Visiting US president Donald Trump, addressing a cheering throng of 125,000 Indians in Ahmedabad’s Motera Stadium soon after landing in India on Monday, talked up US-India defence cooperation and pitched to sell India “some of the best, most feared, military equipment on the planet.”
“We make the greatest weapons ever made – aeroplanes, rockets, ships, missiles. We make the best and we are dealing now with India,” said Trump.
“I am pleased to announce that tomorrow (Tuesday) our representatives will sign deals to sell over $3 billion in the absolute, finest, state-of-the-art helicopters and other equipment to the Indian armed forces,” said the US president.
Washington has already logged $15-18 billion in defence sales to India over the preceding decade, including C-130J Super Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, P-8I Poseidon long range maritime aircraft, M777 ultralight howitzers and CH-47F Chinook and AH-64E Apache helicopters. With equipment worth billions more in the pipeline, Trump stated confidently: “I believe the United States should be India’s premier defence partner and that’s the way it’s working out.”
On the agenda on Tuesday, say US and Indian official sources, is the signature of a $2.6 billion contract for the supply to India of 24 Sikorsky NH-60R (popularly called “Romeo”) naval multirole helicopters, worth an estimated $2.6 billion.
The Romeo is badly needed, say naval planners, to operate off Indian frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers. The navy’s dozen-odd Seaking helicopters are well past their retirement dates.
The Romeo provides its parent warship with greatly enhanced anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability. Its “dunking sonar” detects enemy submarines, which are then sunk with its formidable on-board torpedoes. In addition, the chopper can patrol a vast expanse of ocean and destroy enemy ships with air-to-surface (A2S) missiles. The Romeo can also fly naval commandoes to enemy shores, landing them there with covering fire from its on-board machine guns.
The Romeo’s versatility, large weapons payload and sophisticated avionics have earned it the nicknames of “flying frigate” and “Swiss army knife of naval choppers.”
While Tuesday will witness the signing of a contract for just 24 helicopters – insufficient to equip even the navy’s current warships – the requirement is actually for 123 such helicopters. After buying the current 24 off the shelf, the navy will initiate another procurement to build 99 more in India under the “strategic partner” (SP) programme. This will involve selecting a private Indian company as SP, which would then partner a foreign vendor to manufacture the equipment in India.
With 24 Romeos already in the fleet, Sikorsky would be in pole position in any competitive procurement to build more naval helicopters in India.
However, “Make in India” would cost some 50 per cent more than buying off the shelf, since it would involve setting up a new factory after obtaining a manufacturing licence from the original vendor, creating an eco-system of Tier-1, Tier-2 and Tier-3 sub-vendors, training workers and creating a testing and licensing eco-system.
New Delhi and Washington are also keen to complete the signing of a contract for six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, for an estimated $930 million. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has already contracted for 22 Apaches, delivery of which will be completed this year. Now all further Apaches contracted will equip the army’s mechanised strike corps.
Also in the pipeline, but unlikely to be signed on Tuesday, is an Indian procurement of about 30 high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), of the Sea Guardian category. This tri-services procurement is likely to cost about $3 billion.
The biggest and most lucrative tender, however, is the IAF’s ongoing tender for 114 medium fighters, which would cost $15-20 billion. Two American firms are in the running for that contract: Boeing, with its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin which has offered the F-21 fighter – a renamed version of the F-16 Block 70.