Russian Helicopter Deal on Hold – India Looks Towards Homemade Choppers
The Indian Government’s clearance of 15 indigenous Light Combat Helicopters (LCH) under Limited Series Production (LSP) from the Indian state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), coming after the announcement for 12 Light Utility Helicopters (LUH), in November 2021, is a decision steeped in wisdom and necessity.
The Indo-Russian deal valued at US$1.2Bn for 200 Ka-226T helicopters, has been put on hold pending further review, as the issue of indigenous content sharing which remains unresolved has been exacerbated by the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict resulting in crippling economic sanctions on Russia. Heavy sanctions on Kremlin have put a question mark on those defence deals which are not yet finalised. The Ka-226T chopper is fitted with twin French engines, which might be affected due to sanctions.
The inter-Governmental agreement, signed in May 2015, for the long pending deal to replace the ageing CHETAK and CHEETAH fleet of the Indian Army and Indian Air Force (IAF) could be heading towards cancellation according to Ministry of Defence (MoD) insiders.
The Indian military has been very vocal about its requirement of replacing its vintage choppers, which are paramount at high altitude for their role in reconnaissance, surveillance, evacuations, and logistic support. Recently CHEETAHs and CHETAKs celebrated their Diamond Jubilee in service. There has been a demand to replace these ageing helicopters which have served for more than 60 years.
The other probable factor affecting India’s decision to look at its homegrown products, in the wake of the conflicting geopolitical scenario affecting foreign equipment, is the prolonged Indo-China boundary standoff in eastern Ladakh, where the need for new choppers was felt to carry out high altitude operations. Former head of Indian Army Aviation Lt-Gen (Retd) BS Pawar says, “The Indian military is in a dire state as far as helicopters are concerned, as the Government and the military, both have failed. The issues in the Russian deal for Ka-226T over indigenous content and costing have not been resolved. Maintenance of the more than 60-year-old CHEETAHs is an issue and warrants immediate replacement, as these helicopters are the lifeline of Indian soldiers operating at high altitude.”
Valued at US$511.45Mn along with infrastructure cost worth US$49.6Mn, the 15 LCH deal approved by Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) recently are divided into ten for the IAF and five for Indian Army Aviation.
The locally designed and produced 5.5-ton LCH is a state-of-the-art modern attack helicopter comprising approximately 45 per cent indigenous content by value which is likely to progressively increase to more than 55 per cent for Series Production version.
Equipped with requisite agility, manoeuvrability, extended range, high altitude performance and round-the-clock, all-weather combat capability to perform roles of Combat Search & Rescue) and Destruction of Enemy Air Defence, the LCH can operate in urban and jungle warfare Counter Insurgency environment, and also against slow moving aircraft and Remotely Piloted Aircraft. These choppers are capable of successfully carrying out high altitude bunker busting operations, and support to ground forces. LCH is touted to be a potent platform and promises to meet the operational requirements of IAF and Indian Army.
Other key features of the LCH are armour protection, night attack capability and systems compatible with stealth features such as reduced visual, aural, radar and IR signatures, crash worthy landing gear for better survivability integrated for deployment in combat roles catering to emerging needs for the next four decades. LCH also boasts of several key homemade features like glass cockpit and a composite airframe structure. The future series production version will incorporate enhanced modern and indigenous systems.
The manufacturing of LCH by HAL is expected to give a further push to the nation’s Self-Reliant India (Atmanirbhar Bharat) initiative and boost indigenisation of defence production and the defence industry in the country. Production of LCH will reduce import dependence for attack helicopters in the country. LCHs are already in the import embargo list. With its versatile features built in for combat missions, LCH looks promising with its prospects in the export market too.
LCH was proposed to meet IAF’s requirement of a dedicated light helicopter for offensive operations. It shares commonalities with the existing indigenous ALH (Advanced Light Helicopter), in its feature of a narrow fuselage with a pilot and co-pilot in tandem configuration.
Under indigenous military hardware purchases cleared by the MoD’s Defence Acquisition Council in November 2021, especially noteworthy was the green signal for 12 LUHs to be produced by HAL, a deal worth US$197.37Mn.
LUH was given a go-ahead for development in 2008 by the Indian Government, as a replacement of CHETAKs and CHEETAHs. It was seen to be competing for the same space as the Ka-226T, and was given its due later by the decision that LUH would share the fifty percent burden along with Ka-226T by providing close to 200 helicopters for the Indian military, whose requirement was around 400 for all three services. LUH would assist this ambitious programme by providing half the numbers.
The new generation, indigenously designed and produced three-ton chopper equipped with a state-of-the-art Multi-Function Displays, the LUH took its first flight in 2016 and its army variant was given its initial operational clearance in February 2021. The Indian Army is expected to receive the first batch by December 2022.
Powered by a single Safran turbo shaft engine Ardiden 1U, LUH is equipped with a Smart Cockpit Display System (Glass Cockpit), state-of-the-art Health and Usage Monitoring System and is designed for various utility and armed roles. It has successfully completed its high altitude hot and cold missions in the Himalayas, with adequate power margins. The LUH has undergone rigorous trials including envelope expansion, performance and flying technicalities at high altitudes of Leh.
It may be noted, that the LUH cleared a milestone in March 2021 after successfully demonstrating its operational capability in all types of environments, mainly focused on high altitude operations, mandatory for Indian troops functioning at the China and Pakistan borders. This resulted in LUH scripting its own success story in the category of homegrown platforms, paving the way for the Indian MoD clearing the Letter of Acceptance to manufacture 12 choppers as part of the first batch.
The Indian Parliament was informed by junior Minister Ajay Bhatt about HAL’s order for manufacturing the initial four LUHs under limited series production by 2022-23, while the remaining eight LUHs to be built by 2023-24. Out of the initial quota of four helicopters, two each will go to the IAF and the Indian Army, while both services would get four LUHs each from the second batch of the limited series production. This would be followed by the manufacture of series production of the helicopters by HAL. The new production facility at Tumkur, in the southern state of Karnataka, would cater to the enhanced requirement of helicopter production.
Orders for both the indigenous LUH and LCH have tremendously boosted the Self-Reliant India (Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan) initiative under Make in India, as India continues to grow in its capability to indigenously design, develop and manufacture advanced cutting edge technologies and systems in the defence sector. Former helicopter pilot and IAF Chief (retd) Air Chief Marshal F.H.Major says, “In the present scenario it is very wise to concentrate on the LUH. It is a very good idea, as it boosts the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative, and we would no longer be dependent on others. The Government should ramp up production and induction of LUH and LCH, though LCH is a different class of helicopter, but the utility helicopters are very much required and therefore should be ramped up.”
About operational preparedness being affected due to shortage and delays, Major adds that these are catered for by the services as it is known that procurements are spread over a period of time. Lt-Gen Pawar however suggests a solution to meet the immediate needs of services, which is to lease some helicopters belonging to the same class.
Various steps taken by the Government to bolster self-reliance in the defence sector, in the past couple of years, include an increase in FDI (foreign direct investment) in defence production, thereby setting aside a dedicated budget for buying homemade military hardware and announcing two import embargo lists comprising 209 defence equipment to be enforced from 2021 to 2025.
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