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Insight: Indian helicopter dreams produce nightmares


Nov 1, 2010
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Insight: Indian helicopter dreams produce nightmares

The Indian military’s seemingly endless pursuit of new helicopters is a sorry tale of woe for both the armed forces and for foreign OEMs wanting to cash in on this large market. Attempting to make sense of where current requirements are at, Shephard spoke to a number of helicopter companies at DefExpo 2018 earlier this month and was told of five major requirements.

First is the Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) project, where 111 aircraft to be built under the ‘Make in India’ policy are needed for the Indian Navy (IN). The NUH is a 4.5-5t intermediate-class helicopter, and an RfI was issued on 22 August 2017.

Ashish Saraf, VP of Airbus Helicopters’ industry development, strategic partnerships and offsets, said his company has responded with two options: the higher-end AS565 MBe Panther and the H135M as a lower-cost option. Saraf said both platforms meet specifications, and that this NUH requirement was presently a key focus for the OEM in India.

Airbus has partnered with Mahindra Defence Systems, and the company is offering to close its Panther assembly line in Marseilles and set it up in India to serve global demand. Saraf said a decision on transfer of technology to India is expected later this year.

It is known that Airbus will be competing with, but not limited to, the Sikorsky S-76 and navalised versions of the Kamov Ka-226T and Bell 429.

Christophe Nurit, Sikorsky’s VP of Asia-Pacific sales and marketing, informed Shephard that the Japan Coast Guard uses the S-76 for maritime tasks similar to those envisioned by the IN. Sikorsky created a joint venture with Tata, known as Tata Sikorsky Aerospace Limited, that has built 120 S-92 cabins so far.

A second current requirement is 16-24 Multirole Helicopters (MRH) of 10t size to replace Sea Kings in the navy. Required for anti-submarine warfare tasks, Nurit said Sikorsky is awaiting the government to either launch a competitive tender or pursue a foreign military sale with the US government.

After responding to an RfP in 2011, Sikorsky had been selected in December 2014 to supply 16 S-70B Seahawks with an option for eight extras. Alas, after these had still not been contracted by last year and the price could not be maintained, Sikorsky retracted its offer.

Sikorsky is now offering its MH-60R for this pressing MRH need. Nurit highlighted that Romeos could be delivered off a hot production line and India would benefit immensely from USN useage, technology and common training.

Third on the cards is the NMRH project, where the IN wants 123 naval helicopters, of which the first 16 would be obtained off the shelf and technology would be transferred for local production of the rest. Airbus Helicopters responded to the 22 August 2017 RfI by offering the H225M. However, others like Sikorsky will only define a specific platform once further specifications are outlined in a future RfP.

Fourth is the long-running Reconnaissance and Surveillance Helicopter (RSH) programme that has ebbed and flowed over the years. Indeed, this saga illustrates the immense frustration of Western companies doing business in India, after the MoD abruptly cancelled its twice-run tender for 197 RSHs. The government instead announced it was going to buy 200 Kamov Ka-226Ts via a direct dealwith the Russian government.

The Ka-226Ts will replace Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian Army Chetak (Alouette III) and Cheetah (SA-315B) helicopters dating from the 1960s. With Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) expected to licence-build 140 Ka-226Ts in India, their unit cost could be up to double that of those imported directly from Russia.

With India requiring 400 light helicopters in this RSH class, and with Kamov confirming just 200 of these to date, Western OEMs still sense an opportunity. Airbus is therefore continuing to offer the H125M Fennec, for example.

A fifth requirement concerns the Indian Coast Guard (ICG). Airbus Helicopters suffered from India’s serpentine procurement processes, missing out on sealing a contract for 14 H225Ms. After extending its price offer nine times, Airbus understandably declined to extend a tenth time.

Now in abeyance as a victim of shortfalls in government funding, Airbus hopes the ICG’s competition will be rerun. As part of its offer, the company was offering to establish a performance-based logistics facility in Goa. Sikorsky is countering with its S-92, although Nurit acknowledged that ‘the best product is not always the cheapest’.

The constant on-again, off-again nature of Indian procurements is a constant frustration to vendors. The MoD can, at will, cancel tenders or agonisingly prolong them. While this is typically due to the tortuous nature of Indian defence procurements, there are some who question whether they are not intentional.

Perhaps the brightest spot in Indian helicopter programmes is the purchase of 22 Boeing AH-64E Apaches and 15 CH-47F Chinooks for the IAF. First deliveries of each type are schedule for mid-2019.

Amidst a turf war between the IAF and Indian Army, more Apaches are expected after the MoD approved in May 2017 the acquisition of 39 AH-64Es for three Army Aviation Corps squadrons to join army strike formations. A first order for six aircraft is anticipated by Boeing.

India has a domestic helicopter design and production capacity via HAL, but the state-owned monolith’s platforms have struggled to attract any overseas interest plus they have not been uniformly applauded by India’s armed services either because of delays and performance issues.

HAL exhibited a static Rudra armed helicopter at DefExpo 2018, while others performed a flypast along The Rudra type, a Mk4 version of the Dhruv, was first handed over to the army in 2013, and its current order book is for 78 aircraft. However, no antitank missile is yet available.

Three Light Combat Helicopters (LCH), also from the HAL stable, flew at DefExpo 2018. Four prototypes are in existence and 179 are required in total. In December, HAL announced that it had received an RfP for the first 15 limited-series LCHs for the army and IAF.

The LCH conducted live firings of Mistral ATAM air-to-air missiles in late 2017. The LCH can carry four such missiles, while the Rudra can carry just two. Negotiations between the MoD and MBDA on missile pricing were reported to be taking place late last year.

A single Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) from HAL also performed at DefExpo 2018. Two prototypes exist, with PT-2 appearing in the Chennai exhibition. A third prototype will only be produced if significant improvements are required, a HAL spokesperson told Shephard. Production of the LUH could commence within two years, with civil versions to be first off the production line near Bangalore.

In one final piece of news, the IAF retired its last Mi-8 helicopters on 17 December 2017. Once forming the backbone of the air force’s helicopter fleet, the IAF operated ten squadrons of Mi-8s. The IAF still operates newer Mi-17-1V and Mi-17V-5 types, however.
The constant on-again, off-again nature of Indian procurements is a constant frustration to vendors. The MoD can, at will, cancel tenders or agonisingly prolong them. While this is typically due to the tortuous nature of Indian defence procurements, there are some who question whether they are not intentional.

So true.

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