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800 New Helicopters:ARMED FORCES GO SHOPPING, by Radhakrishna Rao,8 September 2009 Print E-mail

Defence Notes

New Delhi, 8 September 2009

800 New Helicopters


By Radhakrishna Rao

 Saddled with a fleet of ageing and obsolete helicopters that are both costly and difficult to maintain, all the three wings of the Defence Services are looking at inducting as many as 800 new hi-tech genre rotary wing aircraft capable of performing a wide range of tasks.

The ambitious plan of expanding and strengthening the helicopter fleet over the next few years is to be realized through a deft and imaginative combination of outright acquisition from the global aviation majors through competitive bids and a vigorous plan of action for the indigenous production of certain categories of choppers by the State-owned aeronautical major Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).

The Navy which operates a diverse but far from efficient fleet of choppers including Seaking, Chetak, Dornier and Kamov-31, is keen on boosting its helicopter-based anti-submarine warfare and heavy lift operations capability. In particular, it is seeking to acquire a number of 10-tonne class helicopters capable of ferrying men and material and also of having the facility of getting refueled in mid-air. However, the Navy is not keen on acquiring the naval variant of home-grown 5.5-tonne class Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv, as its current configuration is inadequate to meet the stringent requirements.

Recently, the Cabinet Committee on Security approved the acquisition of five more Russian origin Kamov-31 early warning helicopters at an estimated cost of Rs.9,600-million. These choppers would bolster the Navy’s long-range capability to detect air-borne and surface threats. It already has nine such copters. With an Eye airborne electronic warfare radar mounted beneath its fuselage, Kamov-31 can simultaneously track up to 40 air-borne and surface threats.   

On another front, India has sought bids from global helicopter majors for the acquisition of 197 light utility and observation helicopters for the use of the aviation wing of the Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF). These helicopters will be deployed for operations in high altitude areas such as Siachen and Kargil and would replace the ageing fleet of Cheetah and Chetak choppers.

In fact, an earlier tender to acquire these helicopters was cancelled last year after Eurocopter was close to bagging the order. According to the Defence Ministry, the cancellation of the tender was a sequel to the detection of “impropriety while carrying out the evaluation trials”.

Simultaneously, another 187 such choppers will be manufactured by HAL for induction by 2016-17. HAL has already submitted a proposal to the Defence Ministry for the indigenous design, development and production of three-tonne class light utility helicopter (LUH). The Ministry’s current view is that the immediate need of LUH could be met from acquiring 197 such choppers.

Thus, HAL is planning to take up the project in association with a helicopter major of global repute. Further, to complete the full-range of choppers, HAL has decided to design and manufacture a 10-tonne class multi-role helicopter and invited proposal from the international aviation companies for co-development.

The IAF, which  has now a fleet of around 300 choppers  including Chetaks and Cheetahs,  Soviet era Mi--26 heavy lift off  choppers, Mi-25/35 attack helicopters, has  issued RFP (Request for Proposal) for 22 combat and 15 heavy lift helicopters to the global helicopter majors. Incidentally, the ageing helicopters in service with IAF are often called during natural calamities but most have not been found fit for the task. And, the Soviet era Mi-range of helicopters in service are saddled with the problem of spares’ shortage.

This apart, the IAF has placed order for 10 Cheetal helicopters with the HAL of which four have already been delivered. Accordingly, the re-engineered Cheetals will increase the operational capability in high altitudes. In fact, the chopper created a sort of world record by landing at 23,200 ft pressure altitude at Sasar Kangri of Ladakh region in November 2004. Importantly, with its new TM-333-2M2 engine, the chopper has demonstrated an increased range, endurance and payload capability..

As a follow up to Dhruv and its weaponised version, the HAL has initiated work on the development of Light Combat Helicopter (LCH). The sanction for this project was granted based on the IAF’s requirements. The 5.5-tonne class LCH is expected to be inducted during 2011-13. The double engine, two-seater chopper will be armed with 20-mm turret twin barrel guns, cluster bombs, rocket pods and air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, other than being equipped with an anti-tank missile Nag.

Designed for anti-tank and anti-infantry roles, the LCH will also be capable of high altitude warfare since its operational ceiling is 16,000-18,000-ft. It will also incorporate stealth features in addition to carrying a crashworthy landing gear for better survivability. Further, it will feature a narrow fuselage, helmet mounted target system, electronics warfare equipment and electro optics system to bolster its attack capability.

As for the new weaponised version of Dhruv, equipped with high performance Shakti (ardiden) engine capable of generating 30% more thrust than the TM-333-2B2 engine used in the utility version  is likely to  complete its qualification trials by the end of 2009. It would serve as a gun ship in the Himalayan regions of India.

HAL, which has so far delivered 80 utility version of Dhruv to the Armed Forces, has on its hand, a standing order for the delivery of 200 choppers. But its production line can only churn out three-four pieces a month and with its present rate it would take years for HAL to clear its standing commitment. Even as HAL is planning to export Dhruv in a big way, growing demand for the chopper from the Forces and internal security agencies could force the aeronautical major to slow down its export drive. Incidentally, the 5.5-tonne class Dhruv, India’s first-ever fully home-grown chopper has helped HAL live down its image of being an enterprise focused on licensed production.

The production line of Dhruv commenced at HAL in during 2001-02 and based on the feed back, the performance of the helicopter has been improved substantially over the years. It incorporates a number of advanced features including integrated dynamic system, full authority digital electronic control, hingless main rotor and bearingless tail rotor.

HAL has already supplied five Dhruv to the Air Force of Ecuador as part of US$51-million order for seven choppers. The variant being supplied is of utility type and will be mainly used for hoist and rescue operations. Last year, HAL bagged a US$20-million order from Turkey for three ALH Dhurvs. In 2008, HAL had narrowly missed bagging order for the supply of 12 ALH Dhruv to Chile. It also sold two such choppers to Nepal and leased out one to Israel. However, HAL’s plan to sell Dhruv’s to neighbouring Myanmar is said to have come a copper following international pressure. Meanwhile, HAL is looking at Mauritius, UAE and African countries as potential customers for its flagship product. –INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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