When it comes to procurement matters, Indian MoD is an unlikely paragon of efficiency, even on a weekday. Saturday, 25th August 2018 broke that mould. As per a press release from the MoD, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), chaired by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman accorded approval for procurement of military equipment for the Services amounting to approximately INR 46,000 crores. Notable among these, is the Indian Navy’s case for procurement of 111 Naval Utility Helicopters (NUH) at a cost of over INR 21,000 crores.
The ‘Acceptance of Necessity’ (AoN) for this program was accorded on 31st Oct 2017. This followed a Request for Information (RFI) issued earlier on 22nd August 2017 for the NUH and 123 Naval Multi Role Helicopters (NMRH).
The accelerated process that moved from AoN to DAC clearance within ten months is indicative of the Indian Navy’s dogged determination to push long-standing deficiencies of their rotary fleet higher up the national agenda. In March last year, navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba visited the US with key officials where the itinerary included discussion on multirole helicopters. The US Navy’s MH-60 ‘Romeo’ was also on parade.
The NUH is the first project under the MoD’s prestigious Strategic Partnership (SP) Model that ‘envisages indigenous manufacturing of major defence platforms by an Indian Strategic Partner, who will collaborate with foreign OEM, acquire niche technologies and set up production facilities in the country’. This is part of the ‘Make in India’ clarion call sounded by PM Narendra Modi’s government to promote a ‘vibrant and wide-spread defence industrial ecosystem in the Indian aviation sector with the private industry and MSMEs as major stakeholders’.
Global aerospace majors such as Boeing, Airbus, Bell Flight, Leonardo etc are in the fray for forming strategic partnerships with Indian companies, all of whom (except state-owned HAL) are yet to manufacture complete helicopters.
Another key acquisition program for multirole helicopters received a shot in the arm from the DAC. A case for procuring 24 MH-60 ‘Romeo’ anti-submarine helicopters through inter-governmental route was also approved in the same DAC meeting of Saturday. A long drawn DCS case for procuring 16 MRH fell through last June when contract negotiations with Sikorsky (now Lockheed Martin) broke down on commercial issues. The Navy has moved quickly to recover lost ground by going the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route.
Two dozen may be a small number; but the long shadow of any ‘Romeo’ contract will surely fall on Indian Navy’s biggest acquisition program for 123 NMRH that is set to follow.
With the ‘2+2’ strategic dialogue with US Government scheduled for early September, Saturday’s decisions may provide some relief to President Trump’s team who are still seething from the Indian government’s decision to procure the S-400 missile system from Russia.
Saturday’s approvals, though welcomed whole-heartedly by naval officials, will muddy the waters somewhat for other contenders in the NMRH race such as Sikorsky (S70B), Airbus (H225) and European consortium NH Industries’ (NH-90 NFH). Add to this, the ‘influencer’ effect any ‘Romeo’ contract will have on Indian Navy’s biggest acquisition program for 123 NMRH that is set to follow. The Indian MoD, true to their style, may find it convenient to look back and march forward.
To borrow an old urdu proverb ‘Dilli door asth’ (Delhi is still far away). Lead times are huge and cases can meander for years. These approvals have to be followed by formal RFQs, evaluations, technical and commercial negotiations followed by signing on the dotted line. This may take at least 2-3 years followed by aircraft delivery, training and formal induction. Standing in between is a general election in 2019 where grandstanding and optics may take precedence over actual signing of deals.
For Indian Navy, it is time for the skipper to take the con and navigate this ship through the reefs and stormy weather up ahead.
(An edited version of this article was carried by Rotor & Wing International on 27 Aug 18. It can be accessed here. The story has also been featured by Shephard Media, UK on 28 Aug 18. It can be viewed here)
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved. Cover photo from official website of Indian Navy. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.