The upcoming visit of the U.S President Donald Trump is bringing into sharper focus growing military ties between New Delhi and Washington to bolster India’s heft in the Indo-Pacific, and substantiate joint operations by the Army, Navy and the Indian Air Force (IAF).
India’s decision ahead of Mr. Trump’s visit to India, which begins on February 24, to clear the purchase of 24 MH-60R helicopters is part on an exercise to dial up the Navy’s credence in the Indo-Pacific. The new choppers, which can be launched from a variety of warships, including frigates and destroyers, will beef up capacity to hunt submarines using advanced airborne low-frequency sonar (ALFS) for detection, and torpedoes for destruction. The Hellfire missiles carried by these helicopters can also strike land targets. The MH-60Rs will replace the seventies vintage Sea King anti-submarine helicopters.
But the Navy’s acquisition of the eight U.S. built P8I planes has been a game changer in scanning and exercising dominance in parts of the Indo-Pacific. These powerful maritime patrol planes, which are based in Arakkonam, to counter surface and submarine threats, are digitally co-linked with the P8A aircraft with the U.S. navy. This collaboration which was possible after New Delhi and Washington signed the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in September 2018, has sharpened the Navy’s awareness of the Indo-Pacific to a new level. An additional six P8Is are pending approval by the Cabinet Committee of Security (CCS).
The induction of U.S. weapons in the maritime domain is expected to feed into the impending formation of the Indian Ocean centred Peninsular Theatre Command, which could be formed with the merger of the Eastern and Western naval commands. During a press conference on Monday, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat stressed that the navy should look at the “big picture,” pointing out that the “Indian Ocean Region is one entity.”
The Indo-U.S. military collaboration is also adding more teeth along the land borders with Pakistan and China. The IAF operates 22 U.S.-built Apache attack helicopters — a platform which, accompanying strike corps, is especially useful for carrying out offensive low-level air strikes against armoured columns in the Thar desert area. The Apaches can also be connected with AWACS — the eyes in the sky — to sharpen monitoring, and quicken decision-making, in a highly fluid battle zone.
Ahead of the Mr. Trump’s visit, the CCS is considering clearing the induction of six more Apache helicopters which are likely to be deployed by the Army. “Eventually the government is inclined to establish a common tri-service pool of assets, which can be deployed by theatre commanders for joint operations as required,” a highly placed government source said.
India has already contracted from the U.S., 15 Chinook heavy lift helicopters, which can carry 9.6 tonnes of load. These helicopters — a replacement for the Russian Mi-26 choppers — can sling M777 Ultra-Light Howitzers, which have been inducted recently into the Indian Army, playing an especially useful role along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), where the Indian road and communication network is weak.
The IAF already operates the C-17 strategic heavy lift planes, sourced from the U.S. for transporting large number of personnel and equipment. Besides, the IAF’s fleet of C-130 planes with India is especially useful in the eastern sector for inducting special forces, because of its ability to take off and land from short and unprepared airstrips.