Unpacking the Indian Navy RFI for Lease of 24 Light Helicopters

The Indian Navy (IN) issued a Request for Information (RFI) for lease of 24 light helicopters on Friday, Apr 23, 2021. This follows parleys with few Indian operators and OEMs starting last November. The RFI seeks responses from helicopter OEMs, authorised leasing firms, third party financiers or government-sponsored agencies for 24 helicopters with ground support equipment (GSE), maintenance support including Performance-based Logistics (PBL), and training of aircrew and maintainers. The lease will proceed along Chapter IX of the latest Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP 2020). The period of initial lease is five years, extendable by another five years, with an option to buy back the airframes at residual value.

This is the first time the IN has resorted to leasing helicopters. The acute shortfall in light helicopters, low availability of obsolescent Chetaks (Alouette IIIB) and a Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) program meandering inconclusively has likely driven IN to invoke the ‘lease’ option included in the latest DAP. However, naval sources confirmed to this writer that the lease program in no way dilutes either the numbers or importance of NUH.

Highlights

The highlights of the proposed lease are summarised below:

  • Twin-engine helicopters under 5-tons with wheeled undercarriage and blade folding
  • Capable of day & night sustained operations from afloat and ashore
  • Missions include SAR, casualty evacuation, communication and Low Intensity Maritime Operations (LIMO)
  • Offered helicopters should have a residual life of 15 years at commencement of lease
  • Flying and ‘Operator’ level maintenance by IN crew; rest by the lessor or OEM partner
  • 75% serviceability to be ensured at two bases — one each on western and eastern seaboard
  • Minimum flying quantum of 360 hours per year, with a surge capacity of 50 hours per month for 2 months in a year
  • Capable of embarked operations up to 180 days in a year; 120 days at a stretch, when required, once a year

Outline specifications match that of a civil offshore-configured light twin and include weather radar, standard equipment for flying under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) in Class D airspace’, Automatic Identification System (AIS), rescue hoist, emergency floats, etc. Notable additions include an electro-optic, infrared (EO/IR) payload, Gen III (& above) night vision goggle (NVG) compatible cockpit, feasibility of integrating a cabin-mounted 7.62mm machine gun, and underslung capability of 900 kg.

The RFI clearly means a helicopter that can operate ‘integral‘ to a warship — an interesting difference from the recently supplied HAL-manufactured ALH Mk-3 Maritime Role helicopters (ALH Mk-3 MR) for coastal security. It is this difference that both sides need to understand clearly — one where indigenous naval helicopter development faltered in the past.

First landing of the ALH Mk-3 on a naval ship (INS Shardul), Sep 2013 (Crew: Cdr Anil Gulati, ETP HAL, and the author)

Chetak inventory at an all-time low

The lease aims to fill the gap left behind by the dwindling numbers of Chetak, with some added features. Naval helicopter pilots first cut their teeth on the 2-ton Chetak, a light single-engine copter maintained by a team of 4-5 crew. It can be launched from ‘strike down’ condition in hangar in less than 30 minutes; scrambled in under five minutes; blades fold in less than 10 mins. It requires no traversing gear and can fly for weeks with nothing more than frontline servicing. It has no complicated avionics or sensors that require special training. The simplicity of this machine is unmatched. However, it is well past its glory days, barely supportable, and has nil utility by night. The IN has hardly enough to cover the frontline SAR requirements, let alone support training and sustained embarkations. Whether this void will be bridged by latest acquisition ‘Dhruv’ ALH Mk-3 MR, optimised for shore-based operations, remains to be seen.

Leased helicopters in civil aviation

Civil offshore flying is one of the most rigorous sectors in the helicopter industry. In Bombay High, each airframe flies 80-90 hours per month with a serviceability rate close to 90%. Contracts impose severe ‘liquidated damages’ (LD) and penalty clauses that preclude more than 1-2 days of downtime per month. Helicopters are serviced within narrow maintenance windows when they return from the sea each day (and they do — an important point). A helicopter turning ‘AOG’ (aircraft on ground) out at sea can wipe out the company’s earnings in a matter of hours. Clients (ONGC, for instance) award ‘crew change’ or ‘production’ contracts through competitive bidding process to helicopter operators like Pawan Hans Limited (PHL), Global Vectra Helicorp Ltd (GVHL), Heligo Charters, etc. that have company-owned or leased helicopters flown, maintained and operated by their own crew. This ‘wet lease’ arrangement gives the operator (say, GVHL) maximum flexibility and the client (say, ONGC) maximum value. Deep third-line maintenance activities are undertaken by highly-skilled aircraft maintenance engineers (AME) and technicians within small hangars, modest resources and non-tensile timelines. Depot-level 5000-hourly inspections are completed in 1-2 months; 2500-hourly in less than ten days, using op-logistics chains that cut across the globe. Every penny counts; there are no weekly PowerPoint briefings; no scope for finger-pointing or shifting blame. ‘Perform or perish’ is the mantra.

A Bell 412EP ex-GVHL under major inspection (Kaypius photo)

Operating leased helicopters in a naval setting

The model envisaged by IN, as gleaned from the RFI, is however slightly different. It appears closer to a ‘dry operating lease’ arrangement — something between wet and dry lease. It is a model low on lease duration but high on numbers & specifications. This approach though understandable is not without its pitfalls.

As opposed to civil offshore helicopters, naval operations require helicopters to embark ships for extended durations where only frontline servicing or ‘O’ level maintenance activity is possible. For example, IN ships with embarked helicopters routinely carry out extended ‘Patrol off Gulf’ (POG), Overseas Deployment (OSD) and cross-coast deployments thousands of miles away from home port.

The lease modalities and costing by the lessor in the proposed lease would have to take into account deeper levels of servicing and maintenance at lessee’s premises ashore, including, as specified in the RFI, “breakdown at any place in India”. This will throw up exigencies outside the ambit of ‘O’ level. For example, if the helicopter breaks down or becomes ‘AOG’ in the middle of the sea, how will the lessor hook-up with military-diplomatic op-logistics networks? Delivering 75% serviceability in situations outside the reach of the lessor/OEM may pose challenges that upend the very purpose of leasing. It is learnt that these issues are being discussed in a series of meetings ongoing since December 2020. Perhaps a multidisciplinary naval team could visit one of India’s large offshore helicopter operators to get first-hand insights into successful lease models that have been in operation for years.

Points to ponder

A few minor observations that a coarse reading of the RFI brought to my mind are listed below. Please note, this is purely my personal opinion and not for or against any specific product or OEM:

  • Few technical parameters appear to be infructuous. For instance, the RFI seeks ‘dual channel cross talking FADEC’ for the powerplant — difficult to justify for this case. The cost-benefit ratio of such obtuse demands must be understood and rationalised.
  • The inclusion of a multi-spectral EO/IR payload, though desirable, falls short of being an ‘essential’ criteria for intended roles. Such kits are found on civil airborne law enforcement (ALE) helicopters and include daylight optics plus infrared sensors for night use. However, it may drive up costs and impose delays on otherwise compliant platforms. This could end up denying us quick, easy and low-cost access to technology — the very purpose of leasing. Further, the incoming 16 ALH Mk-3 MR and 24 MH-60Rs will come with all this and more.
  • There is needless foray into describing contingency power, one engine inoperative (OEI) operation etc, where, for example, a simple “helicopter should be certified under Category A” may have sufficed.
  • Achieving ‘180 days at sea in a year’ for a seagoing force under a ‘dry lease’ model is a tough ask & needs careful analysis.
  • If lessor is to provide for the movement of helicopter in and out of ship hangar, manual traversing emerges as the natural choice. Anything above 3.5-4 tons would require a deck-based traversing solution to be also provided by the lessor. This will drive up the costs for heavier, more capable helicopters, thus leaving an uneven playing field.
  • Excluding single-engine helicopters and those with skid landing gear leaves many capable light-singles out of the game. It restricts choices that can be assessed for suitability at a later stage. The problems faced by IN in operating Chetaks (in the twilight of their life) is well understood. But should this slam the door shut on single-engine helicopters and turn naval aviation into an all-twin fleet? One hopes this aspect has been well researched vis-a-vis latest advancements in light singles.
  • Every new type/make that is inducted takes time to settle down. There’s a learning curve; pilots and ground crew learn on the job. Going by past experience of major aircraft induction and a first-time lease of this nature, five year lease is too short.

The RFI seeks responses by 18 Jun 2021, followed by finalisation of Leasing Operational Requirements (LOR), Approval of Necessity (AoN) within 6 months, solicitation of offers, technical evaluation, cost negotiations and award of contract within stipulated timelines under DAP. More than half dozen established OEMs, including non-scheduled operators from India and abroad, have reportedly evinced interest in the case.

Given the reality of numbers and extreme paucity of light helicopters in the IN, this program can ill-afford to be another experiment without clear, time-bound outcomes. I recommend we stick with Kelly Johnson’s KISS principle, going forward.


An edited version of this article was first published as a news report by Vertical Magazine on May 10, 2021. You can access it here.

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Kaypius

©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2021. All rights reserved. Views are personal. I can be reached at realkaypius@gmail.com or on Twitter @realkaypius. I welcome your views.

7 thoughts on “Unpacking the Indian Navy RFI for Lease of 24 Light Helicopters

  1. A great read as usual. Some of the points highlighted are pertinent and whilst it is up to the lessor to decide what his QRs are, it seems to be a very tall order for even the existing players in the industry. One wonders, does a functional model of leased helicopters for the Navy exist anywhere. It will be interesting to see the progress on ground till Jun 2021.

  2. Sir, I align with you on second (EO/IR) and third (Cat A) para under ‘Points to Ponder’. Others being safety, operational or “T1” oriented may not harm the case.

    Possible long term engagement is clear in the tone of RFI. ‘Wisemen’ may therefore avoid discarding T1 options if OEM commits alternate configuration with mutually agreed caveat.

  3. Thanks, Sanjeev, very informative for an aviation lay person like me!
    A few thoughts/comments:

    1. The ‘dual channel cross talking FADEC’ for the powerplant and the multi-spectral EO/IR payload sounds like the specs in the QRs haven’t really been prioritised into V-E-D. Similar errors could be made for warships, too. In hastily drawn-up QRs, the performance specs (esp of wpns & sensors) are all given equal weightage (which means they’re all essential, and amount to far more than can fit into a hull with the laid-down LOA, whilst simultaneously limiting the beam to a value that will allow it to meet the max speed requirements. Add to this the problems of fuel bunkerage (within the same LOA, and with beam limited by desired max speed) to allow for the specified endurance. In other words, an impossible combination!

    2. Bullets 4 & 5 of your minor obsns on the RFI are symptoms of not thinking things through. This could happen in ship design, too, but that is essentially more forgiving as the safety margins are much wider and the risks are much smaller than in aviation.

    3. And the last bullet: learning from past experience is frequently hobbled by unwillingness to make clinical self-assessments due to parochial, personal or political considerations. The more this tendency grows, the less professional we become.

    I enjoy following your writings on your blog… keep ’em coming!

  4. Very pertinent issues have been raised in this article. Few related issues also need attention

    Initial lot of ALH MK-1 helicopters had several limitations, which have been overcome to a large extent. Also, blade and tail boom folding has been build though space required is still more as of now and endeavours are being made to improve it.
    The experience of ALH helped in reducing the development time of LUH and LCH helicopters.

    If IN is looking for Chetak replacement then why is it not examining LUH, which has already received Initial Operational Clearance (IOC). Indigenous capability building takes time and if Indians do not buy domestic machines, then domestic industry and products would continue to lag behind their competitors.

    As regards to meeting the requirements of IN, it is seen that involvement of stakeholders plays an important role, the contribution of Cmde Maolankar and Cmde CD Balaji in Naval LCA can not be forgotten. Feasibility of placing IN design engineers in HAL for helicopters projects must be examined.

  5. A very well articulated post which comes from your vast experience in Aviation Plans Directorate, Project office HAL and offshore flying experience with Civil operator. Formulation of a response to this RFI is a challenging task considering the complications involved in the merging of Military and Civil concept of helicopter operations and maintenance. Due deliberation will be required on the part of Indian Navy and the participating companies to alleviate to a suitable helicopter which can meet the operational requirements and adhear to the technical and mainternance requirements. The Naval requirements must be limited to a multi-engined helicopter maintaining the operational flexibility of Chetaks as fas as practical.

  6. Nicely written article. Reading between the lines is an art and thanks for breaking this down into ‘plainspeak’. As you have brought out, embarked operations of 180 days a year with 75% serviceability is a tall ask. Blade folding and traversing system also is a grey area. The traversing system in particular would require modifications on existing design on ships, which should also cater for MH 60R in future and the existing helicopters at present!

    Looking forward to Jun 21, when the interested parties would float their offers.

  7. Always a pleasure to read such enriching analysis.
    (a) Totally in agreement with technical parameters not to be “too instructive” in an RFI or SQR. We should let the OEMs judgement on catering for a contingency prevail over our limited knowledge of systems available around. Case in point – OEI, FADEC etc.
    (b) Since the requirement of IFR capability was given , flexibility for an OEM to meet these with single engine could have been left open.
    (c) A small but an observation on NVG spec – if one has to define the cockpit compatibility it be better defined in terms of Class A/B cockpit rather than Gen 2/3 etc. This being a spectral range of lighting available in cockpit vis-à-vis sensitivity range of NVG- additional specifications for the lighting may also be thought of if there is plan to have HUD/HMDs.

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