Sunday, June 23, 2024

Naval Aviation Fleet Soaring With Hi-Tech Aviation Assets

By Kamal Shah

Indian Aerospace & Defence’s Editorial Director Kamal Shah exclusively spoke with Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (Air), Rear Admiral Janak Bevli on a wide range of naval aviation issues ahead of Aero India 2023.

Q. What are the forecasted numbers for the Indian Navy’s aviation fleet over the next decade? What composition of aerial assets do you envision?

Ans: Naval Aviation Force Structure aims to develop capabilities required to perform tasks envisaged within the overall framework of maritime strategy. Towards achieving the same, Indian Naval Aviation is investing in advanced technologies and operating concepts so as to dominate at the operational level of war. The Indian Navy has been visionary in approach and agile in the execution of its future plans for air assets. Indian naval aviation plans have incorporated the Design and Development (D&D) of next-generation deck-based fighters, new maritime reconnaissance platforms, helicopters and futuristic platforms like responsive space elements and swarm drones to meet combat and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) roles.

The Indian Navy transport roles have similarly been factored through available resources, future plans and inter-service cooperation. The Indian Navy has rapidly adapted to the effect of the embargo on imports through aggressive collaboration with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) and the private industry. The Indian Navy has been at the forefront of the Prime Minister’s vision of ‘AatmaNirbharta’ in defence and has adequate means in place for combat readiness. Some of the projects being pursued by the Indian Navy through the Indigenous route include the following:-

DBMRH: A case for the design and development of 66 Deck Based Multi Role Helicopters (DBMRH) is being progressed under Buy (Indian-IDDM) categorisation with Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), wherein Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), along with a suitable private partner, would undertake D&D of envisaged variants of Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH) for Indian Air Force (IAF) and DBMRH for Indian Navy. The D&D period is expected to take about seven to eight years from the project sanction, with production commencing from the ninth year. Modalities are being worked out by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for the incorporation of suitable provisions in the Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020 to progress the case.

UH-M: Utility Helicopters have been placed in the third Positive Indigenisation List (PIL). Thus, in keeping with the AatmaNirbhar Bharat vision of the government and to meet the urgent operational requirements of utility helicopters to support fleet operations at sea, Indian Navy has initiated D&D of 60 Utility Helicopter-Maritime with HAL as a replacement for ageing Chetak helicopters for carrying out Utility roles. This case is being progressed under the Buy (Indian-IDDM) category IAW Chapter IV of DAP 2020. Approval of Necessity (AoN) is expected to be accorded by early 2023, and helicopters would be delivered commencing 2027 onwards.

MR Aircraft: In consonance with the ‘AatmaNirbhar’ Bharat vision of the Government of India (GoI), the Indian Navy has engaged DRDO/Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) for D&D of C 295 aircraft in Medium Range Maritime Reconnaissance (MRMR) configuration in collaboration with M/s Tata Aerospace Systems Limited (TASL) and M/s Airbus wherein all mission systems would be indigenously designed by various DRDO labs and developed by Indian industries. The same model is also being explored for Long Range Maritime Surveillance (LRMR) Aircraft wherein a Green
aircraft would be procured from M/s Boeing or M/s Airbus and integrated with Indigenous weapons and sensors designed and developed by the DRDO.

Fighter Aircraft: The future requirement of fighter aircraft for aircraft carriers would be through the indigenous route. Towards this, fighter aircraft are being designed by Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which is a Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF). The first flight of the prototype is planned for 2026, and production will commence in 2031, with about 45 TEDBFs available by 2040.

Q. As the Indian Navy is assessing whether to procure Dassault Aviation’s Rafale Marine or Boeing’s F/A 18 Super Hornet Block III, which fighter meets the Navy’s operational requirements as the competition progresses?

Ans: Rafale M and F/A 18 have completed the Op Demo at Shore-Based Test Facility (SBTF), Goa, in January 2022 and June 22, respectively, towards verifying that the aircraft meets Indian Navy requirements as well as compatibility with aircraft carriers. Staff evaluation of both aircraft is under deliberation. Post-finalisation of the selection of the aircraft, an intergovernmental procurement process would be followed in accordance with the DAP.

Q. The Indian Navy is also waiting for the navalised Light Combat Aircraft (NLCA); by when do you think Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) would be able to deliver realistically? What are the naval air arm’s plans in the interim?

Ans: Naval pilots successfully landed the indigenous LCA Navy on INS Vikrant on February 6 2023 – a historic milestone achieved towards AatmaNirbhar Bharat by Indian Navy, demonstrating India’s capability to design, develop, construct, test and integrate Indigenous fighter aircraft with Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC). However, the LCA (Navy) does not meet the requirement of the Indian Navy but would be the lead in fighter for the development of the TEDBF. The future requirement of fighter aircraft for the aircraft carriers would be through the Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter, an indigenous aircraft. The first flight of the prototype is planned from 2026, and production will commence from 2031, with about 45 TEDBFs available by 2040.

Q. Are General Atomics MQ-9B drones going to be the preferred unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for air surveillance by the Indian Navy, or will indigenous solutions by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) take centre stage?

Ans: The Tri-services case for procurement of MQ-9B HALE RPAS, a niche, state-of-the-art capability, is being progressed with the United States government through FMS Route. Through assertive negotiations, an instant acquisition proposal has been leveraged for assembly of at least 60% of the quantity of aircraft proposed for procurement in India, setting up of a Performance Based Depot Level Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility in the country, Sea Guardian Global Sustainment Support (SGSS) and collaboration with DRDO for transfer of certain niche technology required for indigenous D&D of High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) in India. These enabling agreements would make India a Drone Hub as envisioned by the Hon’ble Prime Minister.

Though the Indian Navy has been operating RPAs for the last two decades, operations of Sea Guardian have greatly enhanced our surveillance capabilities. Sea Guardian RPA has enabled the Indian Navy to maintain persistent surveillance over vast areas of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) ranging from Sunda Strait to the Gulf of Aden. The Indian Navy’s experience with leased operations of Sea Guardian has been quite good, and therefore the Indian Navy is actively pursuing a case for procurement of these aircraft.

Q. What is the status of the ongoing Kamov KA-31 deal with Rosoboronexport? Has the deal been put on hold or cancelled owing to the geopolitical situation amidst the conflict in Ukraine?

Ans: The case for procurement of six Kamov KA 31 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) helicopters as a Repeat Order from JSC Rosoboronexport is being progressed by the Indian Navy. View restrictions on Buy (Global) cases and to make India self-reliant in the development of defence platforms and equipment, the case for procurement of six KA 31 helicopters was deferred. The Indian Navy, along with DRDO/ LRDE and HAL, has formulated an indigenous roadmap for the D&D of AEW radar on Indian Navy helicopters. This would pave the way for the development of the AEW variant of DBMRH.

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