India is finally concluding a procurement deal for multi-role helicopters the Navy had publicly labelled as ‘most important‘.
Defence ministry sources confirm a contract will be signed in November with the Pentagon (United States department of defence) for 24 Lockheed Martin MH-60R Seahawks for $ 2 billion to $ 2.6 billion (Rs 14,000 crore/Rs 140 billion to Rs 18,200 crore/Rs 182 billion).
These choppers, with foldable blades, will be stationed on naval warships for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, combat search and rescue, vertical replenishment, medical evacuation.
Seahawks are also used for Special Forces commando missions.
For decades the navy‘s Sea King Mk 42B/C helicopters carried out these tasks. But with the Sea King being retired, helicopter hangars on board an entire generation of warships are empty, severely reducing the nation‘s combat capability.
The navy‘s 10-odd Sea Kings are being shared among an aircraft carrier, 14 destroyers, 15 frigates and three anti-submarine warfare corvettes.
Several other warships in production will require more multi-mission helicopters when they enter service.
Given the urgency, the navy is buying 24 MH-60R Seahawks in flyaway condition, and plans to build another 99 in India through the strategic partnership route.
For building them here, Lockheed, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), will have to transfer manufacturing technology to an Indian strategic partner firm.
Given Lockheed‘s burgeoning partnership with Tata Advanced Systems, it is likely that TASL will emerge the strategic partner for the task.
The two collaborate in building a range of aerospace components in Hyderabad and have announced a partnership to build the F-16 fighter in India if the Indian Air Force buys the aircraft.
The first 24 Seahawks are being procured through the foreign military sales route — a US-led process that involves no tendering.
Instead, the Pentagon, acting as a paid agent of the buyer, negotiates price and supply terms with the OEM.
In most such deals, the foreign buyer usually manages to procure the equipment for much cheaper than the US military did for itself. This, because the Pentagon fixes as a benchmark the price the US military paid for its last procurement of that equipment.
Upon that, the Pentagon imposes a price reduction, demanding greater production efficiency and the continual amortisation of overhead costs during the production run.
Foreign military sales procurements also come with the US government‘s guarantees on weapons and equipment performance.
The MH-60R Seahawk helicopter — originally built by Sikorsky, a US firm bought by the Lockheed for $ 9 billion in November 2015 — has had a long production run.
Introduced into the US navy in 2006, there are 300 Seahawks in service, including in the US, Denmark, Australia and Saudi Arabia. South Korea, too, plans to buy 12.
The Seahawks the US navy bought have since been upgraded, making them highly effective at detecting the periscope of enemy submarines.
India will get the upgraded version. Lockheed says the Seahawk has a 98% availability rate and the lowest life-cycle cost in its class (costing less than $ 5,000 for each flying hour).
The defence ministry gave the permission to buy 24 Seahawks on August 25, 2018.
On April 2, the US congress was informed about the potential sale ‘for an estimated $ 2.6 billion‘.
This includes the cost of 24 full-kitted and armed choppers, along with 12 spare engines, six spare multi-mode radars and six multi-spectral targeting systems.
The deal includes 1,000 sonobuoys, or portable sonar systems, for detecting enemy submarines; and Hellfire missiles, rockets and torpedoes to destroy surface and sub-surface targets. A range of communications equipment is also being transferred.
In a separate, ongoing navy procurement for 111 naval utility helicopters, Lockheed is offering its smaller Sikorsky S-76 helicopter.
This sale is also happening under the strategic partner route, but will not be a foreign military sales contract.