Naval Air: Seahawk Makes A Save

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April 12, 2020: One of the many arms purchase deals signed by the Indians when the American president visited India in February was for 24 American MH-60R Seahawk ASW (anti-submarine warfare) helicopters. These will cost about $109 million each, which includes accessories, spare parts, tech support and the cost of establishing maintenance facilities for a new type of helicopter. Despite their higher cost India has found American military helicopters the best value for the money. Indians called the purchase a major boost to their naval power. It certainly was because the Seahawks replace elderly Sea King helicopters that had to be retired in the 1990s because they were no longer safe to fly. Even before that, the Indian navy had been seeking replacements but the Indian defense procurement bureaucrats and parliamentary politics kept delaying the purchase of replacements. Even the Seahawk deal endured several years of delays before India cleared all the bureaucratic obstacles to finally agree to place an order. The final details on the Seahawk purchase were agreed to in early 2019 but in India, the signing of the deal can often be delayed several more years or be delayed indefinitely and then canceled. Until the purchase contract was signed, the construction and delivery of the helicopters could not be scheduled. Fortunately, the assembly line for all UH-60 helicopters is still going strong after 41 years. The MH-60 has been in service since 1984 and over 700 have been built so far, most of them in the United States. Some have also been built overseas under license. India will begin receiving their Seahawks in 2021.

India already has some American helicopters in service and on order. In addition to newly ordered MH-60Rs India already has 15 CH-47F heavy transport helicopters on the way and some have recently begun arriving. In addition 22 AH-64E helicopter gunships began arriving in 2019. The ability of the Americans to deliver quickly is another plus. The Americans take good care of their customers, something that India does not get from Russia, its oldest, and largest supplier. Russia is losing more and more business to foreign (Western) producers. You get what you pay for.

This MH-60R is a navalized version of the 11 ton U.S. Army UH-60. India will use the MH-60Rs for ASW as well as attacks on surface vessels with Hellfire missiles. ASW involves using computers, sonar, and radar to search for submarines. This work consists of someone staring at a computer display most of the time while manipulating the sensors and computers to detect and locate subs. Once you have a solid location fix, the MH-60 can launch a torpedo and sink the enemy sub.

The MH-60R uses a sonar that operates in active (broadcasting) and passive (just listening) mode. The sonar system consists of dipping sonar and sonobuoys, which are dropped and communicate wirelessly. The dipping sonar is lowered into the water from the helicopter using an 806 meter (2,500 foot) cable and winch. The MH-60R is also equipped with a radar system for detecting subs on the surface or just beneath the surface. Modern non-nuclear subs often travel just beneath the surface with only the periscope or snorkel (to provide air for the diesel engine and gets rid of exhaust fumes) above water.

MH-60Rs can also perform SAR (search and rescue) work where, to obtain maximum airtime and carrying capacity, the sonar and all its associated electronics is quickly and temporarily removed. The MH-60 can hover low enough to deploy a line to people in the water and winch people aboard.

For decades the Indian Navy has had problems with procuring new helicopters and the situation kept getting worse. The navy preferred proven foreign models like the MH-60R but their procurement bureaucracy excels at corruption, timidity and an exceptional talent for not getting things done. As a result, Indian warships equipped to handle helicopters have had, for nearly a decade, only 20 percent of the helicopters they are supposed to have. The main deficiency was in importing a suitable medium (10 ton class) helicopters like the U.S. SH-60, Russian Ka-31 and the European EH101 or NH90.

The main source of delays was the Indian effort to build a local design that met navy needs. Indian efforts to develop a local helicopter industry have been plagued by political and bureaucratic bungling. Despite that, after a half-century of effort, India did produce some Indian made naval helicopters, but not yet the heavier types the navy needs for ASW. The closest Indian manufacturers have come to filling navy needs was the locally designed and built 5.5 ton Dhruv. In late 2013 the Indian Navy finally put its first squadron of Dhruvs into service. These were used for patrolling, search and rescue, and anything else the Navy needed, except for those jobs requiring a 10 ton class helicopter. It’s been a difficult journey for the Dhruv. In 2009 the Indian Navy bought six of the Dhruvs for evaluation and did not like what they saw. The main complaints were lack of engine power and poor reliability. These were considered fatal flaws for helicopters meant for SAR and ASW.

Dhruv entered service in 2002 and the Coast Guard and the other services got a few of them for evaluation. The army actually bought 40 Dhruvs without thoroughly testing them. This purchase was made under intense pressure from the government to "buy Indian". Then the army discovered that, although the purchase contract stipulated that the Dhruv be able to operate at high altitudes (5,000 meters/16,000 feet), its engine (as the navy noted) was underpowered and could not handle high altitudes. So the army has to keep its older helicopters in service until the Dhruvs were upgraded.

The Dhruv can carry up to 14 passengers or four stretchers. Max load is 1.5 tons and endurance is about two hours, depending on load and altitude. The Dhruv can also fly as high as 6,000 meters (nearly 20,000 feet), but not with much of a payload or stability. Northern India has a lot of mountains, so safely carrying troops and cargo at high altitude was a key design requirement that was never met in practice.

The 5.5 ton Dhruv has had a lot of problems and by 2009, a series of crashes indicated some basic design flaws which the manufacturer insisted did not exist. The Navy disagreed. Although it is Indian made, until 2010, the Dhruv was assembled mostly (90 percent) with imported parts. The manufacturer had kept quiet about this because at least half the parts in "Indian made" weapons are supposed to be made in India. Since then the percentage of Indian made components has increased. As embarrassing as this revelation was, there were other problems that were more crucial.

The primary goal of the MH-60R was to replace about 30 elderly Indian Sea Kings. MH-60s have replaced Sea Kings in many countries. The Sea Kings were a 1950s American design and the Indian Navy began receiving them from a British manufacturer in 1972. The last of 42 Sea Kings ordered arrived in the mid-1980s. As the Sea Kings got older they required more maintenance and a growing number were too worn out to repair. Only six were lost to accidents and most were retired because of old age. The last few that were still flyable only had a few years of useful life left. The U.S. is the main source of spare parts as most other suppliers have ceased production because so few Sea Kings are still in service.

The Sea Kings have a max speed of 209 kilometers an hour, max load of 3.5 tons, max altitude of 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) max range of 1,200 kilometers and max endurance of about six hours. The MH-60R has a max speed of 270 kilometers an hour, max load of 1.9 tons, max altitude of 3,500 meters (11,500 feet), max range of 830 kilometers and max endurance of about four hours.

The MH-60R entered service in 1984 as the SH-60. Most American military helicopters (UH-60, HH-60, MH-60) are militarized versions of the Sikorsky S-60, a 1970s design that won the competition to replace the older UH-1 "Huey". The UH-60 (for the army) was introduced in 1979. The latest version, the 11 ton UH-60M can carry 14 troops, or 1.1 tons of cargo internally, or four tons slung underneath. Cruise speed is 278 kilometers an hour. Max endurance is two hours, although most sorties last 90 minutes or less. Max altitude is 5,790 meters (19,000 feet). The army currently has about 2,000 UH-60s and has upgraded the force with the new "M" model and upgraded many of the older L models to the V standard. This includes a lot of the new electronic features of the M model. The M model has also been upgraded to the “improved UH.60M.” So far, about 4,000 UH-60 type helicopters have been built, mostly for the U.S. military.

One reason the MH-60 is so popular is that the UH-60s have accumulated so many flight hours that there are many current or former pilots and so many people with experience maintaining it. Plus there are so many UH-60s still flying that its spare parts are not only cheaper but are going to be available for a long time. None of the Russian or West European competitors have these advantages and India made the most of that. As a bonus for all their foreign purchases, India demands some co-production or license manufacturing in India. For the MH-60 Indian firms will build some MH-60 components. This involves Indian firms qualifying for such status because those components must be built to work in any MH-60. That means if an American warship was near India and had a MH-60 that needed a part that the Indians produced, they could arrange to procure the part from India and keep their MH-60 flying. That rarely happens but these foreign parts suppliers can sell to the American manufacturer of the MH-60 or a country that is building the MH or UH-60 under license. In some cases, foreign producers of aircraft components are major suppliers of certain aircraft assembled in the United States or elsewhere. In this way, India improves its ability to eventually build helicopters, ships or warplanes to Western standards. It’s a slow process.The Chinese have moved much more quickly at climbing that ladder and produces more capable ships, aircraft and all manner of weapons than India can.

 


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