Naval Air: How Russia Loses Customers


September 3, 2016: The Indian Defense Ministry has finally approved a proposal to refurbish and, more importantly, upgrade their ten Ka-28 anti-submarine helicopters with Western electronics. This will cost $30 million each. The upgrade work will be completed by late 2020. The Defense Ministry and navy officials were encouraged by the performance of first two (of six) Ka-31 helicopters the returned from Russia in mid-2015 after receiving a refurbishment. The decision to refurbish and upgrade the ten Ka-28s is a stopgap until the navy receives the American S-70 helicopters it has bought as replacements.

India had, until recently, been buying its naval helicopters from Russia. The most recent purchase was 14 Ka-31s that arrived between 2004 and 2005. These were equipped with a powerful radar underneath so they could be used to go aloft and provide a long range early warning radar for a task force containing an aircraft carrier. India had earlier bought another version (the Ka-28) for non-radar naval duties. These Russian helicopters got the job done but not as well as their Western counterparts.

After more than a decade of effort the Indian Navy finally was able to order a new naval helicopter at the end of 2014. The navy got the one it always wanted; the American S-70 Seahawk. India’s slow, corrupt and generally inept military procurement bureaucracy was responsible for most of the delays. A major part of the problem was that the procurement officials had been ordered by the elected officials to buy Indian if possible. In reality that meant don’t buy foreign unless that becomes more of a media disaster than not buying an Indian made system. By 2012 the search had become quite urgent because Indian badly needed new naval anti-submarine helicopters. The navy then had about 40 of these but all of them were more than two decades old and in need of replacement. The Indian procurement bureaucrats considered this an insufficient reason to buy a foreign helicopter and demanded an Indian designed and manufactured helicopter be created and at least considered. That has not worked out.

Back in 2010 the navy bought six of the Indian made 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 operating off ships and desperately needed for SAR (search and rescue) and ASW (anti-submarine warfare) work. The 5.5 ton Dhruv had been in development for two decades before the first one was delivered in 2002. Over the next eight years nearly 80 were delivered, mostly to the Indian Army. But some foreign customers (Nepal and Myanmar) also took a few. A series of crashes indicated some basic design flaws. The manufacturer insisted these flaws did not exist and it was user error. The navy disagreed, even though the fleet was desperate to replace over three dozen of its elderly Sea King helicopters (a 1950s design, and the Indian Navy models are 20-35 years old) and a dozen KA-28s.

Another major competitor in the effort to provide new naval helicopters was the new Russian Ka-31a. These are upgrades of the Ka-28, which originally entered Russian service in 1982. The 12 ton Ka-28/31 has a cruising speed of 205 kilometers an hour and a top speed 270 kilometers an hour. Sorties for both helicopters average 3-4 hours. Both have a useful load of four tons (weapons and additional electronics). The Ka-28s and Ka-31s are export versions of the more lavishly equipped Ka-27, used by the Russian navy.

The Ka-28/31 do not have the finish, reliability or reputation of Western models, but cost a lot less, and still gets the job done. For that reason India is refurbishing ten of its Ka-28s. Meanwhile the seagoing sailors need more and better anti-sub helicopters and for too many years they were getting neither. But with growing support from naval personnel (especially those who used these aircraft) and public criticism of the inept (and often corrupt) procurement bureaucrats was finally able, in 2015, to order 16 new American S-70s. These will arrive just in time because there are only six operational Ka-28s, not even enough to equip the new Indian aircraft carrier Vikramaditya. The S-70s are the most popular military helicopter in the world and the most widely exported. The S-70 is actually the export version of the basic S-60 design. Both the U.S. Army Blackhawk and U.S. Navy Seahawk are variants of the S-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 army currently has about 2,000 UH-60s and is upgrading the force with the new "M" model. So far, about 2,800 UH-60s have been built.

The UH-60 was introduced in 1979. 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).


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