doesn’t work, crack the whip. If you cannot make it work, re-strategise. Think of the navy as something you own.
Eighth, stop being so risk-averse and don’t cull a case because somebody made a mistake or received kickbacks. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. We have worked very hard to reach where we are.
Future generations may find this effort futile and not worth their time if every case is seen to be floundering.
Lastly, beware the tendency to govern by dropping jargon and catchphrases like the DPP, IMRH, SPP, etc. It’s not working if it doesn’t deliver the goods in time.
To Defence PSUs And Private Sector in Defence
First, learn to say no. Do not make open-ended promises with no understanding of what it may entail.
Second, under the garb of indigenisation, do not throw a spanner into every acquisition case by fielding imaginary products and capabilities that are yet to be developed.
Till the strategic partnership model was enunciated by Parikkar, no proposal could be finalised without defence PSUs having their say (and their way). This does immense damage while filling critical capability gaps.
Third, look beyond the immediate numbers. We are at the base of the curve as far as helicopters in India are concerned. Be willing and able to absorb some shocks in the larger scheme of things.
Fourth, foreign companies who hire veterans to embellish their chances of winning with the Indian MoD must contend with the disadvantage of borrowing wisdom from a source which is itself depleting. Don’t believe tall claims blindly. Run your numbers and do frequent audits to see if your proposals are viable in the long-term.
Fifth, if you lose, don’t cry foul. Refine your strategy. Do not resort to subterfuge to scuttle cases. Indians can have a notoriously elephantine memory.
And lastly, do not keep asking for concessions and waivers to staff requirements. They have been frequently revised and fine-tuned. If the NSQRs still challenge you, improve your product.
Is Nobody Culpable?
Ultimately, the most striking feature of our process, which leaves us with no MRH, is that nobody is answerable and accountable for the mess that we are in.
A navy which boasts of blue water capability and sails on modern warships alongside the best navies in the world is left launching the 1960s Alouette IIIB and 80s’ Sea Kings, which have far outlived their useful lives during multilateral ‘Flyex’ serials. Most ships do not have helicopters. Our adversary will analyse this very carefully.
The strategic partnership model recently announced by the NDA government is undoubtedly a positive step towards self-reliance in defence manufacturing, should it work. But is this a solution for capability gaps that existed as of years ago?
I leave that to the readers. Worse if it becomes another name-dropping exercise with no defined outcomes. When a patient is dying, is it a good idea to insist on indigenising antidotes that already exist in the world?
(The writer is a former navy test pilot and blogs at www.kaypius.com. He has flown over 24 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed in this article are personal.)
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