Ahead of Trump’s Visit, India Clears MH-60R Helicopter Buy

In anticipation of U.S. President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit, the Indian government has taken the step of greenlighting a potential $2.6 billion acquisition of 24 Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky MH-60R Romeo multimission naval helicopters. The potential sale via U.S. government-to-government foreign military sales (FMS) channel was cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on February 19.

The CCS is headed by India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who will play host to Trump during the U.S. president’s first visit to the country on  the final week of February. The visit comes amidst concerns in the Trump administration regarding India’s increasing protectionist bent. Last year, in response to New Delhi’s tariff increases, Washington took the step of stripping India of special trade privileges that had allowed it $5.6 billion worth of exports duty-free access to the American market.

Washington also has a sore spot related to India’s purchase of Russia’s advanced S-400 Triumf air defense missile system.

While these issues represent points of friction, they are unlikely to neutralize efforts by both sides to tighten relations in the face of China’s economic and military inroads into the Indo-Pacific region. Naturally, during the visit, the Trump administration also hopes to clinch export agreements  that can be touted as a political and diplomatic victory for domestic consumption during an election year.

At the top of the list of awaiting deals are two military sales involving the aforementioned MH-60R helicopters and a $1.8 billion FMS deal already cleared by the U.S. State Department related to the so-called Integrated Air Defense Weapon System. The IADWS is a missile shield system more recognizably referred to as NASAMS (National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System). It is being sought for protection of airspace over India’s federal capital of New Delhi.

A helicopter deal would patch a glaring hole in the Indian Navy’s capabilities. The prospect of procuring a naval multirole helicopter platform has lingered since 2011, when the Indian Ministry of Defense first issued a global tender calling for a buy of 16 units. By December 5, 2014, the MoD had downselected Sikorsky’s S-70B Seahawk over a bid by NH Industries offering up the NH90.

However, by April 2017, talks with Lockheed Martin regarding the acquisition had been suspended over price disagreements. In December 2017, the MoD instead announced it would float a fresh global tender for 24 naval multirole helicopters at a cost of roughly $1.87 billion.

But with the capability gap in anti-submarine warfare rotorcraft severely stressing the Indian Navy, the procurement took on increasing urgency. Therefore, the Indian government made a formal request to the U.S. in November 2018 for the 24-unit procurement via the government-to-government FMS channel, which had increasingly become a favored procurement route of India’s for U.S.-sourced hardware.

The U.S. State Department gave approval for the $2.6 billion sale with notification sent via the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) to Congress on April 2, 2019.

Now, finally, the deal stands close to being inked. The lengthy timeline in completing the sale is unfortunately indicative of the Indian defense acquisition process. It would come none too soon for the Indian Navy, as it lacks a modern maritime helicopter platform to utilize on its newest ships.

The acquisition will help bolster the Indian Navy’s anti-surface and, particularly, anti-submarine warfare mission capabilities while performing search-and-rescue missions during blue-water operations.

Once brought into service, the MH-60Rs would allow the Navy to retire its aging inventory of British-produced Westland Sea King helicopters. The Sea King helicopters have proven increasingly costly to maintain after entering operational service with the Indian Navy in July 1971. This has left the majority of India’s surface warship fleet to conduct missions without a dedicated anti-submarine helicopter capability, instead having to rely on the even-older Chetak (an Indian variant of the SA 316 Alouette III) general purpose helicopter fleet.

About Daniel Darling

Dan Darling is a senior analyst covering both the Europe and Asia-Pacific regions for Forecast International's International Military Markets group.

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