The government should ramp up the number of helicopters in service for both armed forces and civilians
Helicopters are used in military as well civilian domains. Known for their ability to hover over surfaces while carrying out different duties, helicopters are first responders during crises. As all the three forces in India are on a spree to ramp up their infrastructure, helicopters have been some of the most important possessions made in recent times. The focus is also on building indigenous helicopters. In the military domain, helicopters play different roles such as search and rescue (SAR), attack, heli-borne operations, suppression of enemy air defence, battlefield air strike, transportation and logistics support, troops and casualty evacuation.
Helicopters have an edge over fixed-wing aircraft in inhospitable terrains. On the western and northern borders which have difficult terrains and harsh weather, helicopters prove to be of immense help to the troops for vigilance as well sustenance.
Air maintenance proves to be a lifeline of the troops stationed in the northern sectors including Siachen glacier and Sub-Sector North in Ladakh near Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO). Helicopters become the main source of mobility, as they fly to remote locations which have meagre infrastructure such as really small and matchbox-like helipads. Air maintenance is a routine every year and helicopters play prominent role in sustaining the troops throughout the harsh weather. Fixed wing aircraft bring logistics material to Leh and Thoise air force stations from Chandigarh, from where helicopters take it to forward bases. While the Indian Air Force (IAF) operates both fixed-wing aircraft as well as helicopters, the Army Aviation Corps (AAC), operates only helicopters. However, looking at the challenges that the army has to face, in 2012 the AAC was allowed to induct weaponised helicopters. Thus, the need to procure helicopters for the army and air force intersects.
An article published by IDSA and written by Group Captain Kishore Kumar Khera (retd) in May 2019, through the data extracted from the IISS Military Balance, points out that while the fixed-wing assets of the three arms of the Indian defence forces had remained nearly static, their rotary wing strength had grown by over 80 per cent. This article was published before the procurement of the Rafale jets. The data by IISS Military Balance states that among all aviation assets (fighters, training, wide bodied, unmanned and helicopters), in 1998, copters formed 23 per cent of the entire air fleet. However, today, they form 36 per cent of the fleet.
Currently, multiple types of soviet-origin aircraft form the backbone of the Indian armed forces; however, as these rotorcraft have started to age, the threes services are now on a lookout for new, modern copters. The helicopter fleet currently includes French, US and Indian-origin helicopters. The replacement of helicopters that have already become obsolete but are still operational with the forces is being undertaken. Number of programmes have been designed to procure helicopters for each service. The function of helicopters varies depending on their weight.
Utility helicopters are used by all the three services. The copters currently operational under this category with the Army’s AAC and the IAF are ALH Dhruv, HAL Cheetah and HAL Chetak. The IAF also used Mi17 V5 copter.
It has been more than two decades now that the services are looking to replace the old HAL Chetak and HAL Cheetahs. Utility helicopters play number of roles, including attack, logistics supply, medical evacuation, command and control and transport among other roles. HAL Chetak and HAL Cheetahs were built under a license from the French-origin Eurocopter, now known as Air Bus Helicopters. While the Cheetah helicopters were first delivered by the HAL in 1976, the delivery of Chetaks dates to 1965. Given the machines’ age, the armed forces have repeatedly been warning against its continual usage. September and October 2020 were plush with reports of armed forces issuing a warning yet again about the Chetak and Cheetah helicopters fast heading for obsolescence. A newspaper report stated that the services had alerted the ministry of defence (MoD) saying that these single-engine helicopters will start to reach their final stages by 2023. The vintage fleet of Chetak and Cheetahs have for so long been used extensively in areas of high altitude. They are, in fact, the lifeline of troops deployed there. The issue of glaring lack of fit-to-use helicopters becomes graver than ever now in view of Chinese aggression and the need for greater troop deployment. In the past few years, number of accidents have also taken place involving copters. While February 2020 saw a Cheetah helicopter crash-land in Reasi with no casualties, September 2019 recorded an accident in eastern Bhutan where another Cheetah helicopter crashed killing both, the Indian and Bhutanese pilots.
A tender, known as Reconnaissance and Surveillance Helicopter (RSH) to procure the replacement of these helicopters, was floated in 2004. Three years later, in 2007, after extensive trials of the shortlisted helicopters, Eurocopter AS550 Fennec was finalised. The deal, which would have been worth USD550 million was, however, scrapped owing to irregularities.
The following year, in 2008, another tender, RSH was refloated to acquire 197 helicopters worth USD750 million. This time, it included the ‘Buy’ and ‘Make’ categories for which Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was roped in. While under the ‘Buy’ category 197 helicopters were to be produced by the foreign original equipment manufacturer (OEM), the ‘Make’ category included 187 copters to be produced by HAL in India. This was necessary as the number of required helicopters had gone up to 384. Of which, 133 were a requirement of the army and the remaining 64 of the air force. During the selection process, the competing companies included Eurocopter with its AS550 Fennec against the Kamov Ka 226T. This tender, too, came to be cancelled as the MoD ordered investigations into the tendering process.
Even as the RSH tender did not take off, HAL’s project of the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) was sanctioned by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in 2009. HAL’s LUH is a completely indigenous project and was accorded the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) in February 2020, for the IAF variant. In September 2020, the helicopter underwent demonstrations in Siachen and Ladakh, after which it got the IOC for the army version.
Coming back to the RSH programme, in 2014, the RSH was reissued for the third time. The government, however, went in for a government to government deal with Russia and zeroed in on the Ka-226T helicopters. The deal has not been signed yet. There have been differences over the transfer of technology and indigenous content. The inter-government agreement was signed in 2016 and a production facility has also been founded in Tumkur, Bangalore. Once the deal is signed, it is going to be a four-phase programme. This deal, that comes under the ‘Make in India’ will produce 200 helicopters, of which 135 will go to the IAF and 65 to the army.
The Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH) programme for medium-lift helicopters that is still in its nascent stages is said to ‘replace all imports in that class for the armed forces.’
American aerospace giant, Boeing, completed the delivery of Apache helicopters in 2020 for the air force. The IAF had placed an order for 22 Apache 64E in 2015 with the intention to replace the Mi35 and Mi25 attack helicopters, that are variants of the Mil Mi-24. This deal was followed by an order of six Apache helicopters for the army in early 2020. The original deal of the 22 Apaches was signed under a combination of Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) and Foreign Military Sales (FMS). The DCS allows the buyer country, in this case India, and the seller company in the US, which is Boeing, to negotiate directly with one another, unlike during the FMS, wherein the US government is directly involved in transactions. Similar sale pattern was followed during the signing of six Apaches to be procured for the army. Apaches have capabilities such as shoot fire-and-forget anti-tank guided missiles, air-to-air missiles, ammunition like rockets, modern electronic warfare capabilities to be able to provide versatility in network-centric warfare. These rotorcraft are known to be the most advanced multi-role heavy-attack helicopters. After their induction, the air force deployed these machines in Ladakh amid the tensions with China. As scheduled, the induction of the army will begin in 2022. The AAC fleet currently includes HAL Rudra and HAL Light Combat Helicopter (LCH).
HAL Rudra is the armed variant of ALH Dhruv, the utility helicopter. As the army looks to increase its combat capabilities, it has decided to increase the number of HAL Rudra in its fleet. The first HAL Rudra came to be inducted by the AAC in 2013 at Aero India’s 2013 edition. This helicopter is also known as the Weapon Systems Integrated (WSI) Mk-IV variant of Dhruv. Currently, the AAC operates 50 Rudra helicopters and in order to ramp up its armed capabilities, more Rudra helicopters are on order. The IAF, too, operates these helicopters. The Rudra helicopters have the capacity of carrying turret guns, rockets and air-to-air missiles. However, their weaponisation has remained incomplete and the process for armament continues at a snail’s pace.
HAL’s Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) is also a part of Indian military’s arsenal. The weaponisation of this helicopter too is stuck. The LCH is a multirole helicopter and made news in November 2020 when the Chief of Air Staff took a sortie in the helicopter. It is a twin-engine helicopter. The LCH is famously described as ‘the world’s lightest multi-role attack helicopter, with the highest flight ceiling’. It is also the only the attack helicopter which can land and takeoff with heavy payload at high altitudes. The helicopter will be used by the army and air force. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had cleared the proposal to induct initial batch of 15 limited series production (LSP) LCHs, of which 10 were to be for the IAF and five for the army. The RFP had been issued by the IAF and HAL had submitted the response. Technical evaluation and price negotiations too have taken place. The army and IAF have committed to placing a further larger order after the order for the first 15 helicopters is placed. In August 2020, when the tensions between India and China were at their worst, two of these helicopters came to be deployed in Leh sector. In an anticipation of the existing orders, the HAL had launched production of LSPs at their Bangalore facility. As there is a need for more armed helicopters, the army and IAF will place order for more helicopters after the deal for first 15 is signed. The army will require 114 of these helicopters and the IAF, 65.
As of specifications, these helicopters will be powered by two Shakti turboshaft engines. It has maximum payload of 500 kg, an operational range of 550 km and a service ceiling of 6.5 km. This makes it suitable to be deployed in high mountainous regions such as the Siachen glacier. As earlier mentioned, the weaponisation for these helicopters too remains incomplete. The LCH, just as Rudra, can carry weapons such as turret gun, rocket system, air-to-air missile and anti-tank guided missile. These helicopters, however, remain paralysed as they are not fitted with any of these weapons except for unguided 70 mm rockets and 20 mm turret guns. Even as tests for MBDA Mistral air-to-air missiles have been carried out from HAL Rudra and LCH, the contract has not yet been signed. MBDA and India’s Bharat Dynamics Ltd (BDL), however, signed an MoU in 2019 for the final assembly, integration and test of Mistral and ASRAAM missiles in India.
Heavy Lift Helicopters
Heavy-lift helicopters are used by militaries to transport heavy loads in areas of high altitude. The transportation could be of troops, heavy machinery, artillery guns and even light armoured vehicles.
As it is necessary for the Indian military to carry troops, weapons and machinery to the forward bases in Ladakh in view of poor road infrastructure, heavy-lift helicopters are necessary. India signed a USD1.1 billion deal with Boeing for the procurement of 15 Chinook helicopters in 2015. This was a part of the USD3 billion deal that included the 22 Apaches. The first batch of Chinook helicopters were inducted in 2019. The delivery for all 15 Chinooks was completed in 2020. The procured Chinook CH-47 (I) helicopters are multi-mission helicopters with multi-role, vertical-lift capability. The helicopter comes with fully-integrated, digital cockpit management system, Common Aviation Cockpit and advanced cargo-handling capabilities. For heavy transport, the air force was for almost two decades depending on the Russian Mi-26, which were inducted into the IAF in the Eighties. In 2019, the Indian MoD cleared overhaul of the three Mi-26 helicopters currently in use, to be sent to Russia, one after the other and used alongside the newly inducted Chinooks. These helicopters were not in working condition and needed overhauling.
Today, the heavy-lift fleet of IAF’s helicopters comprises 15 Ch-47s and three Mi-26s. The Chinook has an operating ceiling of 20,000 feet and can carry up to 9.6 tonnes of cargo. Mi-26 helicopters had played a major role in the Kargil war by airlifting and ferrying troops and heavy equipment among other duties it carried out. The capacity that the Chinook can carry is lesser as compared to Mi-26. The Tribune reported that if a build-up of heavy fire was necessary in the mountains, the Chinooks would be able to airlift only the new 155 mm ultra-howitzers which weighed 4,200 kg and at least 30 are said to be in service so far. The Bofors gun, that was used during the Kargil war, weighed 11,700 kg. The payload capacity of Chinooks is almost half that of the Mi-26 helicopters. However, the induction of Chinooks have given the air force the much-required operational boost. The availability of more heavy-lift helicopters proves advantageous in performing varied duties.
Most importantly, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) would have an easy access to the heavy equipment needed in construction of the border road projects. It can also perform operations such as Human Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) and SAR among other military operations. Chinook is definitely a value addition for the air force given its high maneuverability and the ability to operate in all-weather conditions.
In India, opting to travel by a helicopter is a rare feat and limited to those who can afford it. Lack of these services for the common man and woman make it a costly affair, thanks to too many regulations in place.
Last year, in 2020, secretary, civil aviation P.S. Kharola said that the regulations governing civilian helicopters in India were ‘very restrictive’ and that they made operation unviable at times. He also added that the regulations which were actually meant for fixed-wing aircraft had been applied ‘with little modifications’ to the helicopters. He said that in order to boost helicopter operations in India, the civil aviation ministry was focusing on creating a network of helicopters. Helicopter service in India has not taken off as compared to its the fixed-wing aircraft service, although the realisation and the need is now felt.
Bangalore, in 2018, became the first Indian city to start a ‘helitaxi’ from Kempegowda International Airport to the city’s tech centre. Given Bangalore’s traffic, this ride proves time-saving as it promises to take passenger to their destination in under 15 minutes. A year later, in 2019, the heli-taxi had ferried around 2000 passengers since its launch. A similar service from Mumbai to Pune and Shirdi started by the US-firm Fly Blade in 2018, has not gained much traction. Sadly, India’s one and only heli-ambulance service started in Bangalore by Aviators Air Rescue (AAR) in 2016 stopped its operations in 2019.
India, due to its geographic expanse and change in terrains, has a great amount of scope in induction of more helicopters in the civilian domain in different areas. Be it for medical purposes or for travel, there is a huge demand for helicopters for the common public. Currently, Pawan Hans, a PSU, is the largest operator of civilian helicopters with more than 40 helicopters ferrying people in different parts of India.
Helicopters have number of uses in the civilian domain but the potential has not yet fully been recognised. With increasing security challenges in cities, the state police, too, require helicopters. This will only save time and be an efficient mode of transportation when necessary. Although Delhi has been using helicopters for some time now, it is only for specific occasions and there are problems of shortage and regulations. The Border Security Force (BSF) is the only paramilitary force with an air wing and has seven helicopters. The other paramilitary forces are dependent on this force when they need a helicopter to fly. With the vast security expanse that the paramilitaries are responsible for, that too in dense and difficult terrains, induction of more helicopters is an answer for efficient and safe operations. The BSF has lent its helicopters even to Delhi police for operations in the past.
Helicopters play a major role in oil rigging. Oil companies use helicopters in transportation of employees to offshore rigs. This is one market that helicopter manufacturers are focusing on. In 2019, it was estimated that the civilian helicopter sector was in need of 600 helicopters. The demand goes on increasing. HAL in February 2020 had said that it would bring the LUH to civilian market. It is thus a welcome move. Tweaking of regulations and making them friendlier for the civilian market will go a long way.