Harpoons, is one of the ouststanding air sqaudrons of Indian Navy specialised in Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW)
17 Apr 2021 marks the Golden Jubilee of one of the most important Air Squadrons of the Indian Navy, the Indian Naval Air Squadron (INAS) 330. With the commissioning of this Squadron on 17 Apr 1971 at INS Garuda at Kochi, six brand new Seaking Mk 42 helicopters that had arrived from the UK a few months before the 1971 war, got a formal unit. On that occasion, the Squadron also got its official Crest, duly approved by the President of India. The Crest shows a writhing shark that symbolises an enemy submarine, in the last throes of its painful demise, with a blood laden harpoon impaling it. The surprised shark looks up to see its killer but sees only the menacing golden wing of the Fleet Air Arm attached to the head of the harpoon. Fittingly, the Squadron and the people who serve there are referred to as Harpoons.
Memories of a Golden Time
I had the privilege of becoming a Harpoon in 1990 and I was lucky to be there at the right time in history. The world’s most lethal multirole helicopters (MRH) then, the Seaking Mk 42Bs, had just replaced their older cousins, the ones that came in 1971, and there was an unbelievable air of invincibility at sea, centred around the mother squadron, INAS 330. With more Seakings available on the Godavari class ships, each of which carried two Seakings, the Arabian Sea was reduced to a pond. The new Seakings, rightly called Flying Frigates, were real force multipliers. Today as INAS 330 reaches its 50th birthday, there are too many great memories for a large number of people to cherish. Memories of personally experiencing virtually every major element of warfare at sea.
The most exhilarating memories are of hunting submarines. This is done best, hovering about 50 feet above the waves, even on rainy, moonless nights. Hunting, done in complete darkness, straining every nerve to recognise weak metallic echoes from a submarine, through the dull noise of the huge helicopter seeping in through our tightfitting helmets, gazing at various electronic displays, manipulating many controls, communicating within the aircraft and with the rest of the Fleet in short spurts and all this, with the promise of sure disaster, in case something went wrong with the aircraft. With the shared danger of this kind come, memories galore, of brilliant friendships and lifelong bonding too. Being there, during the most golden period of the squadron in its fifty years, was a rare fortune.
But milestones in history have limited use if they are treated only as occasions for reliving the glories of the past and revelling in them. Milestones are better used for reflection, for learning from the past and for using the lessons of the past for charting the way ahead. Here is an attempt at that.
Beginnings are important. The Royal Indian Navy (RIN) was a small coastal force for Seaward Defence duties. The larger role of defending India was looked after by the Royal Navy (RN), with RN Fleets at Trincomalee and Singapore and a small squadron at Bahrain. So, Indian Officers in the RIN had limited experience in the larger aspects of maritime warfare. To complicate matters, the small RIN had to be apportioned between the newborn Indian and Pakistani navies. This included personnel too, thus further diluting the indigenous Naval talent available at independence. Senior indigenous Naval leadership, capable of high-level policy-making was absent in 1947, as under the British, Indians had started becoming Officers of the Executive branch only in the 1930s. Naturally, we had to depend on the British for advice in the beginning. That was a peculiar situation. It was akin to a freshly divorced husband advising his ex-wife on living her future life well. The ex-husband was sure to protect his interests. The British as a country was no different. They did try to palm off some of their not-so-great platforms to us, for commercial gains.
But several British Officers on loan to the IN showed integrity. For instance Commodore DW Kirke, the Chief of Naval Aviation, whose opposition enabled IN to acquire the brand new French ASW Reconnaissance Alize for Vikrant, over the old and difficult to maintain, British Garnett. This was one of the first episodes of an amazing capability that India has shown since independence, the ability to take autonomous strategic decisions, based purely on its own interests. Many times have India surprised those who sat smug, assuming that they had India in their pocket. Perils of taking old civilisations for granted perhaps. But bridges too are never burnt. Just when someone is upset at a lost business opportunity, there would be a purchase from them, to bring cheer. Wisdom of old civilisations, perhaps. Big-ticket deals are never easy for any government. Goodwill has to be spread around, mainly as cash.
The helicopter story for Vikrant, which starts with the smaller ones for Search and Rescue (SAR) was no different. The British tried to sell their Dragonfly, but India chose the French Alouette. The Dragonflies were older in technology, more difficult to maintain and more expensive than the ultra-modern French Alouettes. True to form, this didn’t prevent IN from getting the next big thing, in fact, one of the most important elements of airpower at sea, MRH, from Britain. They had the 10 Ton Seaking Mk 42s, the most capable Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopter in the world then. The Seakings were so new, that they entered service with the IN, almost immediately after they entered service with the RN.
ASW Helicopters – Essentials of Evolution
Post-WW II, the world was seeing frenetic efforts at developing ASW. The terrible losses German submarines had forced on the Allied Forces during the two World Wars was not the only reason. With the Cold War getting colder and the USSR basing their offensive capabilities majorly on submarines, the ASW situation was getting serious. Ironically, the credit for making the most reliable helicopter went to a Russian, Igor Sikorsky, whose ‘S 6A’ helicopter won him glowing accolades at a military competition held at Saint Petersburg in 1912. He was just 23. In 1919 he became a US citizen, founded the Sikorsky Corporation and went onto making one of the most successful series of helicopters in the world. Talk of nations attracting talent. Westland Helicopters Limited (WHL), UK, bought a licence from Sikorsky and began to produce one of the most successful maritime helicopters in the world. Talk of nations buying the right technology and turning it into a great business model.
With the USA loaning a submarine, USS Diablo, to Pakistan in 1963, IN had a new enemy to think of. That this came immediately after the 1962 debacle was bad news. Two years later, when Diablo, renamed Ghazi, claimed some diabolic action off the Saurashtra coast in the 1965 war, there was reason to take notice. To quote Admiral GM Hiranandani, the erstwhile official historian of the Indian Navy, ‘the acquisition of new French Daphne class submarines by the Pakistan Navy increased the urgency of acquiring Anti-Submarine helicopters. In 1968, a proposal was made for acquiring 12 Seakings. The sanction for the acquisition of six Seakings was accorded in 1969 and in 1970 an order was placed for their delivery in 1971. Concurrently an order was also placed for the acquisition of the MK 44 homing torpedoes.’ Talk of buying the best, to cater for the worst.
A Mixed Beginning for Helicopter based ASW
Catering for the worst is more than just buying the best. There are many more aspects to it. As per Adm Hiranandani, after acceptance trials in the UK, our helicopters were utilised to train our aircrew in the UK. The first batch (of the crew) returned to Kochi in Apr 71. On arrival, all access to the Seakings and their documentation was restricted on a ‘need to know basis, (never a great idea when war looms). The second batch, after tactical training at the British Naval Air Station at Culdrose, reported directly to Mumbai in Oct 71, two months before the war started.
ASW helicopters are best employed from ships, as an integral resource deployable at will. But when they arrived in 1971, they could have operated only from Vikrant, because the world itself had not got around to operating helicopters from smaller ships. Vikrant having been earmarked for operations on the East Coast where the submarine threat was assumed to be lesser than on the West coast, the Seakings remained ashore. That PNS Ghazi finally met her end outside Visakhapatnam harbour, ostensibly while lying in wait for Vikrant, is an eternal reminder of the perils of assumptions and even careful assessments about enemy intentions in war.
When Naval Headquarters at Delhi signalled the likelihood of a pre-emptive Pakistan strike on 14 October, four Seakings were moved from Kochi to Mumbai. However, the use of the Seakings was defensive and lustreless. Official Naval history has this to say. ‘Due to their newness and shortages of technical equipment, they were not utilised to their full potential during the 1971 War. It took another two years for the Seaking’s potential to be fully realised.’ In the war per se, Pakistani submarine threat was assessed to be seriously off the Gujarat coast and ‘FOC in C West decided to deploy the 14th Frigate Squadron along with the Seakings operating from Mumbai to eliminate the submarine threat off Diu. The Seaking helicopters were to operate in the southern sector of the search area closer to Mumbai and thereby have longer Time on Task.’
As it turned out, we lost INS Khukri to a submarine in the area. It emerged that the Seakings could have been better utilised operating from Diu but they were considered to be defenceless if attacked by Pakistani aircraft. The Navy asked itself many questions and found honest answers for future use. One among them was that ‘since the Daphne class submarine’s anti-ship capability was known to be superior to our ASW capability, should the ASW operation have been launched at all?’ Happily, ‘the consensus was that in war, it is unacceptable to let an enemy submarine threaten you on your doorstep – it has to be hunted.’ That is an eternal lesson for those in the field, for those who control operations from shore, for those who build and run navies and for those who provide for the whole enterprise. The man in the field will fight with what is at hand. It is everyone’s duty to enable him in doing his job.
Lessons to Remember
Between May and Oct 1971, the Seakings were used to train aircrew and ground crew. Meanwhile, the Tactical School (now Maritime Warfare Centre) at Kochi studied Seaking’s capabilities and limitations, for the promulgation of preliminary Tactical Instructions. While promulgating these instructions, NHQ consulted the crew available in India, which was the first group of the crew that had received only familiarisation flying in the UK. As this group had only limited information of operational use, the preliminary evaluation was to prove misleading. Further, the Tactical School’s Seaking books were given high-security classification, causing the people who mattered, remaining ignorant of the aircraft’s potential.
Learning From the Past
With four wars in the first 27 years of existence, the Government and the armed forces had learnt good lessons. The Government became aware of the importance of ensuring strong military capabilities, balancing the money available, with the myriad requirements of an impoverished country emerging from colonialism. Unavoidable gaps in military capability had to be bridged through other means like diplomacy and foreign policy. The result was there for the world to see. The 1980s saw a virtual explosion of naval capabilities and this reflected on the Fleet Air Arm too. The mighty Seaking Mk 42Bs were an important part of that great capability surge in the Indian Navy.
In the decade after the 1971 war, the Indian Navy carefully charted out options for all-around up-gradation of military equipment and some much-required indigenisation. In the field of MRH, it was to be a two-pronged approach. For indigenisation, HAL was to first make a smaller MRH develop skills and confidence. A larger one could follow later. Meanwhile, to meet operational needs, some MRH were to be imported. The choice fell again on Seakings. But this time, there was a difference. As I have written elsewhere, the aircraft was to be equipped with state of the art Weapons, Sensors, Communication systems, Navigation systems and most importantly, a Tactical Mission System (TMS) to integrate everything so that operating them becomes humanly possible. The mix was eclectic. Air to Surface Missiles (British Sea Eagle), Torpedoes (Italian A244S), Depth Charge Mk 11 (Indian), Radar (British), Dunking Sonar (French), ESM (Italian), Sonobuoy System (British), Tactical Air Navigation System (British), V/UHF & HF Communication systems (USA) and a British TMS.
This was the first time anyone was attempting to integrate this stupendous mix of capabilities into one helicopter. The best part was that this entire architecture was designed by India, to be executed by WHL.
The 42Bs arrived in India between 1988 and 1990 through possibly the best ever induction process. The planning, placement of a core team in the UK for almost five years, extensive training of over thirty aircrew and adequate ground crew in the UK, timely creation of infrastructure in India, preparation of training facilities and material, and subsequent utilisation of the core team from the UK on their return to India were without blemish. The golden decade that followed, was natural.
Downs and Ups
India’s nuclear test in 1998 brought on US sanctions. The linkages of globalisation created echoes of it elsewhere too. Maintenance support for which we were dependent on the British, was now unavailable. Unfortunately, the indigenous development of a good MRH had also faltered. The Fleet Air Arm had to re-adjust. The Harpoons now had the tough job of continuing to fly their aircraft, using every trick in the book. It was more than just tricks in the book. There was much raw courage too. A mature service also did its best to make things as comfortable as possible.
True to form, the man on the field did his best, with what was at hand. The Harpoons experimented, adapted, reoriented, added on several types of equipment, unlearnt some lessons and continued to remain operationally credible. They continued to execute some incredible Rescue Missions, picking up distraught people from stricken ships, burning platforms, sinking boats, flooded areas and high rise buildings. They delivered supplies to disaster-hit areas and continued to provide service beyond their logical capabilities. The rich pedigree of the Harpoons motivated them to continue to shine.
After two decades of straining to perform their classical role, the Harpoons are poised at the threshold of yet another beginning. Later this year, they expect to receive the third wave of MRH in their history, 24 MH 60 R helicopters from the USA, again, from the Sikorsky family. While the three Bn US Dollars India will pay for these helicopters is big, even bigger, is going to be the operational gains for IN. As the Harpoons are poised to receive their new birds, there are several questions to be asked to ensure that old lessons are not lost sight of. Have the good aspects of the induction of the 42Bs been replicated? Have provisions been made to avoid the mistakes made with the utilisation of the first lot? Have we put a plan in place for the indigenous development of an MRH that can soon join the new MH 60Rs? That is critical, as the real need for MRH is much beyond the 24 contracted for.
No friendship is permanent. What is white today, can turn black tomorrow. Meanwhile, the enemy is busy proliferating submarines. There is not much time left, for a carefully considered reorientation. But here, we miss a great teacher. War. The 50th anniversary of the Harpoons also marks the 50th anniversary of the last war. That calls for many studies, of history. Meanwhile, the Harpoons continue to remain sharp, ready to surprise lurking sharks, whatever the odds.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies
Title image courtesy: https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/indian-naval-aviation-revamping-the-helicopters/