Heralding one of the biggest helicopter programs in South Asia, the Indian Defence Acquisition Council headed by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman accorded ‘Acceptance of Necessity’ for the Indian Navy’s 111 Naval Utility Helicopter program on 31st Oct 2017. The approval for this program, valued at INR 217.38 billion (USD 3.5 billion), follows a Request for Information (RFI) issued earlier on 22nd August for the NUH and 123 Naval Multi Role Helicopters (NMRH).
For a navy used to operating vintage utility Alouettes, Seaking and Kamov-28 anti-submarine helicopters, these two programs aim to fill a critical capability gap that existed as of many years. Both programs will be executed under the ‘Strategic Partnership’ model enunciated by the Indian MoD under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership. The first lot of 16 helicopters will be directly imported. 95 others will be manufactured locally by selected global OEM in partnership with an Indian partner to be selected by the government.
Helicopters were hitherto manufactured in India only by the Bangalore-based public sector aerospace giant Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). Strategic Partnership has changed the rules of the game and HAL may soon lose its monopoly. None of the Indian partners vying for a slice of this gigantic pie have any experience of taking a helicopter project from drawing board to the air. Many lessons are set to be learnt in the years to come, mostly at naval expense.
The RFIs issued in August also include a requirement of three flight simulators for NMRH and two flight simulators for the NUH, plus maintenance simulators for both helicopter types. Not all these helicopters will go to frontline units. Only 60-70% of the projected numbers may fly in frontline, with the rest making up maintenance reserves and strike-off wastage. Simulators have been included in a rotary program for the first time by the Indian Navy, indicating a rising commitment towards adopting best practices in crew and maintainer training.
Time / cost overruns and sharp U-turns are not unusual in Indian military procurements. At receiving end here will be the Indian Navy that is already reeling under a critical shortage of helicopters. A 16-multirole helicopter deal that entered cost negotiation stage after almost a decade of confabulations was scrapped by the MoD in June this year, leaving gaping holes in the Indian armoury in a region teeming with Chinese and Pakistani submarines.
It will be interesting to see how the NUH program unfolds. A self-protection suite with helmet-mounted display, RWR, MAWS & CMDS may sound like an overreach for a light, maritime helicopter. Alouette IIIBs that the NUH will replace could scramble under 3 minutes and operate with impunity from any of its decks with minimal logistics footprint. It was a simple and ‘quick off the block’ helicopter but without adequate spare capacity for strap-on roles that the Indian Navy’s blue water aspiration demands. The NUH is set to change all that. Weight budgeting, range and endurance issues, and over-ambitious tri-service specifications compromised naval requirements in the indigenous 5.5-ton Dhruv helicopter program. The Navy would do well to revisit some of those lessons at this juncture.
The RFI deadline originally set for 06 Oct 2017 was extended by a month, as per sources. Meanwhile, global aerospace giants are working at a frenetic pace behind the scenes to finalise agreements with Indian partners and field their responses to some tough questions coupled with stringent ToT requirements. For the NUH, meeting tough over-sea missions under ISA+20oC, integration of light weight torpedo and depth charges for sub-surface targeting, EO/IR, tactical radar, RWR, MAWS, CMDS, 12.7mm machine guns etc will pose many challenges to light twins on a sub-4.5-ton, wheeled helicopter.
The gauntlet has been thrown and it is for the likes of Bell Helicopter Textron, Lockheed Martin (formerly Sikorsky), Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo (formerly Agusta Westland), and others to rise to the challenge. An RfP with detailed technical specifications, offset obligations and ToT parameters is expected in the second half of 2018.
(An extract of this article was featured under the Dubai Air Show 2017 coverage of Shephard Media, UK on 7th Nov 17. Reproduced here with permission of Shephard Press Ltd, London, UK).
© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved.
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