Indian Navy set to get additional Russian early-warning helicopters

KA-31 helicopter Russian Helicopters A Russian Ka-31 helicopter with its radar deployed | Russian Helicopters

The Defence Acquisition Council on Friday cleared the purchase of 10 Russian-made Kamov Ka-31 helicopters for the Indian Navy. ANI news agency reported the proposed acquisition would cost approximately Rs 3,600 crore.

The Ka-31 is a variant of the older Russian Ka-29 maritime helicopter and is specifically meant for the airborne early warning (AEW) role. The Ka-31 carries a rotating radar system that is stowed below its fuselage when not in use. The Ka-31 uses the 'Oko' radar system, which can detect aerial targets up to a distance of 200km away. The Oko radar is also capable of scanning for targets on the surface of the sea or on land.

Systems like the Ka-31 are vital to extending the radar coverage of the Indian Navy. Radars on board ships have a limited 'horizon', which impedes their range in detecting and tracking low-flying targets, in particular anti-ship missiles. In fact, the evolution of modern helicopter-borne AEW systems can be traced to vulnerability of Royal Navy ships to Argentine missile attack during the Falklands War of 1982. After the war, the Royal Navy developed and deployed an AEW system on its Sea King helicopters.

The Indian Navy first ordered the Ka-31 in 1999 for deployment on the INS Viraat aircraft carrier and other ships. Subsequent orders were placed in the following decade and according to Russian Helicopters, the Indian Navy currently operates a fleet of 14 Ka-31 helicopters. The Ka-31 has been sold to the navy of China as well.

Helicopter-mounted AEW systems like the Ka-31 have inferior parameters—such as lower radar capability, operating height and speed—in comparison with dedicated fixed-wing systems like the US-built E-2 Hawkeye. However, heavy aircraft like the E-2 Hawkeye would not be easy to operate from the Indian Navy's aircraft carriers, which lack catapults to assist the aircraft in taking off. Interestingly, the US had offered the Indian Navy the E-2 Hawkeye over a decade ago.