HAL Helicopters Dominate Aero India 2023

The 14th edition of India’s biennial air show ‘Aero India‘ was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Air Force Station Yelahanka, Bengaluru on Feb 13. The business days concluded Feb 15 after wide-ranging discussions, signing of MoUs and seminars attended by officials from defence and industry. A number of delegates and visitors, including serving officials and veterans from the services, trawled through the stalls or availed ‘demo flights’. The vibrant sentiment around the airshow was “Make in India” — hard to miss even if no path-breaking deals were signed or announced.

Airshow opened to public after the CoViD pandemic

Over 800 exhibitors, including 110 foreign exhibitors, participated in this edition. The five-day event themed ‘the runway to a billion opportunities’ focussed on indigenous aerospace and defence technologies, aligned with the Modi government’s push for ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat‘ (self-reliant India). The show was open to public for two days before curtains fell on Friday, Feb 17.

Air shows can have a hypnotic effect on soft-nosed delegates and the uninformed. From catching IAF’s ungodly Palam-Bengaluru Aero India shuttle to balancing ‘personal versus professional’, I have been fortunate to witness the travails of military delegates attending the show for about two decades now. Service personnel deputed from Delhi for the airshow are usually left with a migraine, souvenirs, note sheets and the tedious task of sifting substance from optics.

Aero India 2023 – ALH Mk1 from IAF’s Sarang display team strike a pose against maiden appearance of 5th gen F-35A fighters of USAF (Kaypius photo)

A class act by HAL’s rotary wing

While flying displays, formation aerobatics and the debut of fifth-generation F-35A Lightning II fighters from USAF enthralled record crowds, the rotary side of this edition was unmistakably dominated by state-owned defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The company’s light helicopter product range — twin-engine Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH, all marks), 3-ton single-engine Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) and the newly-inducted 5.8-ton Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) ‘Prachand’ — dominated the show. Their flying displays were widely appreciated by the audience, with the LCH ‘Prachand’ coming in for special praise for its menacing looks and remarkable agility. It was a delight to see the LUH that grew up under the threat of ‘exit clause’ for slipping timelines draw patterns of smoke above Yelahanka.

Yet, it was LCA Tejas that made it to the billboards! Welcome to the complex but mostly unrewarded world of helicopters!

Billboard at AFS Yelahanka during Aero India 2023 (Kaypius pic)

Indigenous aero engines remain a distant dream

The Indo-French Ardiden 1H1 ‘Shakti’ turboshaft engine powers the ALH (Mk 3, Mk 4) and LCH while a derated variant Ardiden 1U powers the LUH. A scale model of Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH) was also on display at HAL’s indoor pavilion. “Safran Helicopter Engines and HAL have signed a workshare agreement for the joint development of the engine intended for the future 13-ton Indian Multi-Role Helicopter and its naval version DBMRH” (deck-based multi role helicopter), HAL tweeted Feb 15. This is in addition to the $716 mn (INR 5375 Cr) order for 99 F-404-GE-IN20 engines for Tejas LCA, with more orders to follow for GE-414 engines for future variants.

The entire family of HAL helicopters, expected to total a thousand over five to six variants in future, will thus be equipped with turboshaft engines from the HAL-Safran joint venture — all customised to meet exacting requirements of ‘hot & high’. The total number of aero engines that will require to be produced to meet this target may be in the region of 2000. This presents one of the best opportunities for India to negotiate transfer of key aero engine technologies that have eluded us in the past. The Indian government should leverage these numbers and our much-vaunted ‘soft power’. Hope this does not go down as another “missed opportunity”.

India’s largest helicopter plant is here!

The air show was preceded by the inauguration a week before of India’s largest helicopter manufacturing facility on Feb 6. This factory spread over 615 acres has been set up by HAL at Tumakuru, about 70 miles outside Bengaluru, for series production of LUH. The plant, though under-utilised in the near term, would cater for series production of LUH, LCH and Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH) besides augmenting production and MRO of HAL-made helicopters. The LUH was unveiled by PM Modi on the occasion even as the first production LUH rolled out of HAL’s Bengaluru plant.

HAL Tumakuru factory (HAL photo via Twitter)

Foreign competition climbs down?

The Indian army and air force have projected a requirement of about 400 light helicopters to replace vintage Chetak (Alouette) and Cheetah (Lama). An Inter-governmental Agreement (IGA) between New Delhi and Moscow for jointly manufacturing the Ka-226T ‘Climber’ at the plant has not made any progress so far due to workshare differences. Much has changed since the IGA was inked by PM Modi and President Putin in 2015 (Russia-Ukraine war, Indo-China faceoff at LAC and winds of atma nirbhar Bharat, to name a few). Unless (a) we are interested in gaining expertise over contra-rotating rotor systems & associated transmission for some future rotary program, or (b) PM Modi wants to dole out favours to President Putin, the Ka-226T project, to my mind, is all but dead. As I see it, most of the 400 light helicopters, if not all, will come via the LUH route going forward. If HAL capitalises on this windfall, a civil variant of LUH could well dislodge even foreign competitors, something this writer had espoused in an earlier blog.

Aero India 2023 — stars aligning for HAL?

With delivery of over 300 ALH and four LCH to IAF (more numbers to follow: 65 for IAF and 97 for army; 162 total), limited series production of LUH and preliminary design of IMRH in the bag, HAL’s dominance over the Indian military’s helicopter requirements for the foreseeable future is all but complete. The Navy and Coast Guard have already acquired 16 each of the ALH Mk III MR (Maritime Role). At Aero India 2023, ICG’s Additional Director General Rakesh Pal announced that CG will be placing an immediate order for another nine, plus subsequent orders for 20 more ALH Mk III MR. As per informed sources, “silent service” Indian Navy has likely issued a letter of intent (LoI) for 60 customised helicopters in similar category called ‘Utility Helicopter Maritime’ (UHM). This would incorporate an upgraded gearbox for utilising the brute power of Shakti engine at sea level, segmented blades for overcoming blade-fold limitations, and shedding some flab that pushes the ALH Mk-3 MR into “torque torque” regime during sea level takeoffs.

The ALH Mk-3 MR as seen from the front (Kaypius photo)

Curtains for the NUH via SP Model?

Unsaid, but the evolving scenario essentially means curtains for the Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) program that was to come by engaging with the private sector via a Strategic Partnership (SP) model — the remaining numbers would simply be unviable to justify a new route. Private sector companies in the Indian helicopter business — rich in talent and enterprise but lacking in firm orders — may have to contend with playing second fiddle making sub-assemblies and spare parts. This may change if HAL decides to outsource licence manufacture to private industry as was once sought for civil variant of ALH (with limited success). My well-meaning cautions for such an enterprise can be read here, but before that, a snippet from my reminder of 2020:

The Strategic Partnership (SP) model was introduced by Indian MoD as Chapter VII in DPP 2016 based on recommendations put up by the Shri Dhirendra Singh Expert Committee. The objective of SP was to create capabilities in the private sector for manufacturing key defence technologies. Military helicopters was identified as one of them. This was in addition to the already well-established capabilities of DPSU and Ordnance Factory Board (OFB). Capacity building, more players in the market, wider choices, healthy competition, potential to make and export – the possibilities are immense. The user (services), in turn, would stand to reap rich harvests from the new paradigm, it was felt.

Monopoly ahead!

There is enough evidence today that under the marquee of atma nirbharta, Indian armed forces’ long-term requirement of medium helicopters will likely come via a ‘clean sheet’ IMRH / DBMRH design from HAL and not ‘co-development, co-production’ route as was originally envisaged. This is not surprising considering how the services dragged their feet or capitulated to MoD/DDP’s shenanigans even as HAL kept chipping away at various projects under ‘internal funding’. Moreover, given successive governments’ penchant for rewarding HAL’s insouciance to compete internationally with full order books from captive military customers, why would they care to reform?

Military decision makers at every level today have to go to extraordinary lengths to justify any procurement that doesn’t address the elephant in the room — local produce, however tardy or inefficient that may be. Under this climate, for rotorcraft, HAL has emerged as the one-stop-shop in India. It is easy and justifiable when the government has to transfer money from the front pocket to the back instead of forking out forex (DPSU nomination versus import).

Another of my prescient callouts from 2020 is reproduced below for abundant caution, with a hope for safeguards:

A strategy of waiting in the wings, using formal and informal access to corridors of power, exploiting benevolence of policymakers, defending critical gaps in quality or low productivity with futuristic promises, toying around ad-infinitum with ‘children of monopoly’ that derail or fall short of the services’ expectations, and then – at crucial decision points – jumping to throw a spanner into the works, this is a time-tested, low-cost option often exercised by DPSUs and DRDO laboratories.

Sarang display team at Aero India 2023 (picture by Cpl Anupam, via Sarang’s Twitter feed)

A watershed moment

In 2023, having seen both sides smoke the peace pipe, I am inclined to believe that even a right wing, pro-privatisation government like Modi’s never really had the stamina or appetite to break the PSU/DPSU stranglehold on our services. HAL’s centres of excellence (RWRDC, flight operations to name a few) have managed to navigate the reefs described above with proactive initiatives while their top management persevered with the patience of vultures. Credit must be paid where due.

In our system of distributed unaccountability, military officials who drape themselves with the fabric of atma nirbharta without adequate checks and balances, or those who are unable to hold OEMs to account for deliverables and timelines, will eventually sleepwalk into the warm embrace of domestic oligopoly. While fighter and transport streams in India still retain a fair chance with alternate choices, the military helicopter space — for better or worse — is now totally abdicated for HAL to dominate. What level of product quality, customer experience and quality control this will produce only time can tell.

Aero India 2023 can still be a watershed moment for reforming HAL while keeping our atma nirbhar Bharat promise to the nation. A good point to start could be building on their core strengths (eg: design, development, flight test) while using the private sector to sandbag their weaknesses (eg: production, quality control, marketing etc). HAL must compete internationally — that’s the next logical leap forward to pass the litmus test of ‘perform or perish’. Be mindful, it will test your supply chains & comfort zones like nothing else. The world doesn’t begin or end at the Siachen Glacier.

Alternately, we could all just sit back, follow the path of unquestioned compliance and settle for products that can’t compete internationally. The choice is ours.


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2023. All rights reserved. I can be reached at realkaypius@gmail.com or on Twitter @realkaypius. Views are personal. Cover photo by Cpl Anupam, IAF, via Sarang Twitter.

2 thoughts on “HAL Helicopters Dominate Aero India 2023

  1. The HAL-Safran “joint venture” is nothing more than license manufacture.

    “This presents one of the best opportunities for India to negotiate transfer of key aero engine technologies.”
    And this shows the mindset of avoiding original design work.
    It is high time we do some original design work. After all, HAL Aero Engines Research and Design Centre was established in 1960.

  2. In my utopian, opitimistic world a declaration of HAL’s disinvestment could’ve induced a realistic excitement on opening day. Doesn’t matter it never came in real world. Vibrancy for genuine R & D for Atam Nirbhar Bharat can’t be triggered through feeding monopolies on the display.

    Air-India’s order of 470 aircrafts in the backdrop is testament of reliable strategic management even with an erstwhile PSU. The deal emerges as a marked event at geostrategic levels. Assets of a PSU are valuable but without market motivation they’ll continue to survive on captive clientele. Managing monopoly to stay afloat is simply a Deja Vu during these events.

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