Do this math: 22 AH-64E Apache helicopters in 2015 cost $2.1 billion, or Rs 14,910 crore, and six of these in 2020 cost Rs 6,600 crore.
In just five years, the cost of one helicopter jumped by 62 per cent.
Yes, about Rs 1,100 crore each is what the Army will pay for six iconic pure attack helicopters that come armed with the state-of-the-art weapon system and are a big boost to the military’s firepower.
If one does a basic calculation, then each IAF helicopter in 2015 cost approximately Rs 678 crore while the Army ones in 2020 cost about Rs 1,100 crore. This means that the six new helicopters cost about Rs 2,500 crore more.
Before you start outraging over the overpriced helicopters, which is due to the military’s mistake, here’s a caveat. Remember that the price also includes the cost for the simulators, creation of infrastructure and performance-based logistics, which will also take care of spares, besides the training of the initial group of pilots.
But the difference in the cost is an important window into the silos that Indian armed forces operate in.
The deal for the Army came after a fight with the Indian Air Force (IAF) during the UPA government. While the Army was of the view that the attack choppers should go to them, the IAF did not want to lose its position since it has traditionally played the integrated combat aviation cover to the Army’s Strike Corps.
Former IAF chief N.A.K Browne had even said that he could not allow “little air forces doing things of their own”.
To buy peace between the warring services, it was decided by then-UPA government that while the IAF will get the first 22 helicopters, the future purchase will go to the Army.
With the final clearances for both IAF and Army deals coming through during the Narendra Modi government, India ended up paying for two separate training process, infrastructure creation, spares, simulators, etc.
Had India decided to buy the helicopters in one go, the country could have bargained for a better deal overall since it is common sense that higher volumes bring down cost.
Why two wings need the same chopper?
Why should two forces have the same attack helicopters and for the same task? The political establishment should have cracked the whip and decided which force gets to keep all the helicopters. In my opinion, the attack helicopters should be with the Army, just like in the US military.
Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat is absolutely correct in his approach to bring in jointness in the armed forces, not just in terms of ethos and operations but also in defence acquisition.
“There are many systems that are common to the services or are duplicated. We are trying to see how we can look at it jointly so that the cost can come down and optimal utilisation is done,” Gen Rawat told me recently.
A lesson for future purchases
While the Apache is a prime example of how India could have worked out a better deal had the services not thought in silos, it also shows why India should not go about doing piecemeal purchases.
The fact is that 28 Apache helicopters are not enough for a country like India, which has multiple theatres of threats. India needs more attack helicopters.
The six Apaches to the Army is a joke because they do not fulfil even a fraction of the requirements, except bringing a feel-good factor of having the iconic choppers.
The talk is that India will eventually buy more and will depend on the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) being manufactured by the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
LCH in waiting
Incidentally, while the LCH is ready for operational induction, no order has been placed with HAL yet. Even the techno-commercial proposal for 15 Limited Series Production (LSP) is yet to be decided upon by the IAF and army. HAL is looking for an eventual order of 160 helicopters, including 93 from the Army.
Another example is the Rafale. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the intention to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets in fly-away condition, it was welcomed by everyone in the IAF and the defence community.
The negotiations of the previous MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) contract had reached a stalemate and Rafale will decisively add to the IAF’s firepower. However, the fact remains that 36 Rafale jets are just not enough. India could now go in for additional 36 jets, which could be partly assembled in the country under a new contract.
Thankfully, India went in for creation of two bases, which means that there would be no additional cost on infrastructure development.
Gone are the days when there would be actual dogfight in the air. Today, a lot depends on hitting the enemy from beyond visual distance.
And hence, the induction of the Rafale — which is equipped with missiles like the air-to-air Meteor and air-to-surface Scalp — would give a huge fillip to India’s air capability.
Focus on capability
So, at a time of budgetary constraints, rather than just focusing on numbers, the armed forces should also look at capability, something which the Modi government is increasingly interested in.
As former defence secretary G. Mohan Kumar wrote in The Economic Times: “The armed forces’ 15-year Long Term Integrated Perspective Plans (LTIPP) — the mainstay of their modernisation programme — remains an ambitious paper exercise without any realistic link to the annual capital allocations.”
“With better jointness the LTIPPs could be reworked and prioritised, but slow acquisitions taking several years and uncertainties in funding can plague rapid modernisation,” he wrote.
A non-silos approach to defence requirements will not just help the forces, but the government will also get maximum penny out of a buck.
This article has been updated to provide clarity on how the author arrived at the figure of Rs 2,500 crore.