Moving at a Tardy Pace

Given the track record of the company, one would have serious reservations about the capability of HAL to adhere to stipulated time lines

Issue: 04-2015By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By Anoop Kamath / SP Guide Pubns

Compared with the fixed-wing domain, performance of the Indian aerospace major the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has been a shade better insofar as the rotary-wing programmes are concerned. Beginning in the 1970s, HAL provided the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Army with the licensed manufactured fleet of light utility helicopters (LUH) as also their armed version from the then Aerospatiale of France. This company was later renamed as Eurocopter and subsequently as Airbus Helicopters which is now a part of the Airbus Group. Briefly, HAL manufactured under licence as also supported the fleet of helicopters for the IAF that consisted of the following:

  • Chetak. HAL obtained a licence to build in India, the singleengine two-tonne class Alouette III renamed as the Chetak. Over 300 units were produced by HAL and these were even partially indigenised and periodically updated. The IAF employed this aircraft for casualty evacuation and light transportation roles. The IAF also employed the armed version of the Chetak in the anti-tank role.
  • Cheetah. The SA 315B Lama, a single-engine helicopter lighter than the Chetak, developed by Aerospatiale to meet with the requirement of the IAF and the Indian Army for operating in hot and high conditions, was manufactured under licence by HAL and was renamed as Cheetah. This machine had the power plant and rotor system of the Alouette III combined with a reinforced airframe of the Alouette II. An upgraded variant powered by the Turbomeca TM 333-2M2 engine was named as the Cheetal.

Having rendered yeomen service for over four decades, the fleets of Chetak, Cheetah and Cheetal have been overdue for retirement from service. Both the IAF and the Indian Army have been anxiously waiting for replacement of these fleets in the LUH category. In the meanwhile, HAL has provided the Indian armed forces with the twin-engine five-tonne class advanced light helicopter (ALH) Dhruv. The ALH Dhruv programme is regarded as one of the more successful programmes that the HAL has undertaken. However, there have been some areas of concern in respect of delivery schedules and issues related to quality.

Advanced Light Helicopter Dhruv

The ALH Dhruv is a twin-engine utility helicopter designed with assistance from MBB of Germany, is being manufactured by HAL. The project began in 1984 and after battling against several impediments such as budgetary restrictions and sanctions by the US following the nuclear tests in Pokhran in 1998, the first Dhruv entered service finally in 2002. It took 18 years for the project to come to fruition. Apart from the version for the Indian armed forces, one for civilian use has also been developed. The ALH Dhruv has also been exported to customers in Nepal, Israel and Ecuador. To date around 250 machines have been produced for different customers. The military version in production is employed for logistic support, transportation, disaster relief, reconnaissance, search and rescue and medical evacuation.

Unfortunately, the reputation of the ALH Dhruv has been somewhat dented by the unusually large number of mishaps especially over the last decade. While a few of these could have been attributable to human failure, specifically pilot error, the majority of the accidents are believed to be on account of technical malfunction or failure. Notably, there appears to be some problem with the tail rotor. In the last ten years of operations of the ALH Dhruv fleet, there have been as many as 16 major accidents. Some of these accidents have also resulted in loss of precious lives. Of particular concern has been the large number of accidents in the small Dhruv fleet being operated by the Air Force in Ecuador. Undoubtedly, there is a question mark looming large over the horizon about design deficiencies afflicting the ALH Dhruv fleet that need to be attended to and corrected without further delay and loss of machines as well as of lives. HAL will have to find ways to restore the confidence of the operators of the ALH Dhruv fleet.

Armed Variant of ALH—Rudra WSI

On a suggestion by the Indian Army, HAL undertook a programme sometime after 2006 for producing an armed version of the ALH Dhruv called the Rudra Weapons Systems Integrated (WSI). As an armed version would not require any major structural change to the ALH Dhruv airframe, it was felt that this project could be completed in a relatively short time frame. The prototype of the Dhruv WSI was on flying and static display at Aero India International Airshow in 2009. The Rudra obtained initial operational clearance (IOC) on February 3, 2013; just in time for HAL to hand over two machines to the Indian Army on February 4, 2013, at the Aero India Airshow. The Rudra also served as a platform for testing of weapon systems and avionics that are being integrated with the light combat helicopter (LCH) that is also under development at HAL.

Light Combat Helicopter

The LCH is a 5.5-tonne multi-role combat helicopter currently under development at HAL for induction into the Indian Army and the IAF. Plan to develop this platform was first put in the public domain in 2006. As the LCH was to be a derivative of the ALH Dhruv already in service with the Indian armed forces and abroad, it was expected that the LCH, though a new platform, would be developed quickly as many of its operating systems as well as the weapons management systems would have already been proven on the ALH Dhruv as well as on the ALH Dhruv WSI respectively. Technologically far more complex compared to the ALH Dhruv, the LCH currently is perhaps HAL’s most prestigious project.

The LCH is designed for anti-infantry and anti-armour roles and has the capability to operate at altitudes up to 7,000 metres. The machine is powered by the HAL/Turbomeca Shakti turboshaft engine and is equipped with helmet-mounted targeting systems, electronic warfare suites and advanced weapons systems. With a data link on board, the LCH will be able to carry out network-centric operations. It will have a glass cockpit, gun and rocket pods, air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles to attack and destroy hostile positions high in the mountains. The LCH will make up for the deficiency that has been existing in the IAF for a long time. The IAF has been operating a fleet of Mi-35 Attack Helicopters that are not capable of high altitude operations, a weakness that was so evident during the war in Kargil in 1999.

HAL had planned to fly its first LCH prototype by December 2008. However, like several projects undertaken by HAL, the LCH project has also suffered delays. Consequently, the first prototype of the LCH undertook its maiden flight in 2010 after a delay of two years. As per the initial plans, the LCH was expected to be ready for IOC by December 2010 followed by the final operational clearance (FOC) in 2011. But the latest information is that the LCH is expected to be granted IOC sometime this year, a delay of five years from the original schedule. Revised time frame for FOC has not yet been declared.

Light Utility Helicopter

After cancellation of the first tender, in July 2008, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued a request for proposal (RFP) for the second time to procure the urgently required 197 light utility helicopters from abroad to replace the obsolescent fleet of Chetak and Cheetah helicopters that had been in service for over four decades with the IAF and the Indian Army. The aim was to induct the new machines into the Indian armed forces by 2010. On parallel track, HAL was tasked to develop a platform of a capability similar to those procured from abroad in a time frame of seven years. At that point in time, HAL was required to supply 115 of the indigenous machine.

However, seven years have gone by since then and while in August last year, even the second RFP for the 197 LUH has also been cancelled, the indigenous equivalent machine is yet to take to the air. Meanwhile, the total requirement of LUH has also gone up to 384, a figure that could well be revised upwards in the future. The MoD has decided to allow domestic players (read HAL) to manufacture the helicopters under the ‘Buy and Make (Indian)’ category, allowing the Indian industry to make the helicopters under a joint venture with a foreign manufacturer.

HAL displayed a mock up of the LUH at Aero India 2015 and indicated that the prototype would take to the air in August this year. HAL aims for FOC in 2017 and to commence deliveries to the Indian armed forces by the end of that year. Given the track record of the company, one would have serious reservations about the capability of HAL to adhere to these time lines. Meanwhile, with no other option, the Indian armed forces will continue to flog the ageing fleets of Chetak and Cheetah.