Indian military helicopters remain a critical operational void
Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)
The operational voids in the Indian military helicopter inventory continue to grow bigger by the day with no end in sight. Last year the armed forces had raised the alarm to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of the fast-emerging critical operational voids in the availability of the Cheetah and Chetak fleet of observation and surveillance helicopters.
The current fleet of these helicopters will be reaching the end of their ‘total technical life’ by the end of 2022 and hence the urgent need to fast-track their replacement. The Cheetah and Chetak were inducted into the armed forces in the 1960-70 and are ageing, vintage and accident-prone. Their original models, the Aloutte-II and III are now being displayed in museums in France.
The latest report is that the government-to-government protracted deal to acquire 200 Russian Kamov Ka-226T Light Utility Helicopters (LUH) to replace the fleet of Cheetah and Chetak for the army and air force, is unlikely to materialise. This has further added to the gravity of the situation. Simultaneously, the navy’s programme to build 111 Naval Utility Helicopters (NUH) to replace its existing obsolete Chetak fleet under the Strategic Partnership route continues to stagnate, with no perceptible forward movement even after a decade of deliberations and discussions. There is still no clarity on this project’s future, excepting that the public sector entity, the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is also likely to be allowed to bid for the project along with the private sector players who were actually the main contenders under Strategic Partnership Model. The private industry has squarely put the blame on HAL for playing a spoiler in the finalisation of this project, Aatmanirbharta notwithstanding.
It is no secret that today 80 per cent of navy’s ships/ frigates are operating without the essential component of a helicopter on board, an alarming situation to say the least. As a result, the armed forces continue to fly these obsolete machines, which keep falling out of the skies on a regular basis exacting a heavy toll in terms of men and material and have rightly earned the now famous tag of flying coffins. In fact, the sustainability and maintainability of this ageing fleet itself is becoming well-nigh impossible which raises serious doubts and concerns on the safety and reliability of the machine itself. There is no doubt that the MoD and to some extent the armed forces are squarely to blame for this present situation.
Some Positive Developments
In this gloomy and grim situation with regard to the state of LUH which forms the bulk of armed forces inventory, there are some positive developments related to the heavier class of helicopters. The induction of 22 AH-64E state-of-the-art Apache attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F Chinook multi-mission heavy lift helicopters into the IAF in the last three years has certainly given a boost to the attack and heavy lift capability of the military.
The signing of a government-to-government deal for 24 Lockheed Martin-Sikorsky state-of-the-art, MH-60R Sea Hawk multi-role helicopters from the US in 2018 will address, to some extent, the immediate concerns of the navy. Two of these helicopters have already been inducted and the balance are expected to be inducted over the next two to three years. These will replace the obsolete fleet of Sea King helicopters. All the above three categories of helicopters are state-of-the-art, modern and battle-hardened machines, and will no doubt enhance the operational capabilities of the Indian military to a large extent.
However, these numbers are miniscule given the overall requirement of the military and need to be augmented further; six additional Apaches are expected to be inducted into the army in the next two to three years. It needs to be kept in mind that the Apaches, though highly lethal, are heavy duty attack helicopters and have their limitations operating in high altitude areas, the kind we have in eastern Ladakh, the current area of stand-off with China. The Apaches are most suited for supporting mechanised operations and are ideal for Strike Corps operations in plains and deserts.
The Chinooks on the other hand can operate at these altitudes and are already being employed in Eastern Ladakh. They have been used extensively during the build up of men, materiel and warlike stores in eastern Ladakh after the Galwan clashes—they have also been instrumental in externally lifting the artillery’s newly-inducted Ultra Light Howitzers (ULH) to the forward locations where road infrastructure is virtually non-existent. The Chinooks are also playing a stellar role in the urgent ongoing development of infrastructure along the LAC by transporting heavy machinery required for the same.
The induction of 24 multi-role MH-60 ‘Romeo’ Sea Hawk into the navy over the next two to three years is a major step forward and will boost the capability of the helicopter-starved naval fleet in enhancing its anti-submarine, anti-surface and search and rescue operations. The MH-60R is a formidable anti-submarine hunter and killer and can operate from frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers. The requirement of the navy is of course for many more (100 plus) helicopters of this class, but a beginning has been made. These helicopters along with the P-8Is already acquired and the Sea Guardian drones leased from the US will greatly enhance the reach and capability of the Indian Navy in the IOR and even beyond to the Indo-Pacific, especially in view of the growing interest displayed by China in IOR.
In addition to the above, the induction of almost 200 Mi-17V5 medium lift helicopters into the IAF in the last decade has been a very significant step in helicopter capability enhancement, though they are basically replacing the old and obsolete fleet of Mi-8 helicopters in the inventory. The Mi-17V5 is the more powerful version of the Mi-17 class of helicopters that entered service in the 1980’s and has better avionics, night capability and armament. The Mi-17V5 along with the existing Mi-17 fleet constitutes a major medium lift capability that the Indian military can boast of today. The above acquisitions, though very significant, are too few in numbers and relate only to a limited segment of the military helicopter inventory, basically lift/ logistics and attack.
During Aero India 2021, HAL had unveiled plans to develop a twin engine, 13-ton, multi-role medium lift helicopter for the armed forces. It was termed the Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH). Though a mock-up was displayed at the air show, HAL clarified that the project was still at a conceptual stage and awaiting government clearance. HAL has indicated that it has been working on the design since 2017. It claims that it will have IMRH ready for certification within eight years from grant of government sanction. While this move for developing an indigenous medium lift helicopter for the armed forces is timely and needs to be appreciated, the timelines for certification need to be read with caution.
There is no doubt that HAL today has the requisite expertise in designing and developing light helicopters in the three to 5.5 ton category, but to design and develop a 13 ton helicopter is a different ball game altogether. The biggest challenge before HAL will be the power plant for this helicopter. HAL has indicated that it is already in talks with some foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEM). Clearly, HAL is undertaking an important venture and will need the full support of the government and armed forces.
Critical Operational Voids
Cheetah/ Chetak Replacement: The Cheetah-Chetak helicopters form the bulk of the overall fleet of military helicopters in India with an inventory of almost 400 plus. The army alone operates more than 200 of these. Importantly, only Cheetah’s can operate and land at extremely high altitude on almost matchbox size helipads.
In the last decade plus these helicopters have been plagued by high crash rate and huge serviceability problems, resulting in loss of precious lives and equipment. This emerging operational void becomes even more significant due to the ongoing military confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh, an area where the Cheetah helicopter is playing a critical role. The ‘Cheetal’ helicopter (upgraded Cheetah) fielded by HAL as an interim measure is not a satisfactory solution in the long term, as the basic technology remains old and outdated—in any case limited numbers are being inducted, 30 for the army and 10 for the IAF.
The move to replace these helicopters goes back to 2004 when the first trial was conducted. This was followed by two more trials over the next few years. These trials had the participation of the most advanced and modern helicopters from renowned global manufacturers like Bell, Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) and Rosoboronexport, but surprisingly none of them reached their finality, mainly due to flawed procedures in our defence acquisition system and the decision-making process.
In these circumstances, the government’s decision to go in for the induction of 200 Russian Ka-226T helicopters in a government-to-government agreement in 2014 was welcomed by the armed forces with great hope. The fact that the agreement had been reached between the two heads of state—President Putin and Prime Minister Modi—further strengthened the belief that finally the long overdue replacement was in sight. HAL along with Russian Helicopters formed a joint venture, the India-Russia Helicopters Ltd for this project and as per the agreement, 60 helicopters were to be delivered in a fly away condition while the balance 140 were to be manufactured in India at HAL’s new facility at Tumkur, Karnataka.
However, even after six years of protracted discussions between HAL and Russian Helicopters, the key issues of indigenous content and cost in respect of the 140 Ka-226T helicopters to be manufactured in India remain unresolved. Add to this the threat of US sanctions under CAATSA which will affect the import of French Turbomeca Engines, which power the Ka-226T helicopter, the deal seems as good as closed even before the contract could be signed. This was evident when there was no mention of this high-profile deal during the visit of President Putin to India last year. This is a major setback to the Cheetah-Chetak replacement programme and takes the entire process back to 2004 when the first trial commenced.
Some reports suggest that India could be looking at acquiring 60 of these platforms in fly away condition keeping in mind the prevailing state of Cheetah-Chetak helicopters. However, I feel this thinking is a non-starter as these 60 helicopters will also need to be powered by the Turbomeca engines which won’t be forthcoming due to sanctions which are likely to get more severe depending on how the Ukraine crises plays out. Also, any suggestion to induct the Ka-226T with the original underpowered Russian engines should be rejected outright as their capability to operate at high altitudes will be suspect and hence operationally not acceptable.
Simultaneously, HAL’s indigenously developed LUH last year demonstrated its high-altitude capability in high and hot conditions in Ladakh and Siachen areas. The LUH is a single engine, state-of-the-art, modern-day helicopter in the three-ton class and is being developed to cater for the additional requirement for replacing the existing Cheetah-Chetak fleet of the army and the IAF along with the other project of Ka-226T which is now doubtful. The army and the IAF have already given it the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) with a caveat to address and rectify some issues that still remain.
Accordingly, the MoD has approved the series manufacture of 12 LUH’s, six each for the army and the IAF. The plans are to manufacture 187 LUHs with army getting 126 and the IAF getting 61 helicopters. With the Ka-226T project almost dead, the LUH now remains the only hope for the armed forces provided that HAL rises to the occasion in ensuring quality, quantity and timelines in the production process. However, it must be kept in mind that any new platform requires a minimum of two to three years to stabilise before its full potential can be exploited. As a result, the army and the IAF are stuck with the obsolete Cheetah-Chetak fleet and will be compelled to fly these flying coffins for another decade or maybe more. This no doubt will severely impact the operational capability of the armed forces in the coming years and the blame squarely rests at the door of MoD, which has stood idly by as a mute spectator during this entire period.
Navy’s NUH Project
While the induction of 24 MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopters over the next two to three years is certainly a boost for the navy, it does not mitigate its overall requirement, especially the replacement of its obsolete Chetak fleet. The NUH replacement process was rightly set into motion way back in 2008 but it was only in 2016 that this project came under the ‘Strategic Partnership’ model which allowed a selected foreign OEM to partner a nominated Indian private company to manufacture 111 helicopters domestically. There was an overwhelming response to this project by the private industry which included the likes of Mahindra Defence Systems, Tata Aerospace and Bharat Forge etc. Even HAL submitted a bid, a move strongly objected to by the private industry, as this would defeat the very purpose of the strategic partnership route. The NUH is required to operate from ships and carry out multiple roles including search and rescue, casualty evacuation, low intensity maritime operations and torpedo drops.
Just when things seem to be moving ahead on this crucial project the MoD has once again raised the spectre of the HAL being given a chance in view of the present thrust on ‘Aatmanirbharta’ setting the whole process back to square one. This despite the fact that the Navy has already categorically rejected the ALH due to technical issues like blade folding, stowed dimensions and heavy weight—5.5 Ton against requirement of 4.5 Ton only. The Navy currently operates about 20 ALHs for onshore operations only. So once again we see the now familiar story unfolding like in the case of the LUH with the NUH programme also getting scuttled due to poor planning, mismanagement and sheer incompetence on part of the MoD, which allowed the process to drag on despite its operational criticality. This is not good news for the Indian military, especially the Navy which will have to continue to operate its ships/frigates without the critical helicopter component, leaving a major dent and gap in its operational capability.
What is the Way Forward?
The Ka-226T replacement deal is as good as dead due the unbridgeable differences on the issues of cost and indigenous content as brought out earlier. The option of partially progressing this deal to acquire 60 Ka-226T helicopters in fly away conditions make no sense, due to existing sanctions against Russia which will deny the fitment of the French Turbomeca engines on these helicopters—these sanctions have only got more severe due Russian actions in Ukraine. Therefore, under the circumstances what are the options available to the government?
Firstly, the HAL built LUH having got the IOC and requisite certification is likely to go into production soon and we could see the first of the production series rolling out early next year. The HAL must give top priority to the LUH project and ramp up its production, while simultaneously ensuring quality. Keeping in mind HAL’s other commitments to the Forces especially related to the ALH, Rudra and the LCH, the HAL with its new infra at Tumkur should be able to manufacture 20-30 LUHs per year, provided there are no major problems confronted during production. This will ensure that the 187 LUHs planned for production by HAL will be inducted within the next 8-10 years, resulting in the replacement of at least 50 per cent of the Cheetah-Chetak fleet of army and air force. Another viable option in addition to the above could be to get 60 helicopters of the LUH class, like the American Bell 407 or Eurocopter’s/Airbus AS 350 by following the government to government, ‘Foreign Military Sales’ route for procurement, which will ensure a faster acquisition process without any roadblocks and quicker delivery schedules maybe in a period of 4-5 years—both these helicopters are time tested and have the capability of operating at high altitudes.
Similarly, with regard to the NUH, the HAL needs to lay off this project and let the Private Sector undertake this programme through the Strategic Partnership route as envisaged earlier, for which the spadework at all levels is already in place. Under the present circumstances this is the best option available, for it will not only ensure that Navy gets what it deserves but also will help in establishing a strong private industry eco system for helicopter manufacturing in the country, which will also provide a healthy competition to HAL. This will also facilitate the HAL in putting all its expertise and capacity to the Priority Projects like the LUH and the LCH and should go a long way in mitigating the current military helicopter crisis to some extent in the coming years—it will also give HAL time to concentrate on its challenging and ambitious venture of the IMRH. While Aatmanirbharta is a must for a country like India which imports 70 per cent of its weaponry, it must not be enforced at the cost of national security. The non-availability of critical weapon platforms like the LUH and NUH to the armed forces in the current dangerous security environment, can ultimately cost the nation dearly. Difficult situations require drastic and out of box solutions and measures, as well as tough and hard decisions. The government needs to consciously consider some of the options suggested above and act on them quickly in case it is serious about addressing this critical operational void facing the armed forces—not taking any action is not an option anymore, for, the flying coffins cannot last forever.