The NMRH is crucial for India to deal with security challenges in the Indian Ocean Region and the project has assumed urgency after China displayed the Z-20 choppers earlier this October.
Defence experts said there exists a net deficit in terms of numbers of multi-role helicopters in India to guard surface ships which are being delivered with great frequency now by the country's indigenous ship-building industry. Without the requisite integral air elements in the form of multi-role choppers, surface ships are exposed to submarine attacks which are the real threats in naval warfare.
The UK-made Seaking choppers, inducted into Indian Navy around 40 years ago for purposes of anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface vessel warfare, are ageing, besides the fact that they have never undergone upgrades after induction. The Sea Harriers, designed for reconnaissance and fighter roles too, have been decommissioned leaving the Indian Navy with just one frontline squadron of Seaking helicopters based at INS Shikra in Mumbai.
According to experts, the urgency of acquiring the NMRH should not be lost even though it is for the decision-makers to decide whether the acquisition should be made through imports or through indigenous manufacturing.
The Navy has been using the maritime patrol aircraft, the US-made P8I, for surveillance purposes since 2013. As per reports, a deal has been finalized by India with the US in September to acquire 10 more of the long-range anti-submarine warfare platform P8I.
"The P8I, though a formidable platform in its own capacity, cannot deliver the functions of a multi-role helicopter. A multi-role helicopter, for instance, can operate from ship decks out at sea, perform anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface vessel warfare, electronic intelligence, surveillance tasks, carry out urgent attacks, operate independent of shore bases for extended duration and act as the 'long arm of the fleet'. The multi-role helicopter can deploy sono buoys, which are basically high-fidelity 'listening devices' in water, just like the P8I does. In addition, dunking sonars can be lowered underwater using cables - role only a multi-role helicopter can fill. Remember, a submarine has no weapon against a helicopter," retired Commander KP Sanjeev Kumar, a former navy test pilot, told .
Chinese news agency Xinhua reported on October 10 that China's new indigenously developed Z-20 chopper made a demo flight during a four-day helicopter exposition that was held in Tianjin city. As per sources, the Z-20 is a clone of the US-made Sikorsky H-60 Black Hawk helicopter, which China has built by acquiring technology through 'reverse engineering'.
Sources here said the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is conducting an internally funded study for the NMRH, a project which is still on the drawing board. In August 2017, the Indian Navy had floated a global Request for Information (RFI) for 123 Naval Multi-Role Helicopters. But a deal is yet to be closed despite the shortfall in numbers. A multi-billion dollar deal is further in preparation to procure 23 multi-role MH-60R Seahawk choppers, which are produced by Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation of the US.
"But 23 choppers will not suffice for the needs of the Indian Navy. It was decided that the 123 NMRH will be developed in India under the strategic partnership model. If import has to be ruled out, the strategic partner, that is, the original equipment manufacturer has to be identified first. The urgency of acquiring the NMRH should not be lost in the corridors of the Defence Ministry," said a former Navy official on the condition of anonymity.
(Ayaskant Das can be contacted at ayaskant.d@.in)
( With inputs from IANS )