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Force Magazine

One Step Backward
The scrapping of the 197 helicopter programme will majorly affect AAC and IAF operations in north Kashmir

By Dilip Kumar Mekala

Defence minister Arun Jaitley’s recent decision in the Defence Acquisition Council’s (DAC) meeting to scrap the reconnaissance and surveillance helicopter (RSH) programme may majorly hamper operations in the Himalayas. The decision to cancel the 197 helicopter programme came on August 29 at the DAC meet, following the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) probe on corruption related allegations. This was the second time the programme has been cancelled after numerous delays.

The implications of this decision seem to be extremely dangerous. With no concrete alternative plan to this programme currently, the forces will have to stretch the life of the already outdated equipment. This is a major blow to the modernisation plans of the Army Aviation Corps and the Indian Air Force (IAF) troops operating in the North Kashmir region. Although the defence ministry has claimed that this programme will be taken up by Indian private industry, it has kept everyone guessing about who would produce the helicopters.

The current fleet of Cheetah (SA-315 Lama) and Chetak (SA-316 Alouette III) helicopters with the Army Aviation Corps are more than 40 years old and require immediate replacement. This class of helicopters has been extremely crucial in maintaining operational readiness in Eastern and Northern borders, especially Siachen. It is for this reason the Indian Army had given high priority for this procurement in its modernisation plans. Even the IAF operating helicopters in Leh, Thoise, Siachen, and Sub Sector North (SSN) face similar problem as delays also hit their modernisation programme. The army claims that its Cheetah/Chetak helicopters have already lived beyond their life-time by around 12-17 years.

“This (delay) is likely to impinge gravely on operations in high altitude areas,” said former assistant director general, Army Aviation Corps, Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd). “These helicopters are now obsolete and their maintenance itself is a nightmare with the spares situation also becoming critical,” he added.

Indian forces are well aware that the machines that they currently fly in the high altitude regions are not certainly designed to operate in those circumstances. With low pressure and very little availability of oxygen, the performance of the machine generally remains uncertain. The IAF flies its helicopters at an altitude ranging from 10,000 ft to 20,000 ft in North Kashmir, with areas like Saser Pass and Khardung Pass standing at 17,500 ft and 18,380 ft respectively. The highest altitude that Cheetah and Chetak were originally certified to fly (by its French manufacturer) was around 15,000 ft. However, that did not stop the IAF in stretching its limits in extreme conditions. In November 2004, the IAF created world record by landing Cheetal helicopter, an upgraded version of Cheetah, at Sia Kangri at a height of 25,150 ft. However, it is more of a life threatening adventure, rather than a proud moment.

The Indian Army has written many letters to the defence ministry raising the importance of this programme. A letter from Army headquarters to former defence minister A.K. Antony, which was accessed by the Indian media, claimed, “The Cheetah/Chetak helicopters are no longer manufactured by Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and no plans are there to upgrade as well. Therefore, the only way forward is to replace this ageing fleet”. Interestingly, a recent report carried by DNA newspaper quoted an army letter describing the current fleet of helicopters as ‘death traps’. Apparently, about 12 pilots have died in the last five years in Cheetah crashes. “Our high-altitude operations are suffering as pilots often refused to fly Cheetah or Chetak helicopters. Surveillance and reconnaissance in high-altitude areas like China border are also taking a major hit,” the newspaper quoted an officer from the Army Aviation Corps. Now, with the cancellation of the programme yet again, the troubles for the Indian forces seem to have increased.

Airbus Helicopters’ Fennec, one of the contenders in the programme, was earlier seen as the front runner. The programme has been cancelled for the second time in a row
Airbus Helicopters’ Fennec, one of the contenders in the programme, was earlier seen as the front runner. The programme has been cancelled for the second time in a row

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