The Indian Armed Forces continue to fly the outdated, vintage and accident-prone fleet of Cheetah/Chetak helicopters. These helicopters were inducted in the late sixties and seventies and are not only no longer fit for flying but are plagued by a high crash rate and huge serviceability problems, resulting in loss of precious lives and equipment. The latest in this sordid saga was the fatal crash of a Cheetah helicopter in September last year while on an operational training sortie in Bhutan. Both the pilots died, including one from the Royal Bhutan Army. It will no doubt go down as another statistical data in the aircraft accident records of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), with no urgency displayed to replace these flying coffins.
The Armed Forces have no doubt once again sounded the alarm over the ageing and obsolete fleet of Chetak/Cheetah helicopters, as well as the critical operational void which is fast emerging – a recent write up in the print media, has rightfully highlighted this aspect. This warning of the Armed Forces to the Government becomes even more significant due to the ongoing military confrontation with China in Eastern Ladakh, which is likely to stretch through the winter months, an area where the Cheetah helicopter is playing a critical role. Add to this the fact that the Cheetah helicopter is the lifeline of troops deployed in Siachen Glacier, and the gravity of the current situation becomes crystal clear. It is also no secret that majority of the Naval ships today are operating without an essential operational component on board, the helicopter, as the obsolete Chetak helicopters are no longer available.
The recent news of the HALs indigenously developed Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) demonstrating its high altitude capability both in Siachen and Ladakh areas is highly welcome, though its production and induction is still some time away. The other significant project to replace the Chetak/Cheetah with 200 Ka-226T Russian helicopters in a Government to Government agreement with Russia signed in 2015, is stuck on issues of price and indigenisation content with presently no progress in sight. The present situation looks extremely grim and worrisome. With the latest warning by the Armed Forces on the current dismal situation affecting their operational preparedness, it is hoped that the MoD wakes up from its slumber and takes drastic action to move things forward, for this segment of helicopters are the largest segment in numbers in the armed forces’ inventory, besides being operationally critical.
The ‘Cheetal’ helicopter (upgraded Cheetah) fielded by HAL as an interim measure is not a satisfactory solution for the long term, as the basic technology remains old and outdated. Cheetal has a more powerful engine with an upgraded gearbox to absorb the additional power, but the airframe and numerous other features remain the same. In any case, limited numbers inducted; 30 for the Army and 10 for Air Force.
Replacement Programme Cheetah/Chetak Status
The Army and Air force need approximately 400 helicopters to replace the existing fleet of Cheetah and Chetak and cater to operational voids. The move to replace these helicopters goes back to 2004 when the first trial was conducted but got mired in controversy due to anonymous complaints; which was the order of the day, during the period when the trails were being undertaken, to derail critical ongoing trials.
This was followed by two more trials conducted over the next few years, but these too sadly met the same fate and the replacement process was back to square one. These trials had the participation of the most advanced and modern helicopters from Bell, Eurocopter and Rosoboronexport, but surprisingly, none of them reached the final phase due to flawed procedures in our defence acquisition system. In fact, the Ka-226T was also part of the last trials which were terminated prematurely in 2014. The Government’s decision to go in for the induction of 200 Russian Ka-226T helicopters in a Government to Government agreement in 2014 was hence a welcome step and move in the right direction. However, the progress on this crucial project has been tardy, to say the least.
Even five years after the agreement between the two governments at the level of President Putin and Prime Minister Modi, the contract has still not signed. HAL is the nodal agency along with Russian Helicopters for this project and as per the agreement, 60 helicopters are to be delivered in a fly-away condition while the balance 140 are to be manufactured in India at HAL’s new facility at Tumkur, Karnataka. The contract was to be signed last year, but there seems to have been no progress on the same to date, highlighting India’s lethargic approach to the defence equipment acquisition process, even when it’s operationally critical.
The main problem relates to indigenous content levels being offered by Russia, which is not acceptable to India. The Ka-226T is a light multirole, twin-engine, coaxial contra-rotating helicopter and has the capability to operate in hot and high altitude conditions including the Siachen Glacier. It will be a suitable replacement for the Cheetah/Chetak helicopters and hence its induction and production needs to be fast-tracked. The Army will get 135 helicopters while the Air force is slated to get the balance 65.
The other replacement project is HAL’s indigenously developed LUH which has recently demonstrated its high altitude capability in high altitude and hot conditions, to include Ladakh and Siachen areas. The LUH is slated to be a single-engine, state of art, modern helicopter in the 3 Ton class with a standard main and tail rotor configuration. It has been developed to cater to the replacement of the Cheetah/Chetak fleet of all three services along with the other project of Ka-226T.
The Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) for the Air force variant of the LUH was accorded in February this year and with the test and trial flights carried out recently in Leh and Siachen, the IOC for the Army version is likely to be accorded soon. As per HAL, the LUH is expected to go into production early next year at the HAL’s newly built helicopter complex at Tumkur, Karnataka. The plans are to manufacture 184 LUH,withthe Army to get 123 and Air force 61 helicopters.
Both the Ka-226T and the LUH are modern and advanced technology helicopters in the light reconnaissance and surveillance-class and expected to enhance the Indian Military’s capability in high altitude operations. While the Ka-226T project presently remains mired in uncertainty, the LUH production by HAL is likely to be a reality by early next year; a positive development in the current dismal situation.
Naval Chetak Replacement Programme
The third critical project is the replacement of the obsolete Chetak helicopters with a Naval Utility Helicopter,a process that was set in motion in 2008. However,it was only in 2016 the ‘Strategic Partnership’ concept was introduced in the DPP with the aim to create capabilities in the private sector for manufacturing of key defence technologies including military helicopters.
The Navy’s NUH program became one of the first helicopter projects to be progressed through the strategic partnership route in 2016. The NUH is required to operate from ships and carry out multiple roles to include search and rescue, casualty evacuation, low intensity maritime operations and torpedo drops.
In this project, an Indian private sector company was required to tie up with a foreign helicopter company to manufacture 111 NUH for the Navy under the Prime Minister’s ‘Make in India’ push. Unfortunately, as is always the case in our confused and lethargic Defence Acquisition System, the next couple of years were spent on clarifying and defining the Strategic Partnership concept itselfby various Committees leading to a critical void in Navy’s operational preparedness today.
There was a ray of hope when an Expression of Interest was issued by the Navy in February last year for the purchase of 111 NUHs. There was an overwhelming response from the private industry to the Request for Information, with the likes of Mahindra Defence Systems, Tata Aerospace, Bharat Forge etc.,and even the HAL submitting two bids with respect to the ALH and the Ka-226T helicopters. the HALbid was strongly objected to by the private industry as this would defeat the very purpose of the strategic partnership route.
Just when things seem to be moving ahead on this crucial front of NUH the Defence Ministry has once again raised the spectre of HAL being given a chance in view of the present thrust on ‘Atamanirbharta’ (self-reliance). This is despite the fact that the Navy has already categorically rejected the ALH due to technical issues like blade folding, stowed dimensions and heavyweight – 5.5 Ton against a requirement of 4.5 Ton only. The Navy currently operates about 10 ALHs for onshore operations only. This is not good news for the Navy as well as the private industry which was looking forward to establishing along with HAL a sound and solid echo-system for helicopter manufacturing in India. Hopefully, the Government permits the NUH project to continue under the strategic partnership route with time being critical in the current security environment.
The replacement of the obsolete and ageing Cheetah/Chetak fleet remains the biggest challenge for the Government and the Armed Forces. The Armed Forces have raised alarms from time to time and have finally warned the Government of this critical operational void which has serious security implications. This becomes all the more relevant due to the ongoing military confrontation with China in Eastern Ladakh which is already into its fifth month and is likely to stretch through the winter. Keeping in mind the criticality of the situation the Government needs to push both the Kamov Ka-226T and the LUH projects on fast track through the HAL – the contract for the Ka-226T project needs to be signed at the earliest.
The numbers required are large as brought out earlier and HAL will need to ramp up its production capacity at its facility at Tumkur for these two types of helicopters to replace of the Cheetah/Chetak fleet in the shortest possible timeframe – it can take anything from five to seven years for the complete replacement of the inventory of Army and Air force on the premise that there are no further bureaucratic delays.
With regards to the NUH, HAL needs to lay off this project and let the private sector undertake this program through the Strategic Partnership route. HAL already has its hands full with three important and crucial helicopter projects, namely the Ka-226T, LUH and the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) which are likely to go into production next year, provided there are no more hitches and glitches. It also needs to be noted that HAL already has sufficient orders for the ALH and RUDRA for all three Services, which it will need to honour as per timelines given. It is time for the Government to crack the whip and make some tough decisions in this unending replacement saga or it will have to pay a heavy price for this critical operational void.
Lt Gen BS Pawar (Retd)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)