The Indian military’s current fleet of choppers is ageing and inadequate. It’s estimated that over the next 10 years, India needs more than 1,000 helicopters.
New Delhi: India’s letter of request to the US government to purchase 24 MH-60 ‘Romeo’ multirole helicopters from Sikorsky Lockheed Martin is expected to open a prolonged season of chopper purchase.
The Indian military — including the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Coast Guard — are severely short of helicopters of different categories. The MH-60 ‘Romeo’ contract could begin to address this when it is signed in a couple of months.
But India has a notorious record of scuttling helicopter deals even after they are contracted. The most notable of these is the case of the AgustaWestland AW101 VVIP choppers, which continue to remain mothballed in a hangar in the capital, following allegations of bribery.
The MH-60 ‘Romeo’ would be a replacement for the original Westland Sea King 42 and 42A helicopters which were purchased in the mid-1980s and retired about 15 years back.
The navy has since commissioned ships with hangars to house the helicopters that do not exist yet. The total number of Sea King 42B and 42C helicopters that are now currently used for limited search and rescue, anti-submarine warfare and special operations, are down to single digits.
The Indian intention to purchase the MH-60 ‘Romeos’ was informally conveyed to the Pentagon in August, just ahead of the inaugural ‘2+2’ meeting in the first week of September between the foreign and defence ministers of India and the US.
How many choppers does India need?
Estimates of the number of helicopters needed by the Indian armed forces over the next 10 years vary from 1,000 to 1,200. While it promises to be a lucrative market for global manufacturers, it is also one that is uncertain. Negotiations with the US for the multi-role helicopters began 15 years back. It is only now that it appears to be in the realm of the real.
But the MH-60 ‘letter of request’ also comes after India has contracted 22 Apache 64D (Lockheed) attack helicopters, the first of which is expected in April, and 15 Chinook (Boeing) heavy lift machines, which are expected later in 2019.
State of India’s helicopters
Indian forces currently operate about 700 helicopters. Here is an overview of their state and what the requirements are for helicopters that would have to fly at sea level as well as in the rarefied air of the Siachen Glacier and beyond.
Heavy-lift: The IAF currently operates one type of heavy-lift helicopter, the Mi-26. Originally of Russian/Soviet make, the helicopters based in Chandigarh have severe serviceability issues. Of the four that were originally contracted, only two are used operationally. The Mi-26 is the heaviest helicopter in the world. It was reputed to have lifted a Chinook after a crash in Afghanistan.
The twin-rotor Chinooks, CH-47, are now set to replace them. The CH-47 can carry the M777 ultra-light howitzers under-slung. It is assessed that they will be of particular use in the northern frontier.
Medium-lift helicopters: The IAF is more comfortably placed in this category after it began planned induction of the Mi-17 V5 (simply called V5) since 2012. A total of 80 aircraft have been contracted from Russia. Unlike the older Mi-17s, these have a full-glass cockpit, night-vision capability and integral armaments. The helicopters are currently being used, apart from other theatres, in anti-naxal operations in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
Light utility and observation helicopters for the Army: The Army Aviation Corps operates 12 squadrons of the obsolete Cheetahs and Chetaks, both of French origin, first imported in the 1970s. The defence public sector HAL has also collaborated with France’s Turbomeca to make a more powerful ‘Shakti’ engine for the Cheetah, in a variant called the Cheetal, for use in high-altitudes.
But the AAC is increasingly using the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter, a machine that falls short of the navy’s requirement for rotorcraft it wants to put on board warships. The navy has an issue with the Dhruv’s limited ability to fold its rotors for stashing in hangars on the warships.
Light-utility helicopters: These are required by all the services to replace the Chetaks and Cheetahs. India told Russia that it would buy the Kamov 226T, partly (60) imported and partly assembled (140) near Tumkur in Karnataka, in 2015. But manufacture of these aircraft is yet to take off because of confusion over the “strategic partnership” component of the defence procurement policy. While HAL has signed an MoU for a joint venture with Russian Helicopters, Mahindra-Airbus and Tata-Bell have announced joint ventures to make helicopters of this category.
Attack helicopters: To replace its squadrons of Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters, the Indian Air Force will begin inducting the first of 22 Block III Apache 64D helicopters from April. The procurement was held up for some time because of a turf war between the Army and the IAF. The attack helicopters are envisioned as close air support for ground forces. The government has now decided that after the induction of the first 22, it would give a repeat order of 11 for the Army. The Army’s projected requirement is for 39 of these choppers.
Naval helicopters: Of all the forces, the Navy’s need for choppers is most desperate. The MH-60 ‘Romeos’ would only be the first of an order that could total 120 multi-role helicopters. The Navy is currently dependent on its dwindling Sea King 42Cs and its 10 Kamov 228s for anti-submarine capability.
Light Combat Helicopter and Rudra attack choppers: The helicopters are being made by HAL. They are not yet fully operational. The IAF is looking to induct 60 LCHs. The LCH made its first test flight in 2010.
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