The armed forces’ quest for new helicopters has seen controversies, scams and scrapping of tenders, much like the lingering Bofors ghost not allowing the induction of any new artillery howitzer in the Army for the last 30 years.
In a bid to break the jinx, the Centre is set to kick off the hunt for over 100 new-generation naval utility helicopters (NUH), which will replace the obsolete Chetak helicopters in the Navy, in a ‘Make in India’ project with foreign collaboration for over $2 billion.
Eleven Indian private sector companies, ranging from Tata Advanced Systems, Bharat Forge, Mahindra Aerospace to Reliance Defence & Aerospace and L&T, have already responded with proposed joint ventures revolving around three foreign helicopters – AS565 MBe of Airbus, Bell Helicopters-429 and Super Lynx 300 of AgustaWestland.
With the armed forces planning to induct well over 1,000 helicopters of different types in the next 10-15 years, the Indian private sector eyes a big business opportunity in the country’s aerospace sector, which has largely been domestic PSU Hindustan Aeronautics’ preserve so far.
“The formal tender for the over 100 NUH is now being vetted before issuance. The project will give a fillip to the ‘Make in India’ initiative in the aerospace industry, with transfer of technology in niche areas not available here till now,” said a source.
Though the Army and IAF also require 384 light-utility helicopters, the NUH is different since it needs wheeled landing gear, sea optimization, foldable blades and small dimensions to ensure it can fit into warship hangars. The capability for anti-submarine warfare with torpedoes and missiles is also required.
But like the Army-IAF case, the Navy’s earlier tender for importing 56 NUH was cancelled to ensure the project becomes a ‘Buy & Make (Indian)’ venture.
In August last year, soon after the Modi government came to power, the defence ministry had scrapped the long-pending acquisition of 197 light-utility helicopters for Army-IAF from abroad due to irregularities.
Along with HAL’s ongoing project to build 187 light helicopters, which was sanctioned in February 2009, the ministry of defence decided all the 197 choppers would also be made in India with foreign collaboration.
Officials, in fact, say the ‘Buy & Make (Indian)’ categorization of the light-utility helicopters has the potential to give Rs 40,000 crore worth of business to the domestic industry.
However, the decision also means the military’s already long wait to replace their obsolete Cheetah/Chetak helicopters, used even in high-altitude areas like Siachen, will take several more years to materialize now.