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Procuring anti-submarine chopper boosts Indian Navy's defence capabilities; China's rising naval power has US wary

The United States has approved the sale of 24 submarine-hunting helicopters to India for around $2.6 billion. Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, these MH-60 Romeo Seahawks were much-needed to upgrade the Indian Navy's arsenal and will replace India's half-a-century-old fleet of British-made Sea King helicopters.

The multi-mission choppers are considered the most advanced maritime helicopters available today. Besides hunting submarines, they can also be deployed to target ships and conduct search-and-rescue operations at sea, can be operated from frigates, destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers, and can be equipped with weapons such as Hellfire missiles, Raytheon MK 54 torpedoes, laser-guided rockets, machine guns, night vision devices and transponders.

This India-US defence deal is the need of the hour, given China's aggressive maritime operations and expansion of its navy in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. "India will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defence," the US government said in a statement on the helicopter agreement, though it added for the sake of diplomacy that "this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region".

 Procuring anti-submarine chopper boosts Indian Navys defence capabilities; Chinas rising naval power has US wary

File image of MH-60 Seahawk helicopter. AFP

China has significantly increased its naval presence — both under water and above — in the Indian Ocean region, which necessitated having India boost its own naval arsenal to avoid being caught unawares in its own waters. Such has been China's naval expansion that the US has called for a water territory code of conduct to be signed to prevent any untoward situation from arising.

In October 2018, China is believed to have deployed a submarine in the Indian Ocean after a gap of over a year. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy deployed a Type O39A Yuan class SSK (diesel-electric attack submarine) along with submarine rescue vessel 'Hai Yangdao' in the Indian Ocean, the eighth such deployment by China in the region, India Today reported.

This development came days after the Indian Navy had announced that it had acquired its first submarine rescue vessel, and defence officials don't believe it was a coincidence. "The PLA Navy clearly wants to demonstrate that it can also be a net provider of submarine rescue in the Indian Ocean region," the officials said.

While Beijing dubbed this maritime deployment "anti-piracy patrol", it has both the US and India alarmed about the country's expanding military strength. In February, Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said predicted that Washington would encourage its allies in the region to upgrade their submarine forces and combat ability, a prediction that came true with the latest deal with India.

Another military expert, Hong Kong-based Song Zhongping, was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post: "Washington sees a great threat from the PLA Navy, whose anti-aircraft carrier technology has become more powerful today. Only its nuclear attack submarines technology still holds an 'asymmetric advantage' over the PLA."

In January, the Ministry of Defence of India approved a project worth $5.6 billion for six advanced submarines to be built to bolster the country's undersea forces, the Hindustan Times reported, adding that the project will help the Indian Navy counter the swift expansion of China's submarine fleet in the Indian Ocean region.

India and the US have had similar concerns over a strengthening China, even more so now with Beijing's growing interest in the Indian Ocean. China's naval expansion in the region includes making use of a growing number of naval bases in the Indian Ocean — most notably the Gwadar Port it is developing in Pakistan — in operations that Indian and US observers have dubbed the "string of pearls".

While on one hand, the deal for New Delhi to procure 24 MH-60 Romeo Seahawks from Washington is an attempt to curb this Chinese military expansion, Beijing, too, is likely to keep a close eye on the latest defence pact.

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Updated Date: Apr 04, 2019 15:59:40 IST