The Jinx Continues

Indian military’s helicopter replacement programmes remain stuck in bureaucratic apathy

BS PawarLt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)

Let me start on a positive note before I bring out the reality of the dismal state of the Indian military helicopter fleet. The induction of 22 AH-64E state of art Apache attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F Chinook multi-mission heavy lift helicopters, both the most modern and best in their respective categories in the world, into the Indian Air Force in the last two years, will no doubt enhance the operational capabilities of the Indian military but only to a limited extent.

These numbers are miniscule compared to our adversary in the north and will need to be augmented further, even though additional six Apache are expected to be inducted into the army in the next two to three years. More importantly, the Apache are heavy duty attack helicopters and cannot operate at high altitudes like the terrain we have in eastern Ladakh, the site of the current standoff with China, despite the optics of showing an Apache flying at Leh airfield sometime back, which was widely broadcasted by both our print and TV media. The reality is that the Apache are most suited for supporting mechanised operations and are ideal for Strike Corps operations in the plains and deserts.

The Chinooks, on the other hand, can operate at these altitudes and are already being employed in eastern Ladakh. In addition, the induction of almost 200 Mi-17V5 medium lift helicopters into the IAF in the last decade has been a very significant development in the helicopter capability enhancement, though they are basically replacing the old and obsolete fleet of Mi-8 helicopters held 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 constitute a major medium lift capability that the Indian military can boast of today. As a matter of interest, the Mi-17V5 are currently also being used for VVIP duties.

ALH Rudra

The icing on the cake has been the approval for induction of 24 multi-role MH-60 ‘Romeo’ Seahawk helicopters from the US for the Indian Navy, which presently has 80 per cent of its ships/ frigates without the critical element of onboard helicopters for anti-submarine, anti-surface and search and rescue operations. The MH-60R is a formidable anti-submarine hunter-killer and will replace the ageing and the obsolete fleet of Sea King helicopters. These 24 helicopters will be inducted over a period of next two years.

The requirement of the navy is of course for many more (100 plus) helicopters of this class, but a beginning has been made and these helicopters along with the P8Is already acquired and the two Sea Guardian Drones acquired from the US on lease 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. The above listed acquisitions, though significant indeed, are too few in numbers and relate only to a limited segment of the military helicopter inventory, basically the lift/ logistics and attack.


SOS to the MoD

The major issue being faced by the armed forces is the non-replacement of the ageing and virtually obsolete Cheetah/ Chetak fleet of light observation and surveillance helicopters which are reaching the end of their Total Technical Life by the end of next year. France, the country of original equipment manufacturer of Aloutte-II & III (Cheetah & Chetak in India) already displays these helicopters in museums.

Last year, the armed forces once again raised the alarm (SOS) to the ministry of defence (MoD) of the fast-emerging critical operational void in this class of helicopters and the urgent need to fast-track their replacement–a demand which they have been reiterating for the last 15 years but to no avail. This aspect was highlighted extensively in the print and television media last year as well.

As a consequence of complete inaction, the Indian armed forces continue to fly the outdated, vintage and accident-prone fleet of Cheetah/ Chetak helicopters which keep falling out of the skies on a regular basis, exacting a heavy toll in terms of men and material thereby earning the now famous tag of flying coffins along with the MiG-21 fighter aircraft. The latest in this sordid saga was the fatal crash of the Cheetah helicopter in September last year while on an operational training sortie in Bhutan, in which both the pilots died; one being from the Royal Bhutan Army. This will no doubt go down as another statistical data in the aircraft accident records of MoD with business as usual, and no urgency being displayed to replace these flying coffins. The sustainability and maintainability of this obsolete fleet is a serious issue and major cause of concern today as it impinges on the national security and operational preparedness of the armed forces.

This class of helicopters forms the bulk of the fleet in the military helicopter inventory with almost 400 plus machines. The Army alone operates 200 plus Cheetah/ Chetak helicopters. The most crucial and critical factor is that only the Cheetah’s can operate and land at these very high altitudes on almost matchbox-size helipads. To speak in a literal sense, the highest such helipad, Sonam, is at 19,800 feet on the Siachen Glacier. These helicopters were inducted in the late 1960s and 1970s. They are not only no longer fit for flying, but are plagued by a 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. Add to this the fact that the Cheetah helicopter is the lifeline of troops deployed on the Siachen Glacier and the gravity of the current situation becomes crystal clear.

The ‘Cheetal’ helicopter (upgraded Cheetah) fielded by HAL as an interim measure is not a satisfactory solution for the long term, as the basic technology remains old and outdated. Cheetal basically has a more powerful engine with an upgraded gearbox to absorb the additional power, but the airframe and numerous other features remain the same. In any case, limited numbers are being inducted–30 for the army and 10 for IAF. It is also no secret that majority of the naval ships today are operating without an essential operational component on board–the helicopter–, as the obsolete Chetaks are no longer available for flying.

Apache-AH-64E helicopter

The Great Merry-Go-Round

The army and IAF need approximately 400 helicopters to replace the existing fleet of Cheetah and Chetak as well as cater to operational voids. The move to replace these helicopters goes back to 2004 when the first trial was conducted but got mired in controversy due to anonymous complaints, which was the normal tactic during that period to derail critical ongoing trials.

This was followed by two more trials conducted over the next few years, but these too sadly met the same fate, and the replacement process was back to square one. These trials had the participation of the most advanced and modern helicopters from Bell, Eurocopter (now Airbus) and Rosoboronexport. Surprisingly none of them reached their finality due to flawed procedures in our defence acquisition system and the decision-making process moving at the pace of files in the MoD. In fact, the Ka-226T was also part of the last trials which were terminated prematurely in 2014.

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 therefore a welcome step, having witnessed the fate of the earlier trials. However, the progress on this crucial project has also been tardy to say the least. Even six years after the agreement between the two governments at the level of President Putin and Prime Minister Modi, the contract has still not been signed. Our bureaucratic system has stumped even the Prime Minister’s decision.

HAL is the nodal agency along with Russian Helicopters for this project and as per the agreement, 60 helicopters will be delivered in a fly away condition while the balance 140 will be manufactured in India at HAL’s new facility in Tumkur, Karnataka. The contract was to be signed in 2019, but there seems to have been no progress on the same to date, highlighting India’s lethargic approach to the defence equipment acquisition process, even when it is operationally critical.

As per reports, the main problem relates to indigenous levels being offered by Russia which is not acceptable to India. The Ka-226T is a light multirole, twin engine, coaxial contra-rotating helicopter and has the capability to operate in hot and high conditions including the Siachen Glacier. It will be a suitable replacement for the Cheetah/ Chetak helicopters and hence its induction and production need to be fast tracked. The army will get 135 helicopters while the IAF is slated to get the balance 65.

The other replacement project is HAL’s indigenously developed LUH which recently demonstrated its high-altitude capability in high and hot conditions in Ladakh and Siachen areas. The LUH is a single engine, state of art, modern day helicopter in the three-tonne class with a standard main and tail rotor configuration and has been developed to cater to the replacement of Cheetah/ Chetak fleet of all three services along with the Ka-226T.

This project was sanctioned in 2009 by the government and was given a timeline of six years for achieving the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) for the basic version which should have been 2015. This would have ensured timely replacement for Cheetah/ Chetak. Clearly, HAL has not covered itself in glory either. It is therefore ironical that the army has given it the IOC only in February this year and that too with a caveat to rectify two major issues still existing on the LUH keeping in mind the current critical situation. As per HAL, the LUH is expected to go into production early next year at its Tumkur facility. The plans are to manufacture 184 LUH. The army will get 123 and the IAF 61 helicopters. While the Ka-226T project presently remains mired in uncertainty, the LUH production by HAL is likely to be a reality by early next year which is a positive development in the current dismal situation.

The third critical project is the replacement of the obsolete Chetak helicopters with a Naval Utility Helicopter, a process which was set into motion in 2008. However, it was only in 2016 that the ‘Strategic Partnership’ concept was introduced in the DPP with the aim to create capabilities in the private sector for manufacturing of key defence technologies including military helicopters. The navy’s NUH programme became one of the first helicopter projects to be progressed through the SP route in 2016. 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.

In this project, an Indian private sector company was required to tie up with a foreign helicopter company to manufacture 111 NUH for the navy under the Prime Minister’s ‘Make in India’ push. Unfortunately, as is always the case in our confused and lethargic defence acquisition system, the next couple of years were spent on clarifying and defining the Strategic Partnership concept itself, by various committees leading to avoidable and unnecessary delays which have resulted in a critical void in navy’s operational preparedness today.

There was a ray of hope in early 2019, when an expression of interest was issued by the navy for the purchase of 111 NUHs. There was an overwhelming response from the private industry to the request for information, with the likes of Mahindra Defence Systems, Tata Aerospace, Bharat Forge etc and even HAL submitting two bids with respect to the ALH and the Ka-226T helicopters. HAL’s bids were strongly objected to by the private industry as this would defeat the very purpose of the SP route.

Just when things seem to be moving ahead on the crucial front of NUH, the defence ministry once again raised the spectre of HAL being given a chance in view of the present thrust on ‘Atmanirbharta’. This, despite the fact that the navy had already categorically rejected the ALH due to technical issues like blade folding, stowed dimensions and heavy weight–5.5 tonne against the requirement of 4.5 tonne only.

The navy currently operates about 20 ALHs for onshore operations only. This is not good news for the navy as well as the private industry which was looking forward to establishing along with HAL a sound and solid eco-system for helicopter manufacturing in India. The babudom once again succeeded in scuttling a vital and urgent project under the garb of atmanirbharta (self-reliance) for they couldn’t care a damn about the country’s defence preparedness. Hope good sense prevails and the defence minister overrules the babudom’s totally unprofessional approach to national security and permits the NUH project to continue under the SP route. To say that in the current security environment time is crucial, would be stating the obvious.


Some Other Critical Gaps

A very major critical gap and shortcoming in the armed forces operational capability is the non-availability of the full weapons package for its armed variant of the ALH called the ‘Rudra’ which is already in service with army and IAF and the much-touted Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) which is expected to enter service this year as per HAL claims.

The LCH is a typical attack helicopter with the stated capability to operate at high altitudes. 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 (DRDO ‘Helina’), along with a modern sighting system and integrated electronic warfare self-protection suite.

However, in its present configuration both the Rudra and LCH have not been integrated with a suitable ATGM, as the air version of Nag ATGM ‘Helina’, being developed by the DRDO is not yet fully ready. The Helina Project was sanctioned in 2008 to equip the Rudra and LCH with a state of art anti-tank missile system. However, in the past 13 years it has just been able to reach the termination stage of design & development phase. The recent trials in February this year were a relative success though 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 project of HAL. The ATGM is the main weapon system of an armed/ attack helicopter. Without it the helicopter merely remains a gunship, inhibiting the exploitation of its full potential. This is an area of grave concern and needs to be addressed on priority by all stakeholders, especially the armed forces senior leadership. All previous efforts to acquire a suitable ATGM through import have come to a naught due to stonewalling by DRDO giving false hopes and assurances, which they have not been able to fulfil, leaving the armed forces high and dry.

Even more shocking is that these helicopters still do not have the Mistral air to air missiles. Their import is stuck in some bureaucratic pricing muddle for the last six years. The situation is both unimaginable and beyond belief. Here the armed forces top brass is equally responsible for letting such a state-of-affairs to continue despite the current operational scenario. Why are they allowing the bureaucrats to dictate terms on such an important operational issue? Why have they not used the emergency financial powers to overcome this bottleneck?

ALH Dhruv helicopter operating in the Kupwara sector of Jammu & Kashmir


The replacement of the obsolete and ageing Cheetah/ Chetak fleet remains the biggest challenge for the government and the military. The armed forces have raised alarms from time to time and have finally warned the government of this critical operational void which has serious security implications. This becomes all the more relevant due to the ongoing military confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh which is already a year old and not likely to end anytime soon.

Keeping in mind the criticality of the situation, the government needs to push both the Ka-226T and the LUH projects on fast track through the HAL. The contract for the Ka-226T project needs to be signed at the earliest. The numbers required are large as brought out earlier and HAL will need to ramp up its production capacity at its facility at Tumkur for these two types of helicopters in the shortest possible timeframe. It can take anything from five to seven years for the complete replacement of the inventory of army and the IAF provided there are no further bureaucratic delays.

With regards to the NUH, HAL needs to lay off this project and let the private sector undertake this programme through the SP route. HAL already has its hands full with three important and crucial helicopter projects, namely the Ka-226T, LUH and the LCH which are likely to go into production next year. Moreover, HAL already has sufficient orders for the ALH and Rudra for all three Services, which it will need to honour as per the given timelines. It is time the government take some tough decisions in this unending replacement saga. Else, it will have to pay a heavy price for this critical operational void.



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