Army Avi­a­tion Turns 30 A Re­al­ity Check

The Chee­tah fa­tal ac­ci­dent on De­cem­ber 1, 2016, at Sukna Mil­i­tary Sta­tion and the sub­se­quent ground­ing of the en­tire fleet for manda­tory checks by the Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited has fur­ther eroded the con­fi­dence re­gard­ing the safety of the cur­rent flee


ON NOVEM­BER 1, 2016, the Army Avi­a­tion Corps com­pleted 30 years of its ex­is­tence since its for­ma­tion in1986. How­ever, at the end of these30 years it con­tin­ues to fly the out­dated and vintage fleet of Chee­tah/Chetak he­li­copters, is faced with a mud­dled and con­fused gov­ern­ment pol­icy on own­er­ship of at­tack he­li­copters, and has seen no progress on the ac­qui­si­tion plans for the tac­ti­cal bat­tle sup­port he­li­copters (10- to12-tonne class) to en­hance tac­ti­cal lift ca­pa­bil­ity and for spe­cial op­er­a­tions. On the plus side it has in­ducted the largest num­ber of the Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited (HAL)-built ad­vanced light he­li­copters (ALH/Dhruv) — ap­prox­i­mately 70 Dhruvs are op­er­a­tional with the Army Avi­a­tion and two units of the armed ver­sion of the Dhruv called the Ru­dra are presently un­der var­i­ous stages of rais­ing.

How­ever, the crit­i­cal is­sue of the Chee­tah/Chetak he­li­copters re­place­ment is still far cry, not­with­stand­ing the hype of the gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment deal with Rus­sia with re­gards to the Ka-226T he­li­copter, which at best would be avail­able in a time frame of three to four years, pro­vided ev­ery­thing pro­ceeds as planned. The non-avail­abil­ity of this cru­cial plat­form in ad­e­quate num­bers in the next three to four years is go­ing to se­ri­ously im­pact on the army’s high al­ti­tude op­er­a­tions and has very se­ri­ous con­se­quences for na­tional se­cu­rity. The Chee­tah fa­tal ac­ci­dent on De­cem­ber 1, 2016, at Sukna Mili-

tary Sta­tion while com­ing in to land and the sub­se­quent ground­ing of the en­tire fleet for manda­tory checks by HAL has fur­ther eroded the con­fi­dence re­gard­ing the safety of the cur­rent fleet — this af­fect is al­ready be­ing felt as the Chee­tah he­li­copters are the life­line of troops de­ployed on the Si­achen Glacier.

Chee­tah/Chetak Re­place­ment

The Chee­tah/Chetak re­place­ment pro­gramme con­tin­ues to floun­der de­spite the gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment agree­ment be­tween In­dia and Rus­sia for the sup­ply of 200 Kamov Ka-226T light he­li­copters un­der the ‘Make in In­dia’ pol­icy. Presently there is no clar­ity on as to how this project will move for­ward and both sides seem to be strug­gling to meet the chal­leng­ing ‘Make in In­dia’ re­quire­ment of build­ing 50 per cent of the he­li­copters in In­dia. While the HAL has been des­ig­nated as the nodal agency for this crit­i­cal pro­gramme along with Rus­sian He­li­copters (part of state-owned tech­nol­ogy co­op­er­a­tion ROSTEC), there are a num­ber of com­plex is­sues in­volved which need to be ad­dressed in or­der to move ahead. The re­cent state­ment of the Rus­sian He­li­copters about their work­ing with HAL to iron out the var­i­ous con­tentious is­sues and that the sign­ing of the con­tract is likely by year end is a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment,but its likely trans­for­ma­tion into realty seems a dis­tant dream in the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. The com­plex­i­ties in­volved in this project are far too many and one will have to wait and watch as to how these will be ad­dressed and re­solved even­tu­ally — the prospect of con­clud­ing a con­tract for the Ka-226T project any­time soon does not in­spire much con­fi­dence. The Ka-226T he­li­copter, how­ever, is a suit­able plat­form for re­place­ment of the Chee­tah/ Chetak fleet and has been through the com­plete trial process in In­dia along with Air­bus He­li­copter’s Fen­nec AS 550 C3 he­li­copter in 2013-14 — both he­li­copters had met all the de­sired op­er­a­tional pa­ram­e­ters.

The main is­sue in the Ka-226T deal is the over­all com­po­si­tion of the he­li­copter in terms of var­i­ous com­po­nents and sys­tems. Rus­sian He­li­copters, which has de­vel­oped the Kamov 226T, has sourced its twin en­gines (Ar­rius 2G1 which con­sti­tutes al­most one-third of the chop­per’s cost), from the French com­pany, Tur­bomeca. Other key sys­tems and avion­ics have been sourced from some other com­pa­nies in the global mar­ket. As per re­ports the Rus­sian Gov­ern­ment has ac­cepted re­spon­si­bil­ity only for in­di­genis­ing Rus­sian com­po­nents — a step which would re­sult in a short­fall of the in­di­geni­sa­tion lev­els re­quired as per the ‘Make in In­dia’ pol­icy. This also means that HAL as the nodal agency on be­half of the In­dian Gov­ern­ment will have to ne­go­ti­ate sep­a­rately with third coun­try ven­dors for in­di­genis­ing their com­po­nents and sys­tems espe­cially the en­gines.

There has how­ever been a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment on this cru­cial is­sue em­a­nat­ing from the re­cently con­cluded Farn­bor­ough Air Show. The HAL and French com­pany, Safran He­li­copter En­gines (par­ent com­pany of Tur­bomeca) have agreed to es­tab­lish in In­dia a sup­port cen­tre for he­li­copter en­gines, ca­ter­ing to their man­u­fac­tur­ing and pro­vi­sion of main­te­nance, re­pair and over­haul (MRO) fa­cil­i­ties — this joint ven­ture (JV) is ex­pected to come up this year in Goa.This JV will ini­tially cater to TM 333 and Shakti en­gines in­stalled on the HALbuilt he­li­copters like the ALH Dhruv, Ru­dra and the light com­bat he­li­copter (LCH). Shakti is more pow­er­ful than the TM 333 and is the In­dian name for Safran Ar­di­den 1H en­gine which is al­ready be­ing co-de­vel­oped with HAL and pro­duced un­der li­cence. It also seems likely that the en­gine for HAL is un­der de­vel­op­ment light util­ity he­li­copter (LUH) will sub­se­quently also form part of this JV, as Safran’s Ar­di­den 1U en­gine is al­ready fit­ted on the de­vel­op­men­tal model of LUH. How­ever, whether the Ar­rius 2G en­gines fit­ted on the Kamov 226T he­li­copters will get in­cluded in the JV re­mains to be seen, as there are many im­pon­der­ables and this vi­tal as­pect of the deal will be clear only af­ter the fi­nal con­tract is inked.

An­other fac­tor which needs to be kept in mind is that as per the gov­ern­ment agree­ment, Rus­sian He­li­copters will de­liver the first 60 he­li­copters in fly­away con­di­tion — these would be as­sem­bled en­tirely in Rus-

There seems to be no clar­ity on the fate of the lat­est re­quest for in­for­ma­tion (RFI) which was is­sued for the never end­ing re­con­nais­sance and sur­veil­lance he­li­copters (RSH) pro­gramme for 197 he­li­copters

sia, with lit­tle scope for in­di­geni­sa­tion. That would also be the case with the next 40 or so he­li­copters, shipped as kits from Rus­sia to be as­sem­bled in In­dia. This leaves a bal­ance 100 he­li­copters for meet­ing the 50 per cent ‘Make in In­dia’ goals over the en­tire fleet of 200. It is un­der­stood that some In­dian pri­vate com­pa­nies may also be part of this pro­gramme, espe­cially to build Kamov 226T com­po­nents and sys­tems in In­dia. It is im­por­tant to note that this he­li­copter has en­tered ser­vice only in 2002 and has very lit­tle scope for ex­port — presently it is in ser­vice with the Rus­sian mil­i­tary only and has no foot­print in the civil mar­ket. Keep­ing in mind the com­plex­ity of the case it is any­body’s guess whether this project will ever see the light of the day.

In the mean­time there seems to be no clar­ity on the fate of the lat­est re­quest for in­for­ma­tion (RFI) which was is­sued for the never end­ing re­con­nais­sance and sur­veil­lance he­li­copters (RSH) pro­gramme for 197 he­li­copters on Oc­to­ber 31, 2014, in a ‘Buy and Make (In­dian)’ ap­proach. This pro­gramme en­vis­aged a cer­tain num­ber of he­li­copters to be sup­plied by the se­lected orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­turer (OEM) in fly­away con­di­tion and the re­main­ing num­bers to be built at a pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity in In­dia, by an In­dian part­ner through li­censed trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy. Es­sen­tially, this RFI en­vis­aged iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of prob­a­ble In­dian ven­dors (pri­vate or pub­lic), in­clud­ing those who would form joint ven­tures and es­tab­lish pro­duc­tion ar­range­ments with an OEM so as to pro­vide the he­li­copters, fol­lowed by li­censed pro­duc­tion in the coun­try. How­ever, the Kamov 226T agree­ment has left the fate of the 197 RSH project hang­ing in bal­ance with no clar­ity from the gov­ern­ment so far — while the RSH project has not been can­celled, to­tal con­fu­sion reigns in the in­dus­try and the armed forces re­gard­ing its fu­ture in­volv­ing 197 he­li­copters.

HAL Ven­tures

The pro­duc­tion of the Chee­tah and Chetak he­li­copters by HAL has vir­tu­ally come to halt and the pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity closed. In fact the non-avail­abil­ity of spares to keep the cur­rent fleet ser­vice­able is the big­gest chal­lenge be­fore the HAL and the Army Avi­a­tion. As an in­terim mea­sure the HAL has fielded the Chee­tal an up­graded ver­sion of the Chee­tah he­li­copter with a more pow­er­ful en­gine. It is un­der­stood that 30 Chee­tals will be pro­duced by HAL (20 for the In­dian Army and 10 for the Air Force) in the next two to three years as an in­terim mea­sure to over­come the on­go­ing crit­i­cal­ity for high al­ti­tude op­er­a­tions. How­ever, with the air­frame re­main­ing the same, safety and reli­a­bil­ity will re­main ma­jor con­cerns.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, HAL’s new LUH project (3-tonne class) which is ex­pected to make its first flight this month seems to be on track. Ac­cord­ing to HAL pro­jec­tions, the LUH would com­plete flight cer­ti­fi­ca­tion by mid2017 and en­ter pro­duc­tion by the year-end. HAL is re­quired to pro­vide 187 LUHs in the over­all re­quire­ment of 400 plus he­li­copters by the armed forces in this cat­e­gory — these will be built at HAL’s new fa­cil­ity at Tu­makuru (about 150 km from Bengaluru), where the foun­da­tion stone was laid by the Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi in Jan­uary this year.

It is im­por­tant to note that the HAL’s main fo­cus re­mains the LUH and the cov­eted light com­bat he­li­copter (LCH) projects with the LCH slated to get the ini­tial op­er­a­tional clarence by end of this year. The LCH is a state-of-the-art at­tack he­li­copter ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing at high al­ti­tudes and com­pares with the best in the world — it re­cently par­tic­i­pated in Air Force’s Iron Fist air power ex­er­cise and demon­strated its fire­power and ma­noeu­vring ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The LCH is ex­pected to cater to the re­quire­ments of Army and Air Force to the tune of 114 and 65 re­spec­tively and will be a game changer espe­cially for op­er­a­tions in the moun­tains — an ideal as­set for Kargil-like sit­u­a­tions.

The HAL is also ex­pected to en­sure that it meets the Prime Min­is­ter’s di­rec­tive to roll out the first LUH by end of 2017. The suc­cess of the LUH pro­gramme in the time frame en­vis­aged above may spell the death knell for the Ka-226T, if no head­way is made for ne­go­ti­at­ing the con­tract by end of this year. The gov­ern­ment may be needs to si­mul­ta­ne­ously keep the RSH pro­gramme also go­ing for­ward to cater for in­or­di­nate de­lays and bot­tle­necks in the Ka-226T project. In ad­di­tion, HAL’s he­li­copter di­vi­sion is also fully in­volved in meet­ing its cur­rent and fu­ture obli­ga­tions to the Ser­vices in terms of large orders for ad­di­tional ALHs and Ru­dras, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously ad­dress­ing their crit­i­cal main­te­nance and ser­vice­abil­ity is­sues. It is crys­tal clear from the above that HAL’s He­li­copter Di­vi­sion has al­ready bit­ten more than it can chew and hence will it have the com­mit­ment and time to ful­fil its obli­ga­tions to­wards the cru­cial Ka-226T pro­gramme.

Cur­rent Sta­tus and Prob­lem Ar­eas

The army to­day holds the largest in­ven­tory of he­li­copters in the In­dian mil­i­tary (300 plus) and these num­bers will con­tinue to grow with ad­di­tional Dhruvs and Ru­dras be­ing in­ducted in the com­ing decade — the Army Avi­a­tion is ex­pected to have a fleet of ap­prox­i­mately 200 Dhruvs and Ru­dras in the com­ing years. The army is also look­ing at in­duct­ing 114 LCHs to cater to its re­quire­ments in the moun­tains and high al­ti­tude ar­eas. How­ever, a ma­jor short­com­ing with the Ru­dra and the un­der de­vel­op­ment LCH is that in their cur­rent con­fig­u­ra­tion they do not have a suit­able anti-tank guided mis­sile (ATGM), the main weapon sys­tem of an at­tack/armed he­li­copter. The air ver­sion of the indigenously de­vel­oped Nag ATGM, the Helina be­ing de­vel­oped by DRDO is not likely to be ready in the near fu­ture, leav­ing a crit­i­cal void in the op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity of these two types of he­li­copters. As an in­terim mea­sure the MoD had cleared the fit­ment of three ini­tial Ru­dra units with an ATGM ex im­port. Ac­cord­ingly, tri­als were con­ducted and com­pleted about three years back but noth­ing seems to have come of it — in con­tention were the PARS 3 of MBDA France and Spike-ER of Is­rael. This is­sue needs to be ad­dressed on pri­or­ity for an armed/at­tack he­li­copter with­out an ATGM merely re­mains a gun­ship thereby in­hibit­ing the ex­ploita­tion of its full po­ten­tial.

A ma­jor set­back to the Army Avi­a­tion plans for trans­for­ma­tion has been the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to give the 22 Apaches Mark III (Guardian) at­tack he­li­copters be­ing ac­quired from US (Boe­ing) to the Air Force, de­spite the ear­lier de­ci­sion of the gov­ern­ment on the is­sue of own­er­ship of at­tack he­li­copters be­ing in the Army’s favour. Fur­ther, with the indigenously de­vel­oped LCH in­duc­tion around the cor­ner the army’s pro­jec­tion of ad­di­tional 33 Apaches is not likely to see the light of day. The Army Avi­a­tion will have re­sign to the idea of not hav­ing these state-of-the-art at­tack he­li­copters (the best in the world) as part of their in­ven­tory for em­ploy­ment with the Strike Corps.


With the cur­rent dis­mal state of the Chetak and Chee­tah fleet and se­ri­ous main­te­nance and safety con­cerns, the writ­ing is clearly on the wall. The main­te­nance of this fleet has now be­come a night­mare. As per re­ports, a ma­jor fall­out of this sit­u­a­tion has been fewer vol­un­teers opt­ing for the Army Avi­a­tion Corps, an elite arm of the In­dian Army. In fact, in an ar­ti­cle in In­dia To­day last year the wives of the army avi­a­tors had ex­pressed their con­cern over the safety of their hus­bands con­tin­u­ing to fly these out­dated ma­chines. Some avi­a­tion ex­perts have even gone to the ex­tent of la­belling them as ‘Fly­ing Coffins’. There is un­der­stand­able dis­quiet on this mat­ter within In­dia’s mil­i­tary avi­a­tion fra­ter­nity which needs to be taken se­ri­ous note of, as this gravely im­pinges on op­er­a­tional pre­pared­ness.The Ka-226T is a suit­able re­place­ment plat­form and more im­por­tantly has proved its prow­ess in high al­ti­tude op­er­a­tions dur­ing tri­als. The gov­ern­ment must work with the Rus­sian Gov­ern­ment in a time-bound man­ner in re­solv­ing all is­sues how­so­ever com­plex and sign the con­tract by the end of this year or else it will be an­other crit­i­cal de­fence deal gone awry and the op­er­a­tional con­se­quences far too se­ri­ous. The HAL also needs to en­sure that the LUH project meets its time­lines and is avail­able for in­duc­tion in the first half of 2018.

The LCH is a state-ofthe-art at­tack he­li­copter ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing at high al­ti­tudes and com­pares with the best in the world — it re­cently par­tic­i­pated in Air Force’s Iron Fist air power ex­er­cise and demon­strated its fire­power and ma­noeu­vring ca­pa­bil­i­ties

In­dian Army’s Dhruv he­li­copter

In­dian Army’s ad­vanced light he­li­copters (ALH) in flight (left); Ru­dra ALH-WSI (right)

Need of the hour: AH-64D Apache Long­bow at­tack he­li­copter (top) and Ka-226T light multi-role he­li­copter (above)

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