Bengaluru: European Aviation giant Airbus is in talks with the Indian Navy to lease out Panther helicopters for its warships as the force looks at bridging the capability gap it faces when it comes to the rotary wing, Rémi Maillard, president of Airbus India and the company’s managing director for South Asia, told ThePrint.
The development comes as the nearly $3 billion plan to procure 111 Naval Utility Helicopters (NUH) staggers on due to multiple reasons.
“We are ready to offer leasing options and this is an excellent opportunity to meet the short-term immediate operational requirements, especially in the Indian Ocean. We believe there is a capability gap in the Indian Ocean Region and we would be delighted to offer our helicopters to the Indian Navy,” Maillard told ThePrint in an interview at Aero India 2021.
The Narendra Modi government has allowed the armed forces to procure military equipment on lease under the Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020.
Airbus is also likely to lease out two A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) to the IAF.
Asked if leasing makes sense for an armed force, Maillard said it does, complementary to the procurement process. “The advantage of leasing is that you can quickly access the capability. Many countries are doing that. We provide leasing capabilities as well,” he added.
Asked about the numbers being talked about for leasing of the choppers, he said talks have not moved to that stage yet.
“We have not received the RFP (Request for Proposal), but we are very keen on supporting the Navy. We are in talks with the Navy, we have an excellent relationship with the Navy, and we have already discussed about this leasing opportunity,” the top Airbus official said.
‘Leasing the initial step’
The AS565 MBe naval version of Airbus’ Panther family of helicopters is an all-weather, multi-role medium rotorcraft, designed for operations from ship decks, offshore locations and land-based sites.
The aircraft is made for a multitude of naval and coast guard missions such as maritime surveillance, search and rescue, casualty evacuation, offshore patrolling and counter-terrorism.
The Navy has been desperate to replace its Chetak helicopters of 1960s vintage with NUHs.
The NUHs are to be utilised for multiple roles, including search and rescue, casualty evacuation and low-intensity maritime operations, besides torpedo drops.
There has been a push from the HAL to include its helicopter as one of the contenders for the Naval contract, but the proposal has met with resistance from the Navy.
The leasing of the Panthers comes even as the French government and Airbus have offered to set up an assembly line for the helicopter in India.
“Leasing is the initial step. We remain committed to the defence procurement process but we are also keen on offering a leasing opportunity to meet the operational requirement in the meantime,” Maillard said.
On the verge of getting defence contracts
The Airbus, which has had a presence in India for over five decades, has not bagged any major defence contract in years.
However, this could change as India is likely to sign a deal with Airbus for the manufacturing of C295 transport aircraft as a replacement for the IAF’s Avro fleet.
“It is correct that we did not get any contract recently. But our relationship goes back to 50 years ago when we had cooperation with the HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) for Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. We have had a good relationship with Indian partners and forces,” Maillard said.
Talking about the campaigns ahead, he said the first was the C295, which “can be a gamechanger for India, the IAF and Airbus”. “This is because that will be first final assembly line of an aircraft in India,” he added.
“The demand is for 56 aircraft. The first 16 would be assembled at the Airbus facility in Spain. The rest 40 will be manufactured, assembled and tested and maintained in India with our partner TATA. We believe we will be the trigger to develop a total aerospace ecosystem in India,” he said.
The Airbus executive said the project will create “15,000 skilled jobs in India”.
“C295 is the capability that the IAF requires. It is versatile, reliable and a combat-proven platform. We are hopeful that we will be able to sign this contract and start our partnership with TATA and also start construction of Indian assembly line,” he added.
Maillard said Airbus has made a competing offer — “a very attractive offer” — to the Union Ministry of Defence.
“It makes a lot of sense for India, for the IAF… I am hopeful that it will go through soon. I am positive, I am optimistic and I know it is for the best,” he said.