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India and Pakistan Continue Building Their Naval Aviation Capabilities

In June, the Indian Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) approved the purchase of 31 General Atomics MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones for the Indian Navy (IN), and at a price of $3.072 billion U.S. However, negotiations are ongoing, so prices and terms may change.

General Atomics markets the MQ-9B as a next-generation remotely-piloted aircraft system (RPAS) capable of driving intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions in any part of the world.

One of the MQ-9B’s marque features is its over-the-horizon (OTH) operability (via satellite communication) with an endurance of over 40 hours. Leveraging a payload of 2,155 kg across nine hardpoints, the MQ-9B can support a range of naval missions, including search-and-rescue (SAR), anti-surface warfare (ASuW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), long-range targeting, and much more.

Overall, the MQ-9B will smoothly integrate with the IN’s wider aviation capability as many of its mainstay assets – notably the Boeing P-8I Poseidon and Lockheed Martin MH-60R Seahawk – are also of American origin. Thus, the IN’s ‘core’ SAR, ASuW, and ASW air systems will be interoperable from the onset in terms of data-link connectivity, sensor feed-sharing, and weapons.

Functionally, the MQ-9Bs will complement the IN’s growing P-8I fleet to provide an extensive surveillance capability across India’s area of responsibility (AOR). Not only will the IN have more surveillance-capable aircraft at its disposal, but the MQ-9B’s endurance, OTH operability, and lack of an onboard crew (thus, no operator fatigue and no risk of crew loss) will give the IN more flexibility. It will be able to keep ISR assets in the air for longer periods of time, send aircraft farther, and endure (via the MQ-9Bs) adverse weather conditions as part of persistent and widespread ASuW and ASW operations.

Thus, it will become more difficult for Chinese and/or Pakistani submarines, for example, to operate in the IN’s AOR. In fact, the PN is heavily investing in growing its submarine fleet through the Hangor and shallow-water attack submarine (SWATS) programs. On India’s eastern flank, especially in the Pacific, the Chinese sub-surface threat has grown – and continues to grow – in technological and quantitative scale. For India, the growth of its P-8I, MH-60R, and, in time, MQ-9B (and other drone) fleets is imperative.

Though an eventuality, the IN’s MQ-9B acquisition will create a ripple effect in South Asia as the Pakistan Navy (PN) will both adjust its plans to counter the drones and, as importantly, emulate the capability. Like the IN, the PN is also developing its aerial ASW and ASuW capabilities.

One of the PN’s flagship projects is the ‘Sea Sultan,’ a long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA) built on the Embraer Lineage 1000E VVIP jet. The Sea Sultan is the focal point of the PN’s effort to gradually replace its aging Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion, which is its current ASW and ASuW workhorse.

In a sense, the PN is taking a similar approach to Saab’s Swordfish MPA project. The latter leveraged a VVIP jet (i.e., Bombardier Global Express 6000) alongside commercially-off-the-shelf (COTS) inputs for sensors, weapons, and other subsystems. Saab’s goal was to control costs so as to produce an accessible MPA, but with some capability trade-offs in comparison to the P-8. So, for example, the Swordfish MPA offered less range and a lighter payload (absent of an internal payload bay), but it came at a much lower upfront and lifecycle cost compared to the P-8.

The Sea Sultan will be closer to the Swordfish in capability than the P-8, but it will come at an accessible price-point, at least for the PN. Pakistan is under perpetual fiscal strain, so acquiring an MPA equivalent to the P-8 is unrealistic both financially and, at least in the case of the P-8 specifically, politically.

However, the Sea Sultan’s lower price-point could open other avenues for the PN, such as the flexibility to acquire a larger number of aircraft. Though the PN is currently planning to acquire 10 Sea Sultan LRMPAs, it could potentially add more aircraft in the long-term. In fact, the platform housing the COTS sensor and weapon suite need not always be the Lineage 1000E; the PN could explore other aircraft types too.

Like the IN, the PN is also investing in its unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fleet. It already operates Chinese CH-4Bs and is also exploring the possibility of acquiring Bayraktar TB2 drones from Türkiye. However, the PN could potentially acquire the larger Bayraktar Akıncı as well. In fact, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is also an operator of the Bayraktar Akıncı; this platform would give the PN with a more comparable platform to the MQ-9B. In effect, the PN could use the Sea Sultan and Akıncı in the same way the IN would use the P-8 and MQ-9B. Granted, this would require the PN to invest in building interoperability between its various assets, but it has already been working towards this through projects like the NIXS. In this sense, one could see a common set of suppliers emerge repeatedly, like Leonardo (for maritime radars), Elettronica SpA (for electronic support measures), and FLIR Systems (for Star SAFIRE EO/IR turrets).

Interestingly, the one ‘unknown’ in the PN’s planning thus far is its multirole helicopter program, which is a requirement for its forthcoming surface vessels. The Leonardo AW159 was pegged as an option, but the PN has yet to sign an agreement with any vendor. It is likely that funding constraints have played a role in delaying the PN from finalizing an off-the-shelf purchase.

However, like the Sea Sultan, external constraints could push the PN to pursue an original project, possibly in collaboration with another country, like Türkiye. In fact, the latter recently flew its indigenously designed T625 with its domestically developed TS1400 turboshaft engine.

Thus, the PN may have a pathway to use the T625 as the basis for a new mainstay naval utility helicopter. Granted, this approach will take years to develop as Turkish Aerospace Industries must tailor the T625 for operations at sea as well as take on specific subsystem and weapons integration. However, once available, a navalized T625 would give the PN a reliable option to replenish and grow its utility helicopter fleet in the long-term, especially as it grows its frigate, corvette, and offshore patrol vessel (OPV) fleets.

Of course, the PN could ultimately seek a helicopter from China, such as a new Z-9 variant. However, the PN’s approach to air platforms up to this point has been to acquire solutions it can configure. Basically, the PN likely prefers helicopters it can equip with subsystems and weapons it is using in other platforms, such as the Sea Sultan LRMPA. This would be an easier way to achieve the level of interoperability the IN is now getting through its key air assets; the PN wants to emulate that model.

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