The first batch of ‘made in India’ Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) customized for coastal security role is slated for delivery to Indian Navy (IN) and Indian Coast Guard (ICG) shortly. This is a landmark event for both sides — the first bulk order of the ‘Dhruv’ Mark-III placed on state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) by ICG and IN. These helicopters are yet to be christened with a unique Indian name; however, it is learnt that they will be identified as Maritime Reconnaissance & Coastal Security ALH (MRCS) for the present.
While the Indian army and air force have inducted later versions of ALH (Mk-III utility, and weaponized Mk-IV ‘Rudra’) in large numbers, the IN and ICG have thus far operated only older Mk-I variant with conventional cockpit and Turbomeca TM 333 2B2 turboshaft engines.
Brisk work, against headwinds of CoViD lockdowns
The customized Mk-III MRCS under delivery features HAL’s Integrated Architecture Display System (IADS) glass cockpit, ‘Shakti’ (Safran Ardiden 1H1) turboshaft engines optimised for ‘hot & high’, and a host of new systems integrated by HAL’s Bengaluru-based Rotary Wing Research and Design Centre (RWRDC). Two ‘green’ helicopters were handed over to RWRDC by HAL’s Helicopter Division in June 2018 for system integration. The integration work was completed briskly by RWRDC (under a record two years) before CoViD-19 lockdowns pulled the brakes on field trials and certification.
Once the lockdown restrictions were eased by Indian government in May 2020, sensor integration and sea trials were resumed at Kochi, Chennai and Goa. As of November, two helicopters churn the air above Bengaluru almost daily for customer training. Acceptance flights by HAL test crew were in progress when this author visited. Post acceptance by HAL test pilots, the first lot will be formally ‘signaled out’ for customer acceptance sorties — “this month itself” (Nov 2020), as per a top HAL official. The timing roughly coincides with 12th anniversary of the dastardly Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attacks on Mumbai, Nov 26, 2008.
Key features of MRCS ALH
The contract for 32 coastal security ALH was inked in Mar 2017 with ICG as the lead service. Navy’s order for 16 was dovetailed into this program, basis the overarching responsibility for coastal security placed by the Government of India on navy in the wake of 26/11 terrorist attacks.
The MRCS ALH comes with modern avionics and role equipment for offshore roles; they will be primarily operating from shore bases. However, HAL is confident that the rotors will be ready to embark ships should the need arise. The ICG contract requires HAL to test and provide an afloat envelope (SHOLs) for the MRCS ALH. It also places a ‘performance-based logistics’ (PBL) contract on HAL for “75% aircraft availability”. This is the first time a customized variant with tough PBL clause is being offered by HAL to a sea-going customer. The results from this contract may well shape future decisions.
Some of the key systems integrated by HAL on the ‘Coastal Security ALH Mk-3’ include:
- Nose-mounted surveillance radar with 270 degrees coverage that can detect, classify and track multiple surface targets. The radar, operated by the copilot, has Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), Inverse SAR and Moving Target Identification (MTI) classification functions, including weather mode
- Multi-spectral Electro-optic pod for reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition and range finding with stowable control grip on copilot side
- A removable Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) for air ambulance role
- Slewable high intensity searchlight (Trakkabeam) on port side
- Loud hailer on starboard side
- 12.7 mm cabin-mounted machine gun (provisions on LHS)
- Traffic alert and collision avoidance system (TCAS-1)
- V/UHF communication system with data modem
- Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) Mk-XII with Mode S transponder
- Automatic Identification System (AIS)
- Automatic deployable Emergency Location Transmitter (ADELT)
- Solid state digital video recorder (SSDVR)
- Pressure refueling system
- 360-degree Search and Rescue (SAR) homer with coverage from 110-410 MHz
- Breeze Eastern Electrical rescue winch with rescue basket for double-lift (250 kg)
- Control grip (winchman mini-stick) in cabin for air-sea rescue
- Updated IADS and automatic flight control system (AFCS) software for maritime application
Why is this important?
Such an array of systems was hitherto seen only on heavier, multirole helicopters of the Indian Navy. For instance, no light helicopter in Indian Navy’s inventory till 2020 ever flew with a glass cockpit, surveillance radar, and electro-optic pod. The helicopter bears a visibly “fully-loaded” look that must meet the tough demands offshore. HAL engineers pointed out that the maximum certificated all-up weight (AUW) of the MRCS variant has been upgraded to 5750 kg against the Mk-I variant in IN and ICG inventory that was capped at 5500 kg. Shipborne limits for MRCS ALH are yet to be derived.
Folded dimensions, cumbersome blade-folding procedure, performance and maintainability issues plagued afloat exploitation of eight ALH Mk-I in naval inventory since their induction in 2003. The ICG holds four ALH Mk-I as of Nov 2020. Top HAL voices have often opined that their maritime customers never reaped the benefits of later variants. Today, both sides have a golden opportunity to revisit ghosts from the past.
Six with low-frequency dunking sonar
Six of the 16 naval Mk-III ALH are to be equipped with an indigenous Low Frequency Dunking Sonar (LFDS) developed by Kochi-based Naval Physical and Oceanographic Laboratory (NPOL). The sonar units will be produced by another state-owned entity — Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), with a host of downstream sub-vendors. Earlier this decade, the navy had offered a Mk-I naval ALH as test bed for developmental trials of the LFDS (This author was fortunate to participate in ground and flight trials of the LFDS, as also the 2014 deck landing trials of an ALH Mk-III that was handed over to Maldives. Read an anecdote here).
HAL sources stated that the selection of systems and customization of ‘coastal security ALH’ has been done primarily in consultation with ICG. This is primarily an ICG program, with IN hitching a ride only to meet rising demands for light multirole helicopters against an ageing and depleting fleet of Alouettes (Chetak). The IN contract does not include PBL clause, possibly to keep within budget constraints while letting ICG test the waters.
Finally, some helicopters for the IN & ICG!
It is reliably learnt that Indian Navy views the ‘coastal security ALH’ and Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) programs as two separate cases with no overlap. Seamless deck interface and a seagoing, light multirole helicopter under 4.5-ton drives the navy’s flagship NUH program. This is sought to be delivered through a Strategic Partnership (SP) between a selected Indian OEM and their foreign ‘strategic partner’ under ‘Make in India’.
HAL hopes to deliver five coastal security ALH Mk-III helicopters by end-November 2020, another nine by Mar 2021, and the balance 18 helicopters by Sep 2021 – a tough task given HAL’s order book and the changed situation post-CoViD.
As someone who has been keenly following the Indian helicopter saga, the author’s first impression of the MRCS ALH is cautiously optimistic. The sea is a tough testing ground. “Weight and watch” would be a good dictum for now. This report is only a curtain-raiser. The author looks forward to a detailed assessment and appraisal from naval perspective in due course.
HAL’s capability as a prime ‘systems integrator’ — spearheaded by designers and engineers from RWRDC — stands out in this program. RWRDC work — undertaken in cohort with test crew from Flight Operations — extends from drawing board to finished product, often navigating a minefield of Indian and foreign ‘buyer furnished’ / ‘buyer nominated’ equipment (BFE/BNE). RWRDC works with pure engineering talent and minimal field experience to deliver on challenges set by other departments. To me, they are like engine room folks in a war vessel — covered in oil and grease; delivering steam; responding to a rapid stream of conning orders coming from the bridge.
The true test will be if we can build the MRCS ALH into something great and export-worthy. The navy — thus far the toughest customer in HAL’s ALH journey — can also be HAL’s best brand ambassador.
(An edited version of this story was first published by Vertical Magazine. You can access it by clicking here)
© Kaypius, 2020. All rights reserved. Special thanks to HAL Corporate Office, Helicopter Division and RWRDC for their assistance in organizing this preview. Stay tuned for a more detailed evaluation.