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Thank you Chetak, but your 60th anniversary also reminds us what’s wrong with Indian defence

During the past 10 years, around 15 Chetak and Cheetah helicopters have crashed, killing several pilots even as it remains the workhorse of the armed forces.

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A commemoration event or diamond jubilee celebration is being held at the Indian Air Force’s Helicopter Training School, Secunderabad, to mark 60 years of Chetak helicopters. While there is no doubt that the helicopter has served the Indian armed forces well, the celebration is also a testimony to the troubles ailing India’s defence establishment.

A tweet by Commander KP Sanjeev Kumar praising the retiring chopper shows why it’s a much delayed celebration. He tweeted: “Chetak bore it all and then some.  Retire it gracefully and don’t flog a valiant old workhorse”.

The IAF inducted the French-origin helicopters, called Alouette III, in 1962 and the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) handed over its first licence-produced Chetak (Alouette III) to IAF in 1965.

Not that the first one to be commissioned is flying but the majority of the fleet of the 186 Chetak and over 200 of Cheetah lie in the vintage category, serving for over 40 years now. And this technology of the 1960s will continue to fly for the next few decades more as the forces are still ordering, given the lack of options.

This is a reflection of our complacency. Be it artillery guns, basic rifles, helicopters or even fighters, the majority of our soldiers are still using systems that should have been phased out years ago. Some continue with their lifecycle through upgrades but even these upgrades have run out of their shelf life, take MiG 21 Bisons for example. Or the single-engine Chetaks that have obsolete avionics.

Chetak lacks modern helicopter features like moving map display, ground proximity warning system, and weather radar, besides an auto-pilot system.

During the past 10 years, around 15 Chetak and Cheetah helicopters have crashed, killing several pilots even as it remains as the workhorse of the armed forces — flying over the sea or Siachen Glacier.

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The armed forces have repeatedly flagged the need to replace these helicopters with new ones. It is tragic that India has not been able to replace these even though feeble steps have been taken.

In November last year, the defence ministry approved the procurement of 12 Light Utility Helicopters (LUH) from HAL. These helicopters will eventually replace the nearly 400 Chetak and Cheetah in use.

These 12 new choppers will come under a limited series production configuration even as India’s overall demand for LUHs, meant for transportation of men and supplies to high-altitude areas besides evacuation and reconnaissance, is estimated to be over 400.

This means that it will be years before the entire fleet of Chetak and Cheetah are replaced.

One can always argue that since these are indigenous helicopters, it takes time to develop and conduct trials and so such processes cannot be sped-up.

Even if someone agrees to this argument, what would one say about the other plan to procure these helicopters? Yes, of the nearly 400 helicopters that the armed forces require, only half of them were to be supplied by HAL and the rest were to come through a joint venture with Russia under the Make in India route — for Kamov 226T.

Seven years later, the Narendra Modi government’s government-to-government deal in 2015 hangs in balance over indigenous content and cost. It’s a shame that the military will have to still fly these Chetaks because there is no replacement available.

The Navy was keen to replace them and the process was initiated under the strategic partnership model, only to be delayed by HAL’s attempt to enter the race.

If HAL has a good product, it should very well be allowed to enter the fray. But the project itself cannot be kept hanging without any decision, one way or the other.

Also, one wonders how HAL will be able to manufacture all kinds of helicopters and deliver to the Services in time since their hands seem full with orders for making the Advanced Light Helicopter and its armed version. The State-run defence manufacturer also awaits big order for both Light Combat Helicopter and the LUH.

The HAL will eventually be sitting on order books of over 600 helicopters if all programmes come into fruition. If so, the government should rope in a private player too and ask it to manufacture along with the HAL.

It is high time that the Army, Air Force and the Navy get their Chetak replacements.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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