Lease or perish

With no replacement in sight for ageing Chetak/Cheetah helicopters, leasing seems to be only way out

Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)

The Army Aviation Corps, the youngest arm of the Indian Army, will celebrate its 38th Raising Day on 1 November 2023. The journey of last 37 years plus with respect to its growth and modernisation has been a mixed one. While the combat potential has increased manifold and is on an upswing, the reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities have taken a major hit. The non-replacement of its accident prone, ageing and obsolete Chetak/ Cheetah fleet continues to be the biggest challenge and bottleneck the Corps faces in its modernisation drive—two decades of concerted efforts to acquire a suitable state of the art helicopter for replacement has not yielded any results, thanks to our flawed acquisition system/ process.

The armed forces, especially the army over the last two years, have been raising the red flag with the government about the Cheetah/ Chetak fleet reaching the end of their total technical life by 2023 end and the need to fast track their replacement but to no avail. The final blow to this replacement process has come with the ongoing replacement project involving the Russian Ka-226T Light Helicopter. The project is now as good as dead because of a number of reasons, the prime being the western sanctions against Russia—the French Turbomeca engines fitted on the Ka-226T are no longer available and the original Russian engines are under powered.

As a result, the Army Aviation will continue to operate these vintage and unmaintainable machines which continue to fall out of the sky at regular intervals, the latest being the fatal accident of a Cheetah helicopter in March this year in Tawang area of Arunachal Pradesh—two fatal Cheetah accidents took place last year.

In another major setback, there have been a number of accidents, some fatal, involving the HAL-developed and manufactured Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) in the last one year. Preliminary investigations have identified the root cause related to certain flaws in a specific area of its design and metallurgy connected to the Booster Control Rods. This year alone there have been three ALH accidents involving the Coast Guard, Navy and the Army, the latest being the crash landing of an Army ALH in Kishtwar area of J&K in May this year, wherein a soldier died and the two pilots were seriously injured. This has resulted in frequent grounding of the entire ALH fleet and imposition of certain restrictions on its flying hours in terms of mandatory and stringent checks to be carried out by the HAL periodically till the design issue is addressed, which could take anything from six months to a year.

While all three Services and the Coast Guard combined operate approximately 340 ALHs, including the armed version, the Army Aviation alone has in its inventory almost half the numbers. These helicopters along with the Cheetah are critical to operations on our northern borders and Siachen, especially in the context of the current standoff with China. Their limited availability will certainly impact the operational capability of the army. It is in this backdrop possibly that the army is now looking to lease about 20 state-of-the-art light observation helicopters to overcome this critical void on fast track. While this move is a too little too late, it is a welcome step in the right direction to mitigate the present operational criticality to some extent. The author in numerous articles over the last two years has been recommending the lease option as a way forward in view of the last two decades of failed procurement process for the Cheetah/ Chetak replacement.

Despite this grim situation, there has been some forward movement in the Corps thrust towards modernisation. The induction of the HAL-developed state of the art Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) into its fold last year and the likely delivery of the six Apache attack helicopters from Boeing Aerospace Ltd in the next two to three years will not only give a fillip to the modernisation thrust of the Army Aviation Corps but enhance its combat potential manifold.

However, the LCH having the same basic design features as the ALH will also have to adhere to the same restricted flying conditions. The Corps now also holds and operates all UAV assets, which were earlier in the inventory of the artillery. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) in June this year has cleared the proposal to acquire 30xMQ-9B drones, which can be armed, also called the Predator drones from the United States, for all the three Services. The navy is already operating two MQ-9B unarmed drones on lease from General Atomics of US since September 2020, which have also been extensively used on the LAC because of their outstanding surveillance capability. If the deal goes through some of these deadly drones will also form part of the inventory of the Army Aviation, giving a further boost to its overall combat capability. The Corps has also made some strides related to organisational, cadre, training and infrastructural issues. The raising of three Aviation Brigades, establishment of additional Aviation Bases on our norther borders, establishment of a world class training school for aviators called Combat Army Aviation Training School (CAATS), and the induction into its fold of the first woman aviator in May this year are few significant strides made in its growth and modernisation drive.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh during LCH’S induction ceremony in Jodhpur
Defence minister Rajnath Singh during LCH’S induction ceremony in Jodhpur


Future Prospects

Cheetah/Chetak Replacement: The Cheetah/Chetak helicopters form the bulk of overall fleet of military helicopters in India, with an inventory of almost 400 plus helicopters–the Army Aviation alone operates approximately 200 helicopters. All attempts at their replacement over the last two decades have yielded no results despite the fact that their replacement has been a critical and urgent operational requirement.

Under the present circumstances their replacement looks like a pipedream with no worthwhile options emerging, especially after the Indo-Russian joint project for 200 Ka-226T helicopters became virtually redundant because of the sanctions on Russia, affecting the availability of the French Turbomeca engines. The army was to get 134 helicopters towards its replacement plan.

The other Cheetah/Chetak replacement project is the HAL’s indigenously developed Light Utility Helicopter (LUH), which has demonstrated its high-altitude capability in Ladakh and Siachen areas. The LUH is a single engine, state of the art, modern day helicopter in the 3 Ton class. The LUH was to go into production this year at the HALs newly built helicopter complex at Tumukara, Karnataka but so far there is no news on it. The plan is to manufacture 184 LUH with the army getting 123 and the air force 61 helicopters. Even if the HAL manages to produce 20 LUHs a year, it will only partially address the requirements of the Army Aviation.

This means that the Chetaks and the Cheetahs will continue to operate with the Corps for the next 8-10 years, well beyond the end of their technical life, a nightmarish prospect in itself critically affecting the army’s operational capability. The HAL-manufactured Cheetal helicopter, basically an upgraded version of the Cheetah with a more powerful engine, is just a stop gap measure or a band aid in simple terms and does not mitigate the crises situation. Thirty Cheetals are to inducted into the army and the process has already commenced.

ALH/LCH/Apache: The Army Aviation currently operates around 150 indigenous ALHs, 76 of which are the Rudra armed helicopters, with another 30 to 40 ALHs in utility role likely to be inducted in the coming two to three years. It already is and will remain the largest operator of this class of helicopters. These helicopters are capable of operating by day and night in the plains and in high altitude regions and are currently deployed in Eastern Ladakh.

The raising of the first LCH unit in June last year is a very significant development as the LCH capability to operate at very high altitudes far surpasses that of the Apache and the Rudra, the armed ALH. Under the limited series production, five earmarked for the army have already been inducted and many more are likely to follow in the coming years. This will certainly be a force multiplier in high altitude operations and will greatly enhance the combat potential in eastern Ladakh.

Even though both the ALH and the LCH fleet are currently under restricted flying conditions and mandatory periodic checks because of design infirmities, the HAL along with Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC) should hopefully be able to address this issue within a year and thereafter carryout the requisite modification on all helicopters. The six Apaches approved for the army are likely to be inducted in 2024, with all six expected to be delivered in two to three years. The induction of the Apaches will no doubt further boost the combat power and capability of the Army Aviation Corps.

While the combat potential has greatly enhanced with the induction of above platforms and will continue to grow there is need to highlight some capability gaps in the weaponisation of both the Rudra and the LCH. The typical weapons package approved for both the Rudra and the LCH includes a Gatling gun, rockets, air to air missiles (MBDA’s ‘Mistral’) and air to ground missiles (ATGM), along with a modern sighting system and integrated electronic warfare self-protection suite.

In its present configuration both the Rudra and the LCH have not been integrated with a suitable ATGM, as the air version of Nag ATGM ‘Helina’, being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is not yet fully ready. The trials last year, though a relative success, showed that the system is yet to meet the minimum requirement of the army, which was set in 2008. The non-availability of a suitable airborne ATGM not only greatly impacts the operational capability of the Rudra but also the LCH. which is currently in the process of being inducted into the forces. The ATGM is the main weapon system of an armed/attack helicopter and without it the helicopter merely remains a gunship, inhibiting exploitation of its full potential. What is more shocking is that these helicopters also do not have the Mistral air to air missiles as their import is stuck in some bureaucratic pricing muddle for the last six years. This is an area of grave concern and needs to be addressed on a priority by all stake holders concerned.

UAVs: Another path breaking development has been the takeover of the command and control of UAVs by the Army Aviation in August 2021. Currently, the Corps operates about 30 plus Herons and Searcher Mk II UAVs and hopefully should be looking at the induction of eight to10 MQ-9B Predator drones in the foreseeable future. As per reports there plans to upgrade the Herons with advanced features and arming capability. This is an asset which will no doubt play a very critical role in future conflicts as can be seen in the Ukraine war.


Major Strides

The Army Aviation Corps has made major strides in its growth and modernisation thrust specially in the areas of tactical lift and combat capability. The induction of the ALH and Rudra and more recently the LCH has given the Corps the capability to play a very significant role in any future conflict. The design flaws identified in the ALH are no doubt an extremely serious matter and will adversely affect the flying operations of this entire fleet, but as per reports it is being addressed on a priority by the HAL and the CEMILAC. The induction of the Apache, the most lethal attack helicopter in the world, will further enhance the combat potential of the Army Aviation Corps.

However, on the flip side the Corps reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities have seen a sharp degradation because of the non-replacement of the obsolete and ageing Cheetah/ Chetak fleet and this remains the biggest challenge for the Corps in the coming years. This is a critical operational void which has serious security implications and becomes all the more glaring because of the ongoing military confrontation with China in Eastern Ladakh, which is not likely to end anytime soon.

The LUH seems to be the only hope on the horizon, but it is still a couple of years away. The numbers required for replacing the Cheetah/Chetak are large and the HAL will need to ramp up its production capacity in order to replace the fleet in the shortest possible timeframe.

However, in the present circumstances this is unlikely as the HAL will need to direct a large part of its resources towards the design review and thereafter the modification on the entire ALH fleet. The leasing option, which the army is looking at, is indeed the most viable and feasible option under the given circumstances. Keeping the gravity of the situation in mind it would be prudent for the government and the army to look at leasing of a minimum of 40 light helicopters. Even this process can take 2-3 years if all goes well.

Difficult situations require drastic and out of the box solutions and measures which the army and government must take to mitigate the criticality of the situation or else the consequences will be grave.



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