Army Aviation Turns 30 A Reality Check

The Cheetah fatal accident on December 1, 2016, at Sukna Military Station and the subsequent grounding of the entire fleet for mandatory checks by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited has further eroded the confidence regarding the safety of the current fleet, which is the lifeline of troops deployed on the Siachen Glacier

Issue: 1 / 2017By Lt General B.S. Pawar (Retd)Photo(s): By SP Guide Pubns, HAL, USAF, Russian Helicopters
Indian Army’s Dhruv helicopter
Indian Army’s advanced light helicopters (ALH) in flight
Rudra ALH-WSI
Need of the hour: AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopter
Ka-226T light multi-role helicopter

On November 1, 2016, the Army Aviation Corps completed 30 years of its existence since its formation in 1986. However, at the end of these 30 years it continues to fly the outdated and vintage fleet of Cheetah/Chetak helicopters, is faced with a muddled and confused government policy on ownership of attack helicopters, and has seen no progress on the acquisition plans for the tactical battle support helicopters (10- to 12-tonne class) to enhance tactical lift capability and for special operations. On the plus side it has inducted the largest number of the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL)-built advanced light helicopters (ALH/Dhruv) — approximately 70 Dhruvs are operational with the Army Aviation and two units of the armed version of the Dhruv called the Rudra are presently under various stages of raising.

However, the critical issue of the Cheetah/Chetak helicopters replacement is still far cry, notwithstanding the hype of the government-to-government deal with Russia with regards to the Ka-226T helicopter, which at best would be available in a time frame of three to four years, provided everything proceeds as planned. The non-availability of this crucial platform in adequate numbers in the next three to four years is going to seriously impact on the army’s high altitude operations and has very serious consequences for national security. The Cheetah fatal accident on December 1, 2016, at Sukna Military Station while coming in to land and the subsequent grounding of the entire fleet for mandatory checks by HAL has further eroded the confidence regarding the safety of the current fleet — this affect is already being felt as the Cheetah helicopters are the lifeline of troops deployed on the Siachen Glacier.

Cheetah/Chetak Replacement

The Cheetah/Chetak replacement programme continues to flounder despite the government-to-government agreement between India and Russia for the supply of 200 Kamov Ka-226T light helicopters under the ‘Make in India’ policy. Presently there is no clarity on as to how this project will move forward and both sides seem to be struggling to meet the challenging ‘Make in India’ requirement of building 50 per cent of the helicopters in India. While the HAL has been designated as the nodal agency for this critical programme along with Russian Helicopters (part of state-owned technology cooperation ROSTEC), there are a number of complex issues involved which need to be addressed in order to move ahead. The recent statement of the Russian Helicopters about their working with HAL to iron out the various contentious issues and that the signing of the contract is likely by year end is a positive development,but its likely transformation into realty seems a distant dream in the current situation. The complexities involved in this project are far too many and one will have to wait and watch as to how these will be addressed and resolved eventually — the prospect of concluding a contract for the Ka-226T project anytime soon does not inspire much confidence. The Ka-226T helicopter, however, is a suitable platform for replacement of the Cheetah/Chetak fleet and has been through the complete trial process in India along with Airbus Helicopter’s Fennec AS 550 C3 helicopter in 2013-14 — both helicopters had met all the desired operational parameters.

The main issue in the Ka-226T deal is the overall composition of the helicopter in terms of various components and systems. Russian Helicopters, which has developed the Kamov 226T, has sourced its twin engines (Arrius 2G1 which constitutes almost one-third of the chopper’s cost), from the French company, Turbomeca. Other key systems and avionics have been sourced from some other companies in the global market. As per reports the Russian Government has accepted responsibility only for indigenising Russian components — a step which would result in a shortfall of the indigenisation levels required as per the ‘Make in India’ policy. This also means that HAL as the nodal agency on behalf of the Indian Government will have to negotiate separately with third country vendors for indigenising their components and systems especially the engines.

There seems to be no clarity on the fate of the latest request for information (RFI) which was issued for the never ending reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters (RSH) programme for 197 helicopters

There has however been a positive development on this crucial issue emanating from the recently concluded Farnborough Air Show. The HAL and French company, Safran Helicopter Engines (parent company of Turbomeca) have agreed to establish in India a support centre for helicopter engines, catering to their manufacturing and provision of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities — this joint venture (JV) is expected to come up this year in Goa.This JV will initially cater to TM 333 and Shakti engines installed on the HAL-built helicopters like the ALH Dhruv, Rudra and the light combat helicopter (LCH). Shakti is more powerful than the TM 333 and is the Indian name for Safran Ardiden 1H engine which is already being co-developed with HAL and produced under licence. It also seems likely that the engine for HAL is under development light utility helicopter (LUH) will subsequently also form part of this JV, as Safran’s Ardiden 1U engine is already fitted on the developmental model of LUH. However, whether the Arrius 2G engines fitted on the Kamov 226T helicopters will get included in the JV remains to be seen, as there are many imponderables and this vital aspect of the deal will be clear only after the final contract is inked.

Another factor which needs to be kept in mind is that as per the government agreement, Russian Helicopters will deliver the first 60 helicopters in flyaway condition — these would be assembled entirely in Russia, with little scope for indigenisation. That would also be the case with the next 40 or so helicopters, shipped as kits from Russia to be assembled in India. This leaves a balance 100 helicopters for meeting the 50 per cent ‘Make in India’ goals over the entire fleet of 200. It is understood that some Indian private companies may also be part of this programme, especially to build Kamov 226T components and systems in India. It is important to note that this helicopter has entered service only in 2002 and has very little scope for export — presently it is in service with the Russian military only and has no footprint in the civil market. Keeping in mind the complexity of the case it is anybody’s guess whether this project will ever see the light of the day.

In the meantime there seems to be no clarity on the fate of the latest request for information (RFI) which was issued for the never ending reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters (RSH) programme for 197 helicopters on October 31, 2014, in a ‘Buy and Make (Indian)’ approach. This programme envisaged a certain number of helicopters to be supplied by the selected original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in flyaway condition and the remaining numbers to be built at a production facility in India, by an Indian partner through licensed transfer of technology. Essentially, this RFI envisaged identification of probable Indian vendors (private or public), including those who would form joint ventures and establish production arrangements with an OEM so as to provide the helicopters, followed by licensed production in the country. However, the Kamov 226T agreement has left the fate of the 197 RSH project hanging in balance with no clarity from the government so far — while the RSH project has not been cancelled, total confusion reigns in the industry and the armed forces regarding its future involving 197 helicopters.

HAL Ventures

The production of the Cheetah and Chetak helicopters by HAL has virtually come to halt and the production facility closed. In fact the non-availability of spares to keep the current fleet serviceable is the biggest challenge before the HAL and the Army Aviation. As an interim measure the HAL has fielded the Cheetal an upgraded version of the Cheetah helicopter with a more powerful engine. It is understood that 30 Cheetals will be produced by HAL (20 for the Indian Army and 10 for the Air Force) in the next two to three years as an interim measure to overcome the ongoing criticality for high altitude operations. However, with the airframe remaining the same, safety and reliability will remain major concerns.

The LCH is a state-of-the-art attack helicopter capable of operating at high altitudes and compares with the best in the world — it recently participated in Air Force’s Iron Fist air power exercise and demonstrated its firepower and manoeuvring capabilities

Simultaneously, HAL’s new LUH project (3-tonne class) which is expected to make its first flight this month seems to be on track. According to HAL projections, the LUH would complete flight certification by mid-2017 and enter production by the year-end. HAL is required to provide 187 LUHs in the overall requirement of 400 plus helicopters by the armed forces in this category — these will be built at HAL’s new facility at Tumakuru (about 150 km from Bengaluru), where the foundation stone was laid by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January this year.

It is important to note that the HAL’s main focus remains the LUH and the coveted light combat helicopter (LCH) projects with the LCH slated to get the initial operational clarence by end of this year. The LCH is a state-of-the-art attack helicopter capable of operating at high altitudes and compares with the best in the world — it recently participated in Air Force’s Iron Fist air power exercise and demonstrated its firepower and manoeuvring capabilities. The LCH is expected to cater to the requirements of Army and Air Force to the tune of 114 and 65 respectively and will be a game changer especially for operations in the mountains — an ideal asset for Kargil-like situations.

The HAL is also expected to ensure that it meets the Prime Minister’s directive to roll out the first LUH by end of 2017. The success of the LUH programme in the time frame envisaged above may spell the death knell for the Ka-226T, if no headway is made for negotiating the contract by end of this year. The government may be needs to simultaneously keep the RSH programme also going forward to cater for inordinate delays and bottlenecks in the Ka-226T project. In addition, HAL’s helicopter division is also fully involved in meeting its current and future obligations to the Services in terms of large orders for additional ALHs and Rudras, while simultaneously addressing their critical maintenance and serviceability issues. It is crystal clear from the above that HAL’s Helicopter Division has already bitten more than it can chew and hence will it have the commitment and time to fulfil its obligations towards the crucial Ka-226T programme.

Current Status and Problem Areas

The army today holds the largest inventory of helicopters in the Indian military (300 plus) and these numbers will continue to grow with additional Dhruvs and Rudras being inducted in the coming decade — the Army Aviation is expected to have a fleet of approximately 200 Dhruvs and Rudras in the coming years. The army is also looking at inducting 114 LCHs to cater to its requirements in the mountains and high altitude areas. However, a major shortcoming with the Rudra and the under development LCH is that in their current configuration they do not have a suitable anti-tank guided missile (ATGM), the main weapon system of an attack/armed helicopter. The air version of the indigenously developed Nag ATGM, the Helina being developed by DRDO is not likely to be ready in the near future, leaving a critical void in the operational capability of these two types of helicopters. As an interim measure the MoD had cleared the fitment of three initial Rudra units with an ATGM ex import. Accordingly, trials were conducted and completed about three years back but nothing seems to have come of it — in contention were the PARS 3 of MBDA France and Spike-ER of Israel. This issue needs to be addressed on priority for an armed/attack helicopter without an ATGM merely remains a gunship thereby inhibiting the exploitation of its full potential.

A major setback to the Army Aviation plans for transformation has been the government’s decision to give the 22 Apaches Mark III (Guardian) attack helicopters being acquired from US (Boeing) to the Air Force, despite the earlier decision of the government on the issue of ownership of attack helicopters being in the Army’s favour. Further, with the indigenously developed LCH induction around the corner the army’s projection of additional 33 Apaches is not likely to see the light of day. The Army Aviation will have resign to the idea of not having these state-of-the-art attack helicopters (the best in the world) as part of their inventory for employment with the Strike Corps.

Conclusion

With the current dismal state of the Chetak and Cheetah fleet and serious maintenance and safety concerns, the writing is clearly on the wall. The maintenance of this fleet has now become a nightmare. As per reports, a major fallout of this situation has been fewer volunteers opting for the Army Aviation Corps, an elite arm of the Indian Army. In fact, in an article in India Today last year the wives of the army aviators had expressed their concern over the safety of their husbands continuing to fly these outdated machines. Some aviation experts have even gone to the extent of labelling them as ‘Flying Coffins’. There is understandable disquiet on this matter within India’s military aviation fraternity which needs to be taken serious note of, as this gravely impinges on operational preparedness.The Ka-226T is a suitable replacement platform and more importantly has proved its prowess in high altitude operations during trials. The government must work with the Russian Government in a time-bound manner in resolving all issues howsoever complex and sign the contract by the end of this year or else it will be another critical defence deal gone awry and the operational consequences far too serious. The HAL also needs to ensure that the LUH project meets its timelines and is available for induction in the first half of 2018.