Promises to Keep

Russian Helicopters and partners sign MoU to localise Ka-226T production

Rohan Ramesh

For some reason, the three iconic names in helicopter designing are all Russian – Igor Sikorsky, Nikolai Kamov and Mikhail Mil. The series of helicopters that bear their last names are today among the most formidable rotary machines used by the world. And Russians continue to be world leaders in designing state-of-the-art helicopters, along with the Americans.

President, Russian Helicopters, Andrey Boginsky at a MoU signing ceremony at Aero India 2019

Helicopters were first envisioned by the Chinese in the fourth century A.D. But it was only a century ago that the first crude prototypes were experimented with. It was in the intervening period between World War I and II that the Americans and Russians feverishly began trying out various designs.

While air forces looked upon helicopters with some disdain, busy as they were in quest for the fastest and the most agile fighters and long-range bombers that could carry the heaviest payload, navies, notably of the US, began looking at the helicopter as a versatile aviation addition to their flotillas. The helicopters’ qualities and potential were exciting. They were light enough for armed vessels to carry on their decks, could be used for rescue, airborne advance warning, and most importantly, in anti-submarine attack role.

And by the end of World War II, and in the Fifties and Sixties, rotary-winged aircraft evolved as a species on their own, as their qualities of being able to take of land on minimal landing strips and to navigate through difficult and dangerous terrain began to be recognised.

As heavier helicopters began to be manufactured, the helicopters began to be valued for their advantages of being troop carriers.

And the next step in the evolution of the helicopter was but natural if radical - as gunships. The use of copters in this role, in the Vietnam War by the Americans and much later in Afghanistan by the Russians gave the rotary-winged aircraft a fearsome avatar not conceived before.

That explains the importance of armed forces the world over, including the Indian Navy.

India, too, has been placing due importance on acquiring advanced helicopters, apart from its own indigenous effort of producing them, both Indian versions as well as licensed production. Its air force and navy now operate Russian Mil and Kamovs, apart from the US-made Apaches and Chinooks.

The Pressing Naval Need

The Indian Navy’s role and operational needs are increasing. The smallest of the three arms, the navy was the most neglected. But over the last two decades, the geostrategic changes in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has placed an enormous onus on the navy. The expansionist vision of the Chinese Navy and the increase in the strength of the Pakistan Navy require the beefing up of the Indian Navy both in terms of its fleet as well as its air arm.

The Indian Navy urgently requires increasing its helicopter fleet, whose operational availability is just about 20 per cent of its requirement. Its utility Chetaks need to be phased out and so is the case with Sea Kings, which are fit to be discontinued.

In 2017, the ministry of defence (MoD) issued an initial request for information for the procurement of 111 Naval Utility Helicopters. Finally, in February this year, the MoD issued an Expression of Interest (EoI) for the supply of 111 naval utility helicopters (NUH). Aimed at replacing the Chetak fleet in the Indian Navy, the new helicopter is to be utilised for search and rescue missions, communication duties, sub-surface targeting and low-intensity maritime operations.

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