May - 2013 ISSUE

Force Magazine
Maintenance Nightmare - May 2012
The helicopters of the Army Aviation Corps are far too obsolete
By Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)

The Army Aviation Corps is in its 26th year of existence since its formation in November 1986. Despite having the largest number of helicopters among the three services, the majority held in its inventory are of the reconnaissance and observation class (Chetak and Cheetah). This fleet is now 40 years old and vintage requiring immediate replacement.

This class of helicopters has been the mainstay of the armed forces and thereby form a crucial component of the Army Aviation Corps. Their replacement has been a priority in the overall transformation and modernisation plans of the army for quite some time. Due to the nature of terrain prevalent on our Eastern and Northern borders (mountains and high altitude) especially the Siachen Glacier, this class of helicopters are essential to maintain enhanced defence preparedness and operational readiness.

In fact, presently the Cheetah and Chetak are the lifeline of formations and troops deployed in these areas, but the fact of the matter is that they are of outdated technology and the armed forces deserve better, specially when we call ourselves the third largest standing army. The last trials for their replacement were held during 2005-2006. Eurocopter’s AS550 C3 Fennec and Bell Company’s Bell-407 participated. Russia’s KA-226T was also a contender but was eliminated in the technical evaluation, due to its engines not being certified. Unfortunately, in December 2007 while at the PNC stage, the entire trial process was cancelled by the defence ministry due to some incorrect data provided by vendors/ non compliance of some perimeters by them.

Accordingly a fresh bid was floated in July 2008 for acquisition of 197 light observation helicopters for the army and airforce. The trial evaluation for the same has recently been concluded. The main contenders this time are Eurocopter’s Fennec and Russian Kamov-226T helicopters. The third contender, the Anglo-Italian AgustaWestland’s AW-119, was ousted midway during the trials due to a technical mismatch of nomenclature of its engine. However, as per reports, the Indian Army’s hopes of replacing the ageing Cheetah/ Chetak anytime soon has received another setback due to allegations of irregularities in the trials conducted related to both the contenders. The setting up of a technical oversight committee by the defence ministry to go into the entire trial process is a pointer in this direction. The main allegations relate to the requirement of bulged doors for fitment of a stretcher in the cabin of Eurocopter helicopter for casualty evacuation. The same was not demonstrated and doubts expressed by some quarters about the Kamov’s engine certification. This latest development has once again put the crucial replacement programme on hold for the time being.

This indeed is a very sad development and is likely to impinge gravely on operations in the high altitude areas. These helicopters are now obsolete and their maintenance itself is a nightmare with the spares situation also becoming critical. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited is finding it difficult to keep this fleet in the air — the armed forces have already expressed their concerns on the situation. The ‘Cheetal’ helicopter fielded by the HAL both for the army and airforce as a stop gap measure is not a satisfactory solution as basically it remains a Cheetah with a better engine but the core technology remains the same. The Oversight Committee must finish its probe on a fast track so that a suitable light observation helicopter is inducted into the armed forces at the earliest. Any further delay in this replacement programme will have dire consequences for our security.

(The writer is a former assistant director general, Army Aviation Corps)


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