Just over two years ago, HAL signed an agreement with Northrop Grumman Corp. to “work together on projects of mutual benefit”. This, their press release at the time said, would result in getting HAL on board the E-2C Hawkeye aircraft carrier-based airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) program by way of sourcing aircraft assemblies and components, digitization and other related services.
At the time, Northrop’s VP for the Hawkeye programme, Tim Farell said, “The capabilities and reliability of the Hawkeye are also well known to our allies and adversaries. HAL will help make this remarkable aircraft an even more capable tool for its operators: the U.S. Navy and, so far, six allied nations.” A lot has happened since, but let’s rewind and see what happened in sequence.
In early 2004, the Navy sent out a request for information (RFI) on carrier-based AEW&C systems to Northrop Grumman Corp., with an outline for a total of six aircraft to operate off the INS Vikramaaditya and Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC). Naval Headquarters received Northrop’s reply, with information on the aircraft, capabilities and programme, in October 2004. But, as was abundantly clear, the Hawkeye was configured for launch off a steam-catapult and not a ski-jump of the kinds that exist on India’s two future carriers. This posed the biggest problem yet, and the Navy pretty much dropped plans of looking at the Hawkeye.
But four months later, Northrop Grumman sent senior executives to Delhi to meet Vice Admiral JS Bedi, then Controller, Warship Production & Acquisition, to convince him otherwise.
The team that finally met Bedi, told me on February 11, 2005, three days before their meeting, “We did an assessment with the US Navy, and now believe that it is possible to launch the Hawkeye, with appropriate modifications, from the Gorshkov’s angle deck in the absence of a catapult jump. We will present our findings to the Navy next week, constituting a second order level of detail of the assessment we have made.”
It was a radical suggestion at the time. But how would they work out configuring a Hawkeye for a ski-jump when all American carriers were steam-cat equipped? “For now, we will use existing US Navy performance charts, engineering models, open source information on Gorshkov’s dimensions and meteorological conditions in the Indian Ocean — since we know the dimensions and statistics of MiG-29 fighters used off the Gorshkov, we will use that data as well in our study,” they told me.
But on March 23, 2005, I spoke to Vice Admiral Bedi. He indicated that after weighing the pros and cons of the Hawkeye, the Navy had decided not to pursue its interest in the aircraft. He said, “First of all, the Hawkeye is too big. In light conditions, the endurance of the aircraft goes down from five to just one hour. And for an early warning aircraft to have the capability of staying for only one hour makes no sense. We have decided not to consider the Hawkeye. There are other reasons for not taking up the Hawkeye offer. In a full take-off, a single engine failure could be disastrous,” Bedi said.
In February 2006, Northrop Grumman came back to India – this time, to tell the Navy that souped up Hawkeyes could be provided to operate with enhanced range from three shore-bases at Visakhapatnam, Kochi and Porbandar. This is where things still stand -- the Navy is still studying the shore-based Hawkeye proposal. In the interim, the Boeing-Northrop combine has additionally pitched the 737-AEW&C Wedgetail as a more robust shore-based early warning platform.
What the Navy worries about is that its warships are now plump Harpoon targets on the Western seaboard. The nine Kamov-31 Helix-B AEW choppers with the Navy are grossly inadequate and need chopper-chopper refueling for any meaningful time in the air. With limited range and endurance, the Navy is positive that they cannot be a permanent or long-term solution for fleet defence.