Fresh 197 light RSH chopper bids invited
Will the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF) finally get the light helicopters they so desperately need, to augment and replace their obsolescent fleet of Cheetah and Chetak LUHs? After cancelling the reconnaissance and surveillance helicopter (RSH) helicopter procurement process during the final lap earlier this year, the process has been rebooted and officially declared open. The request for information (RFI), as reported by SP’s in September, will be a ‘Buy & Make (India)’ procurement, with a certain number of helicopters built and supplied by the winning OEM in flyaway condition, with the remaining number built at a production line in India by an Indian partner through licensed transfer of technology.
The RFI, released on October 31, envisages a far swifter movement through the motions to make up for the huge delays and impact the two scrappings have had on the armed forces. This is made clear: “This RFI is being issued with the aim of identifying probable Indian vendors (including an Indian company forming joint venture establishing production arrangement with OEM) who can provide the helicopters followed by licensed production/ indigenous manufacture in the country.”
While the RFI does not indicate any change in the number of helicopters required (133 for the Army and 64 for the IAF), in a break from the earlier requirement, it does not make a single engine platform compulsory, instead inviting information from prospective vendors about the engine configuration of its fielded product. That in itself widens the field of play considerably, though the largely similar mission profiles and other parameters restrict it to products that have at various junctures shown interest in the competition. The set of missions for the RSH platform include: (a) Reconnaissance and surveillance, including armed reconnaissance; (b) Direction of artillery fire; (c) Carry small body of troops/quick reaction teams for special missions; (d) Aerial photography; (e) Scout role in conjunction with attack helicopter; (f) airborne forward air controller (FAC), if required; (g) Casualty evacuation; (h) NBC monitoring; (j) Platform for ESM, ECM and ECCM etc; (k) Provide dynamic response during aid to civil authorities.
While Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter) and Kamov, the two finalists in the last RSH effort that was scrapped in August, have not confirmed if they will be participating in the fresh competition, it is likely they will – the sheer numbers in the contest are hard to pass over even when seen in the perspective of the misgivings the vendors have had with lack of clarity, arbitrary decision-making and last-minute surprises in the last two attempts in the RSH procurement. Broadly speaking, taking purely the technical requirements into view, the prospective contenders for the fresh competition would reboot old exclusions to now include the AS 550 C3 Fennec from the Airbus stable, the Kamov Ka-226T Sergei from Russia, a militarised scout version of the AW119 Koala LUH from Agusta-Westland and a modified version of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior from US firm Bell Helicopter.
The RFI broadly also sets out the production plan for the new RSH as follows: “It is envisaged that initial few quantities of helicopters will be supplied in fully formed condition. Further manufacture of helicopters by the vendor within the country in keeping with the requirement of 30 per cent indigenous content is envisaged within 3-4 years after the contract is signed. Vendor to indicate specifically the earliest timeframe within which it can meet this requirement. If not, what is the earliest timeframe in which the vendor can commence delivering the helicopters manufactured within the country. Vendor to also indicate as to what is the annual production capability it can achieve in keeping with the above requirement?”
Vendors have until Christmas to respond to the Army on what they plan to field for the competition. The Army and IAF already have extensive data on the Fennec, Sergei and offerings from Bell, which were demonstrated during RSH I. The new horse in the race could be the AW119 Koala, which is also to be fielded in the rebooted NUH programme. If in fact the new RSH programme indeed keeps an open field for twin-engine helicopters, the light-twin AW119 could be allowed to compete.
All things considered, a degree of fatigue has set in for the Army and IAF (the Navy’s plans for LUH replacement are younger but no less urgent), that have grappled for just over a decade trying to get new light helicopters, coming tantalisingly close on two occasions, only to see new equipment swiped from under their nose for a combination of reasons. This time, the slow but steady nose-dive of RSH II made the end more painful, giving the IAF and Army more time to plan their next move, but ultimately hamstrung as far as force accretion is concerned. There is every hope that the ‘urgent’ theme of the RSH III really intends to deliver equipment quickly to the Army and IAF. There is not a moment to lose.