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Military Helicopter Programmes- Needs A Push

The existing fleet of the helicopters with the Indian Armed Forces is facing issues of deficiency in the inventory coupled with poor age profile of helicopters which impacts on effective operations. Though procurement programmes have been undertaken but these need to be fast tracked.

Helicopters have been an imperative part of all the three wings of the Indian Armed Forces as they are not only used for attack purposes in time of war but are equally used for transportation, search, rescue, medical transport, law enforcement and aerial observation, amongst others. The helicopters for defence purpose are typically categorized into three types depending upon the operational requirement of a country's Armed Forces as shown in Fig.

Historically, India's military helicopter market has been dominated by Russian and French origin platforms such as the Cheetah and Chetak, which have been licensed produced by HAL. At present, the inventory of helicopters with the three defence services consists of over 750 helicopters with the Indian Air Force (IAF) having approximately 440 helicopters, 210 with Indian Army (IA) and around 110 with Indian Navy (IN) and Coast Guard (ICG). These helicopters account for 36 percent of the total military aircraft assets of the country.

Noteworthy, about 78 percent fleet is of light or medium lift helicopters including Cheetah, Chetak and M series helicopters and 57 percent fleet is more than 20 years old as shown in the below given vintage spread diagram and is scheduled for replacement.

Market Opportunity

The ageing fleet with the three Armed Forces needs to be replaced and additional modern helicopters needs to be added for newer roles - combat, surveillance and rescue, thus paving way for huge requirement of helicopters envisaging induction of over 1,000 helicopters of different types by the end of 2027, to fulfil the emerging gap. As of now, on the anvil are 500 helicopters for the IA, 350 helicopters for the IAF, 200 helicopters for the IN & ICG. The  Paramilitary Forces have their own requirements which are nearly 100+ copters. Estimations depicts that the Indian Armed Forces are likely to spend around Rs 100000-130000 Crores on the above mentioned military helicopter acquisitions between 2017-2027 with the Indian Military Helicopter market to grow at a rate of 6-7 percent year on year. Consequently, there lies a big business opportunity for Indian public as well as for private sector in the helicopter manufacturing, as most of the helicopters are to be manufactured in India with foreign collaboration in tune with 'Make in India' initiative of the Indian Government wherein in all likelihood Indian companies will have to partner with global Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs).

Some of the major on-going and future procurement of the three Defence Forces are discussed below. However, it is to be seen that most of these programmes are still in initial stages and needs to be expedited given the gap seen in the existing helicopter inventory.

Indigenous ALH Dhruv - More than 200 Dhruvs of different variants are operating with Indian Defence Forces.  HAL is executing an order for 159 Dhruv helicopters from Indian Army & IAF which is under supply.  Further, HAL bagged orders for 73 ALH in 2017 from Army, Coast Guard and Navy for ALH Mk-III & Mk-IV variants worth over Rs 7000 Crores.

Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) - Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) has been indigenously designed and manufactured by HAL. Indian Air Force and Indian Army are looking to acquire 65 LCH 114 LCH respectively. The Government has already given the initial approval for acquisition of 10 and 5 LCHs worth Rs 2911 Crores.  It is under trials as of now.

Reconnaissance and Surveillance Helicopter Program (RSH) - The Indian Army and Air Force have requirement of having 197 Reconnaissance and Surveillance helicopters (RSH) - 133 and 64 RSH, respectively, worth Rs 9700 Crores to replace their ageing Cheetah and Chetak light helicopters. After previous RFIs getting scrapped, a fresh RFI was issued on 31 October 2014 in a 'Buy-and-Make-India' approach with a certain number of helicopters to be supplied by the selected OEM in flyaway condition, with the remaining numbers to be built by Indian partner at a production facility in India through licensed transfer of technology. Indian private companies - Tata, Reliance, Mahindra are in fray with Mahindra forming a JV with Airbus and Tata's with Bell. At present, the RSH programme continues to be covered in uncertainty, with no clarity from the Government on its future, leaving the private industry in limbo.

Procurement of 200 Kamov Ka-226T - In Dec 2015 with the Government gave nod to procurement of 200 Kamov Ka-226T 'Hoodlum' light multirole helicopters for an estimated Rs 6500 Crores via a government-to-government deal. Out of these, 60 Kamov-226T helicopters will be supplied to India in fly-away condition, while 140 will be manufactured in India. This was followed by HAL and Russian Helicopters agreeing in October 2016, to form a JV - Indo Russian Helicopter Pvt. Ltd. (IRHL) - with HAL holding 51 percent share. Russia had agreed to ensure transfer of technologies to India as part of the pact.

Naval Utility Helicopters-The Indian Navy is looking to procure 111 Light Naval Utility Helicopters (NUH) worth Rs 21738 Crores under the Strategic Partnership (SP) model to replace Chetak Helicopters and issued an Expression of Interest (EoI) in Feb 2019. 95 helicopters out of 111 will be manufactured in India by the selected Indian Strategic Partner with 60 percent indigenization. Three original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) said to have submitted the responses to the EoI floated by the Defence Ministry which include:

  • Airbus has offered two platforms the H 145M and the Panther AS565  on offer for manufacturing in partnership with Mahindra Defence.
  • US based Lockheed Martin & Sikorsky has offered the S 76D.
  • US helicopter manufacturer Bell.

An RFP is expected to be issued soon to selected Indian companies. The likely Indian SPs are - Tata Advanced Systems Ltd, Mahindra Defence, Adani Defence, Larsen & Toubro, Kalyani Group, and Reliance. A joint venture set up by HAL, Russian Helicopters and Rosoboronexport to manufacture the Kamov 226T light helicopter in India under an Indo-Russian inter-governmental agreement (IGA)  have also applied to be SP.

Naval Multi-Role Helicopters (NMRH)- The Navy requires at least 123 NMRH for anti submarine role to replace its ageing Sea King helicopters and had issued a global Request for Information (RFI) for the same in August 2017. The procurement will be under SP model. Likely foreign contenders to include:

  • Airbus's NH90 or the naval Super Puma
  • Sikorsky's MH-60 Romeo
  • Kamov

Keeping in mind that the procurement of Naval Multirole Helicopters will take at least three to five years, the Navy has placed an order for 24 Sikorsky MH-60 Romeo maritime helicopters under direct government sale which is expected to be worth about Rs 13500 Crores and will fill a critical gap in the Indian Navy. The induction of these heavy-duty choppers is expected to be around 2020-2024.

Indigenous Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH) - India plans to design and develop an indigenous Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH) worth Rs 10000 Crores to replace the large fleet of Mi-8/17 transport chopper fleet. The requirement of the Armed Forces for Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH) is being pegged at over 550 units, with potential exports as well. The twin-engine medium lift  chopper is to have a dedicated naval variant as well. HAL has already done preliminary work on design of the new 10-12 ton class helicopter which will be based on enlarged Dhruv design. There will certainly be a requirement to collaborate with a foreign OEM as HAL does not have the requisite know-how and expertise in this class of helicopters.

Way Forward

To meet the projected military helicopter requirements of the Armed Forces, it has become imperative for the Government to involve the private sector as HAL which is primarily involved in indigenous designing, development and production of helicopters for the Armed Forces is already overburdened. It is unlikely that HAL will be able to fulfil the military helicopter requirements of the Indian Armed Forces on its own. Thus, private sector participation has become imperative in aerospace/helicopter manufacturing segment which so far has been only as suppliers, fabricators to HAL and OEMs. They have proved their mettle over the years and are looking to expand their presence in defence manufacturing including helicopters where the country is lacking considerably. Further, some of the major private players  TATA, Mahindra Defence, and L&T  today have the technological capabilities to undertake complex manufacturing required for this sector. To encourage private sector participation, the Indian Government is promoting the manufacturing of helicopters under 'Buy-Make (Indian)' and 'SP category'. Further, the silver line for private sector being that there would be continuous requirement of helicopters (besides exports) for next 20 years for such a venture. Thus, the private sector should not hesitate to invest rather on the contrary it should take the initiative and form the required JV with the foreign OEMs to tap such a lucrative and growing market.

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