The Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) has scrapped a scam-tainted tender worth over Rs. 6,000 crore to procure 197 light utility helicopters (LUHs) for the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF) to replace the vintage fleet of Cheetah and Chetak helicopters that are used to support forces deployed in high altitude locations such as on the Siachen Glacier. The MoD has decided that instead of procuring helicopters from foreign sources, the Indian industry would be given the opportunity to produce around 400 such machines to meet with the requirements of the armed forces. This decision of the government is expected to generate business worth over Rs. 40,000 crore for the indigenous industry in the defence sector.
The case for the procurement of 197 LUHs that was urgently required by the Indian Army to replace the obsolescent fleet of Cheetah and Chetak that were acquired in the 1970s, was initiated by the Army Headquarters in 2001 and the tender was floated in 2004. In December 2007, after prolonged and intensive effort during which all the competing helicopters were put through elaborate and gruelling trials in different weather conditions and operating environment, the Eurocopter AS550 Fennec was selected as the preferred platform. Eurocopter, now renamed as Airbus Helicopters, was the world’s largest maker of civil and military helicopters. However, the Indian Army was somewhat shocked to learn that on the day the $550 million contract was to be signed with the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), the tender was cancelled rather abruptly. The decision to scrap the tender was taken by the MoD apparently on account of allegations of irregularities in the process of selection as well as the involvement of middlemen which was not permitted under the Defence Procurement Procedure. Reports also appeared in the media indicating that one of the contenders, a foreign vendor apparently with political influence, had complained of lack of fairness in the selection process. Whatever the case, six years of effort by Army Headquarters in processing the case as also the time, effort and resources expended by the OEMs involved, proved to be in vain!
The tender was floated for the second time in July 2008 and the estimated cost for 197 helicopters had been revised upwards to $750 million. By this time the total requirement of helicopters in this class that included that of the IAF, had gone up to 384. However, the number to be procured from a foreign vendor was retained at 197 (133 for the Indian Army and 64 for the IAF) and the Indian aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) was tasked to indigenously develop a platform of equivalent payload (three tonnes) capability and performance. Tentatively, the number indicated to HAL for the new machine was pegged at 187. In the second round of tendering, there was only machine, the Russian Kamov Ka 226T competing against the Eurocopter AS550 C3 Fennec. Once again the MoD ordered investigations into allegations of wrongdoing in the processing of the tender. Based on the results of the investigation the second tender for the 197 LUHs was also cancelled.
In the meantime, HAL had already begun working on the project and did manage to display a mock-up of the LUH during Aero India International Airshow at Yelahanka near Bengaluru in the year 2009. The first flight by the prototype was expected in 2013 and the production was scheduled to commence in 2015 initially delivering ten machines in year increasing in due course to 36 annually. However, as is usual with the Indian aerospace industry in the public sector, there has been some slippage in the project and the maiden flight is now rescheduled for 2015 followed by initial operational clearance (IOC) in 2017. As things stand, the programme is expected to be completed not earlier than by the middle of the next decade. Currently, the first ground test vehicle is being readied for factory tests.
The single-engine helicopter being developed by HAL would be powered by the Shakti 1U engine supplied by Turbomeca of France. A derivative of the Shakti 1H1 engine that powers the latest version of the HAL-produced Dhruv advanced light helicopter. The French engine for the LUH selected through a tendering process will have full authority digital engine control (FADEC) with a control system software which will be specifically developed by Turbomeca for matching its single engine application on the LUH. The LUH will feature a highly agile rotor system and composite rotor blades for low maintenance. Critical aspects like the rotor system, transmission, engine and glass cockpit are of state-of-the-art design. These attributes will see the fleet in service through to 2050 at the very least.
The sordid episode related to the tender for 197 LUHs for the Indian Army and the IAF is symbolic of the paralysis in decision-making that the previous government was afflicted with. The strong inclination at the drop of a hat to order investigation into allegations, cancellation of contracts and blacklisting of companies, have in recent times played havoc with the operational preparedness of the Indian armed forces. Hopefully, the new government will have its priorities right in addressing the imperatives of national security.