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Indian Naval Aviation: Transforming at 60

India’s naval fleet air arm, known formally as Indian Naval Aviation, marked its Diamond Jubilee in May 2013 with two key events that are emblematic of the service’s ongoing transformation into what will certainly be one of the leading naval air arms in the world.

As of May 2013, the naval air arm, numbering more than 10,300 personnel, operates around 234 aircraft in 20 commissioned naval air squadrons. In comparison, a decade ago, it comprised around 5,500 personnel and about 160 aircraft. Going forward, it expects to be operating around 450 aircraft within the next 15 years.

One was the formal commissioning of MiG-29K naval fighters and the Intensive Flying Training Unit that has been operating the type since late 2009 – INAS 303 ‘Black Panthers’ – on May 11, 2013 at Naval Air Station (NAS) Hansa, in Dabolim, Goa on India’s west coast. The other was the arrival of the first Boeing P-8I long range maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) at NAS Rajali near Chennai on India’s south east coast on May 15, 2013. Both these platforms represent “game changers” for Indian Naval Aviation in terms of new capabilities according to senior naval officers.

Boeing P-8I

The Indian Navy’s addition of Boeing P-8Is are an embodiment of how far Indian naval aviation has come in its 60 years. Boeing photo

Sixty years after the Indian Navy (IN) commissioned its first flying unit, a fledgling Fleet Requirements Unit (FRU) operating a handful of Shorts Sealand SA 61 Mk 1 amphibians as well as it first air station – INS Garuda – at Cochin (Kochi) on May 11, 1953, the growth of the naval air arm has certainly been remarkable. Its star is ascendant as it moves forward with an unprecedented capacity and capability based expansion program.

As of May 2013, the naval air arm, numbering more than 10,300 personnel, operates around 234 aircraft in 20 commissioned naval air squadrons. In comparison, a decade ago, it comprised around 5,500 personnel and about 160 aircraft. Going forward, it expects to be operating around 450 aircraft within the next 15 years.

Short Sealand SA61 Mk1 INS 102

One of two Sealands from the Indian Navy’s Fleet Requirements Unit at Cochin (now Kochi) taking part in the 1957 edition of the Royal Navy hosted Joint Exercises Tricomalee (JET) ’57 at Trincomalee Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The plane is flying from the Royal Air Force base at China Bay, Tricomalee in October 1957. Photo by Tony Hawes

“Future inductions would see our current naval aircraft inventory increase substantially,” said Rear Adm. DM Sudan, Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Air) in May 2013, adding that the naval air arm would be “transformed into a potent multidimensional networked force as a decisive instrument of maritime power.”

However, a spate of well publicized delays has hobbled key aspects of the acquisition plan – namely the induction of aircraft carriers, fighters and helicopters. The reasons can be partly ascribed to programmatic delays and partly to a glacial decision making and acquisition process. Consequently, the service has had to live with a number of short term operational deficiencies.

According to Cmdr. Rikeesh Sharma, a naval aviator who is also a research fellow at the navy-sponsored National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi, “the Indian Navy is looking ahead to work out an asset acquisition plan commensurate with the myriad challenges envisaged in providing maritime security to the nation.”

Key pillars of the naval aviation acquisition plan include:

  • Increasing aircraft holdings from around 230 to around 450 by 2028. One report suggest a figure of 600 but this is overly optimistic.
  • Moving away from a single carrier to a multi-carrier fleet with three aircraft carriers circa 2022 and possibly a fourth one subsequently.
  • Inducting indigenous platforms whenever possible.
  • Implementing fleet-wide Network Centric Warfare (NCW) and Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) capabilities.
  • Improving Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) and C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capabilities, sensor and data-fusion to generate actionable intelligence.

These are impressive goals by any measure. However, a spate of well publicized delays has hobbled key aspects of the acquisition plan – namely the induction of aircraft carriers, fighters and helicopters. The reasons can be partly ascribed to programmatic delays and partly to a glacial decision making and acquisition process. Consequently, the service has had to live with a number of short term operational deficiencies. Still, there has been measurable progress, with critical shortcomings gradually being remedied.

MiG line up

A lineup of 303 Squadron “Black Panther” Mig-29K/KUB at NAS Hansa in May 2013. Indian Navy photo

Like its surface and submarine fleets, the IN operates an eclectic mix of aircraft of Indian, Russian and Western provenance. Uniquely, the IN is the only operator of Russian origin Tupolev Tu-142 MKE (NATO Bear F) and Ilyushin Il-38SD long range maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) outside of Russian forces, besides being the launch customer for the MiG-29K/KUB naval fighter. Similarly, it is also the first export customer for Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon MPA, 12 of which are to be delivered over the next few years.