January 28, 2021
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Clueless direction
Delays in the acquisition of light utility helicopters

Strange are the ways of Indian defence management and defence acquisition process. It seems to be oblivious and unconcerned about the immediate tactical and strategic requirements of India’s defence needs. The dilly-dallying attitude will prove very costly for nation’s defence and the recent second time postponement of final decision on 197 Light Utility Helicopters is being described as a setback to modernize countries arsenal.

The IAF and the Army had placed a demand of 384 LUHs a decade ago out of which the deal for 197 helicopters was under final stage of decision making for the second time, but it again became a victim of allegations.

Since HAL had also put forward its claim of its ability to deliver an indigenous LUH to the forces, the MoD asked it to supply rest of the 187 LUHs to the Army and Air Force, besides 197 already under process. The Navy has already floated a Rs 4,000 crore tender in August last year for acquiring 56 LUHs to replace its Chetak fleet.

The acquisition process of the 197 helicopters already has a chequered history. It is almost a decade since the three services placed the demand for acquiring the light utility helicopters to replace the ageing Cheetah and Chetak helicopters of vintage sixties technology.

The MoD did move and went to the stage of awarding the contract in 2007, when certain allegations of irregularities led to the cancellation of the tender. Then the tender was awarded to the Eurocopter, but Bell Helicopters complained of lack of transparency and the Defence Minister viewed it as serious allegation.  

Ignoring requirements

Six years later, the MoD has not moved an inch further. The MoD has once again tied its hands on the excuse of eliminating all residues of corruption in the Light Utility Helicopter deal, ignoring the tactical requirement of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force to support its forward placed troops in very difficult mountainous terrain.

In such terrain the forces can no longer depend on the mules and infantry Jawans for ferrying daily rations and weapons and ammunition, besides observing the movements of the troops and terrorist elements from the other side of the border.

Cheetah and Chetak helicopters fleet undertake patrol, reconnaissance and casualty evacuation missions in forward locations and high-altitude areas. But the fleet was facing technical glitches and the armed forces were regularly complaining to the MoD about its serviceability.

The Light Utility helicopters are the life line of the armed forces, especially in remote border areas and will be required in large numbers in coming years in view of the increasing challenges from our neighbors.

The LUHs have become a tactical necessity in view of increasing deployment of troops on the 4000 kms long Line of Actual Control and long borders with Pakistan, from Rajasthan to Siachen. The Indian Army and Air Force currently have over 300 LUHs but they are losing their utility because of age and technical backwardness. The three services had placed a total demand of 440 new light utility helicopters.

The Armed forces then finally proposed to acquire around 384 such helicopters but later the demand was bifurcated with 197 imports and rest to be manufactured in Indian HAL. The deal is certainly not going to be very large as it may not cross US$ 600 million. But lack of this deal is certainly going to impact on India’s strategic aggressiveness on the Sino- Indian border.

In fact the VVIP helicopter scandal has cast its shadow on the acquisition process of 197 helicopters also and going by this reasoning, can the Indian MoD suspend all defence modernization projects linked to the Italian Finmeccanica, which is involved in several naval and Electronic Warfare projects of Indian armed forces?

Though the Agusta Westland, a part of Finmeccanica was originally a participant in the RFP for the helicopter but was thrown out of the race and its links to an Indian Army Brigadier is still haunting the MoD. Since a Brigadier was alleged to be influencing the deal, the MoD on the advice of the Army Headquarters has decided to postpone further acquisition steps till the probe is completed regarding the role of the Brigadier, who is presently posted at the Officers Training Academy at Chennai.

It is really strange that in spite of having a very honest spotless person at the helm of the defence ministry a small pawn can derail the entire process and the MoD looks clueless about fulfilling the needs of the armed forces.

Presently, the Russian Kamov-226 T and Eurocopter AS-550 C3 Fennec are locked in fierce competition but the Brigadier’s audacity has once again put a brake on the final process, reached after six years of lackluster efforts of the MoD guys.

The Brigadier was the officer in charge of the field trials for the light helicopters at the Udhampur based Northern Command. The document recovered from the residence of the Finmeccanica official in Italy has revealed that Brigadier Saini had in January, 2010 offered favor to Agusta Westland to eliminate the competition just before the field trials of the LUHs in the helicopter deal.

The Agusta Westland helicopter was kept out of the race without being influenced by the Brigadier and without any exchange of favors in cash of US$ 5.5 million. The Army has investigated the Brigadier, but has found no evidence to suggest his greediness and now wants further investigation by other agencies.

The Defence Acquisition Council was to discuss the report of the Special Technical Oversight Committee (STOC) on 2nd April, 2013. This committee was headed by Lt Gen Gurdeep Singh, but the sudden intervention from the Army Chief General Bikram Singh led to the postponement of the next and final steps for acquisition of the LUHs.

Indigenous industry

It is not yet clear if the MoD will go ahead on the basis of the field trials of the LUH, in which the Kamov is reported to have emerged as frontrunner or follow the new defence acquisition guidelines in which indigenous industry is to be given priority.

If this is followed then the HAL made LUH will emerge as claimant of the deal, which was displayed for the first time during Aero India-2009. The HAL plans to begin its production from 2015 but its annual production rate would not meet the heavy demand of the armed forces.

However, if HAL involves the private sector and transfers the technology for manufacture of LUH indigenously, the process can be expedited. But it would be difficult to convince the armed forces to wait for many more years than the current process under final stage.

The three tonne helicopter will have a crew of two and can accommodate six passengers. HAL plans to power this light helicopter with the Turbomeca Shakti turboshaft engine. The helicopter will have a flying range of 351 kms and service ceiling of 21,300 feet. Thus it can meet the requirements of armed forces from Siachen to the unsettled borders with China in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

The Public Accounts Committee of the Parliament, headed by Murli Manohar Joshi, had lambasted the Defence Ministry for showing no sense of urgency either to go ahead with the HAL plan to manufacture the LUH or speed up the acquisition process from abroad.

The PAC had commented last year that the delay in the LUH induction process is being ignored, “despite knowing well that the IAF helicopter pilots are being deprived of the latest avionics with flight control systems and other state-of-the-art features”. It further said that, “such a delay would also incapacitate the IAF in handling emergency and relief and rescue operations in future, thereby compromising the security of the nation,”

In its Action Taken Report the PAC noted that out of 197 LUHs the IAF would get 64 to replace its 75 Chetak and Cheetah helicopters and the IAF component of the contract would be worth Rs 5,000 crores. The IAF would get a total of 125 LUH out of which 64 would be imported and rest 61 made by HAL.

But if we go by the reply of the MoD to PAC, the government is not sure of the HAL’s ability to meet the demands of the armed forces on time.