Indian military helicopter procurements are typically murky affairs, often fraught with protracted evaluations, changing user requirements, allegations of flagrant corruption, and whimsical cancellations.

17th Jan 2013



Byline: Gordon Arthur / Hong Kong

Indian military helicopter procurements are typically murky affairs, often fraught with protracted evaluations, changing user requirements, allegations of flagrant corruption, and whimsical cancellations. Such competitions surely make international manufacturers groan in agony…yet also have them lasciviously licking their lips…at the handsome reward held out to the last man standing. This is precisely the dilemma – contracts that cannot be ignored simply because they are so large and lucrative, but punctuated by so much bureaucratic anguish. The figures speak for themselves: India will induct 1,000+ helicopters by 2020, including 450 light utility, 200 attack, 150 Mi-17 medium transport, 15 heavy-lift and 90 multirole platforms.

Indigenous programmes
The Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) entered service in 2002. It is operated by the Indian Army, Indian Navy (IN), Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian Coast Guard (ICG), and is on order for the Border Security Force (BSF). An important evolution for the Dhruv was fitting 1,400shp Turbomeca Ardiden 1H1/Shakti engines that give enhanced high-altitude performance. The first Dhruv Mk.3 craft fitted with these locally manufactured engines was shown at Aero India 2011, and 159 craft are required. Another incarnation is the armed Dhruv Mk.4, also known as the Rudra or ALH-WSI (Weapon System Integrated). India will acquire 76 Rudra craft, with the first 20 supposed to reach the army mid-year.

China and India are the only Asian countries to have developed a dedicated attack helicopter. India based its Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) on the Dhruv, and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) will produce 65 craft (five squadrons) for the IAF and 114 (nine squadrons) for the army. The LCH’s maiden flight occurred on 29 March 2010. The second prototype, wearing a digital-camouflage scheme, was displayed at Aero India 2011. This fuselage benefitted from much-needed weight reductions, and will be used primarily for weapon testing.

The tandem-seat LCH will be capable of reaching 6,500m, making it far more suitable for warfare in mountainous terrain (in comparison, the incumbent Mi-25/35 has a 4,500m ceiling). Parts of the Himalayas soar more than 8,000m above sea level. Powered by two Shakti engines, it has achieved a top speed of 220km/h although the target is 275km/h. The first LCH was originally supposed to enter service in December 2010, but initial operational capability is more likely to be later this year or next.

The LCH features the same armaments as the Rudra: a chin-mounted Nexter 20mm M621 cannon in a THL 20 turret, plus four twin Helina anti-tank missile launchers, four 70mm rocket pods and a pair of air-to-air Mistral launchers on stub wings. The electro-optical pod contains a CCD camera, forward-looking infrared (FLIR), laser rangefinder and laser designator. The light attack helicopter also has a Saab electronic warfare suite, while the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) will install a two-way data-link that connects to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) platforms.

The army and air force have long relied on ageing Chetak and Cheetah craft in the light utility role. They have proven remarkably well suited to high-altitude operations though they are overdue for replacement. The military requires 384 craft and is taking a dual-track approach, where HAL will supply 187 of them and a foreign manufacturer the remainder (see the later section on the RSH programme). HAL is thus developing the 3-tonne Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) and its maiden flight could occur this year. Delivery of the single-engine type is expected from 2015.

Light helicopters
India sought to address the Chetak/Cheetah obsolescence issue by issuing a request for proposals (RfP) to foreign manufacturers as far back as 2003. This Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) requirement comprises 197 craft, of which 133 will go to the army and the balance to the IAF. In 2007, India was on the verge of declaring a winner with the Eurocopter AS550 C3 Fennec edging out the Bell Textron 407. However, the whole competition was nullified and subsequently re-launched as the Reconnaissance and Surveillance Helicopter (RSH) in 2008.

A fierce competition narrowed the RSH field to the Eurocopter AS550 C3 and Kamov Ka-226T. However, the US $1 billion RSH programme is now in danger of being cancelled for a second time. The reason for this is an allegation that AgustaWestland used middlemen in a separate VVIP helicopter competition, with Indian procurement laws forbidding such a practice. AgustaWestland had initially entered the AW119 in the RSH competition even though it never reached the flight trial stage. Italian prosecutors are investigating AgustaWestland and India has put the RSH programme on hold until a verdict is reached one way or another. Any proven link to illegality between the RSH and VVIP contracts will result in the former being cancelled. The RSH is already seven years behind schedule and frontline troops are suffering because of the interminable delay. If AgustaWestland is found guilty, it will be blacklisted in India. In the meantime it has already delivered three out of twelve AW101 craft to the IAF as part of its US $400 million VVIP contract. AgustaWestland was awarded the contract in 2010 after beating Sikorsky.

Medium and heavy helicopters
Boeing’s CH-47F Chinook competed against the Russian Mi-26T2 for a US $1.4 billion contract for 15 heavy-lift craft for the IAF. Both designs met technical parameters, but on 5 December the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) declared the Chinook as preferred bidder, with the American design’s cost effectiveness and after-sales service cited as determining factors. Contract negotiations with Boeing are ongoing and delivery must occur within 54 months of contract signing, which could take place in March. The CH-47Fs will replace Mi-26 helicopters acquired in the 1980s, most of which are grounded.

An interesting development was the establishment of a joint venture (JV) between Russian Helicopters and Elcom Systems, announced on 26 December. The JV will manufacture Russian Ka and Mi helicopters locally, and it marks an abrupt change in the way Russia does business in India. Russia has traditionally been India’s most important foreign supplier, with cooperation usually occurring at the government-to-government level. However, this JV opens the way for commercial sales regulated by offset obligations. An important aircraft in India is the Mi-8/17 family. In 2012, Russia delivered the first of 80 Mi-17V-5 medium-weight craft following a 2008 order. India is procuring 71 further Mi-17V-5s for the IAF and BSF according to a deal signed in December 2012.

Attack helicopters
Boeing is enjoying unprecedented success in India, with the MoD’s October announcement that the AH-64E Apache Longbow had been selected for a 22-craft attack helicopter requirement. This US $1.3 billion contract includes Hellfire and Stinger missiles, but because it is a Foreign Military Sale (FMS) it does not include offsets. Boeing vanquished the Russian Mi-28N Night Hunter in this contest. A foreign-made craft was urgently needed to replace old Mi-25/35 craft, plus it will give India upper- and lower-tier attack helicopters once LCH production ramps up.

The state-of-the-art AH-64E was only deployed by US Army units last November, so India is gaining a cutting-edge product. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin postponed a visit to India in November in what may have been a sign of displeasure over the decision. This attack helicopter programme dates back to a May 2008 Request For Proposal (RFP) that was cancelled in March 2009 before being refloated.

The IAF was angered by a government decision late last year to allow the army to operate these new attack helicopters, Defence Minister A.K. Antony describing the drawn-out squabble as a “family problem”. The army says operating its own attack craft will give land forces greater tactical “power and reach”. It also argues it will improve mobilisation time for troops under the Cold Start Doctrine. Conversely, the IAF argued attack helicopters operating without the support of larger air assets would be too vulnerable. The current arrangement is for the IAF to operate Mi-25/35s that are under army operational control. By 2022, the army’s three strike corps will each possess an aviation brigade comprising two squadrons. The pending mountain strike corps may gain an aviation brigade too.

Navy helicopters
Another important project is the Navy’s 16-craft Multirole Helicopter (MRH) requirement. This has pitched the Sikorsky S-70B against the NHIndustries NH90, and it is heading towards a climactic finale that includes acrimonious allegations. Officials describe a decision as “imminent” - whatever that means in Indian parlance.

The IN will follow the MRH contest with a global bid for 75 further multirole helicopters (N-MRH) in the 9-12.5-ton class. Worth an estimated US $4 billion, a request for information was issued in June 2011. These craft will progressively replace Sea King Mk.42B helicopters. They will be assigned search and rescue (SAR), MEDEVAC and surveillance roles. Contenders are likely to be the NH90, Eurocopter EC725 and Sikorsky MH-60R. Incidentally, the MH-60R was dropped from the MRH competition because the USA insisted on the FMS route. In the meantime, the navy is expected to upgrade its Sea King fleet, with AgustaWestland and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) the prime contenders. Efforts to upgrade the Ka-28 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) fleet will be launched soon too.

In a splurge of activity, the navy also wants 56 twin-engine light utility craft according to an August 2012 RFP. The US $1 billion Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) programme will replace Chetaks that fly from frigates and offshore patrol vessels. The IN earlier discovered the Dhruv was not adept at ship-borne ASW operations, hence the need for an international competition. The NUH will combine the roles of light ASW (carriage of one lightweight torpedo or two depth charges), logistics, SAR, observation and electronic intelligence. The chosen 4.5-ton-class craft will also perform anti-piracy missions, something of growing importance in the Indian Ocean. They will carry rocket pods and 12.7mm machine guns. An RfP was despatched to AgustaWestland, Bell, Boeing, Eurocopter, Kamov and Sikorsky. Bids are due in January 2013 and the navy stipulates it should enter service in 2016. Eurocopter has met with a number of disappointments in India and has little to show for its efforts to date, so the AS565 MB Panther will surely be competing keenly here.


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