IAF Helicopters• IAF to acquire Eurocopter Fennec• RfP for Heavy Lift helicopters next year• IAF's Helicopter induction programme will complete in 10 years
By Gulshan Luthra and Air Marshal Ashok Goel (Retd)
Published : August 2007
New Delhi. The Indian Air Force (IAF) will buy a large number of Eurocopter Fennec AS 550 C3 helicopters to replace its ageing fleet of Chetak and Cheetah helicopters.
This was indicated by Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major in an interview here with India Strategic. He did not name the helicopter make but as the Indian Army has already chosen the Eurocopter over Bell 407 this year, it is apparently going to be the same machine for the IAF as well as the Indian Navy and Coast Guard.
It may be noted that former Defence Secretary Shekhar Dutt, who introduced the offsets concept in defence procurement, has also ensured that the three services and the coast guard go in for the same system if their required specifications are the same or nearly the same.
Earlier, each service could buy a system from the same manufacturer individually under different contracts. Now, the overall requirement is being negotiated and options are kept.
The air chief said that the IAF was working on acquiring various types of helicopters, including the Mi 17 1Vs, and even some heavy lift 20-ton machines. He did not give machine-wise acquisition period but said that it would take about 10 years to complete the induction programme.
"IAF's requirement of helicopters will be met by induction of additional helicopters for various roles in a phased manner during the next two five-year plan periods. This will offset the force-depletion due to phase-outs."
Plans also include induction of combat helicopters.
It may be recalled that IAF has already decided to buy 80 Mi 17 1V helicopters in a follow-on order to replace the older machines as well as to make up for the depleting strength of this multi-role machine.
"As the helicopter is a versatile machine and has multi-role capability during peace and war," IAF's operational philosophy gives due emphasis on what is required and in how many numbers.
"The role and numbers are in accordance with our operational plans" and that as there was indeed "some force depletion" due to the phase out of older machines, there was some urgency and the government was giving it due attention, he said.
The air chief disclosed that IAF would float the RfP for the heavy lift helicopters next year - possibly in fiscal April 2008 - March 2009 - to who ever manufactures them and that the machines would be inducted after thorough technical trials and examination of financial details as per the DPP 2006, possibly within three years after that.
There was an initial, and immediate, requirement of about a dozen heavy lift helicopters.
IAF has executed major relief missions during calamities like tsunami and snow storms but it is hampered badly by the lack of heavy lift helicopters that can carry substantial load on the one hand and withstand the mountain drafts on the other.
It had acquired a small number of Mi 26 heavy lift helicopters from the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but their manufacture was stopped in the disintegration process of that country. There is a big problem now in their maintenance as there are virtually no spares available.
IAF pilots swear by the reliability of the 8-rotor Mi 26 helicopters, the biggest ever in the world, but of course, Russia does not make them any more, times have changed and technology has improved towards digital systems for optimized performance.
The only 20-ton helicopter available in the market today is the twin-rotor Boeing CH 47, which the US company had displayed at the Aero India air show in February 2007 at Bangalore. Test rides were given to air force personnel to showcase this helicopter's advanced capabilities.
There are some indications though that either the Russian or Europeans could come up with new machines, but after how long is the crucial question. The war or terror, as being demonstrated in Afghanistan, has thrown up new requirements. Both the NATO and US forces there are "hungry" for helicopters.
As for India, nearly all the helicopters with the Indian armed forces are around 20 or more than 20 years old, and the Aérospatiale Alouette and Lama helicopters, called Chetak or Cheetah in accordance with the roles assigned them by different services in India, have been the prime machines with them ever since the 1960s when they were first inducted. Cheetah is the more powerful variant though.
Both these have also been upgraded with better Turbomeca 333-2B engines to Chetan and Cheetal versions, giving them higher carrying capacity as well as higher altitude capability.
But the armed forces need new generation and new helicopters.
The acquisition of Fennec will fill in a wide gap, but in terms of different roles, the Army and Air Force will have to be given helicopters suited to different requirements.
Fennec in French is the name of an elusive North African desert fox, with oversized ears. The helicopter, used mostly in France but also in several other countries, is named after that animal.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that a requirement of small, agile helicopters that can fly in a city landscape crowded with high-rise buildings, is also being considered. It may be a while however when this type of machine is available.
A helicopter that fits this requirement is still being developed by Bell Helicopter in collaboration with an Israeli company.
None of the Services in India has a dedicated attack aircraft, and till that is acquired, some of the Eurocopters would be used in that role. Other roles envisaged are reconnaissance, electronic warfare, anti-tank role, and also injection and extrication of personnel from the battlefield. In its armed version, the Eurocopter is fitted with coaxial guns, rockets and air-to-air missiles.
Fennec makes a substantial use of composite materials, in body, rotor and rotor blades and tail rotor. These materials are described by the company as "rugged, low cost, efficient and corrosion-free."
The existing number of Alouette and Lama variants operational in India is estimated at a little more than 400, including some with private Indian organisations and business houses. But eventually, as the assembly and progressive manufacture of the aircraft is done at the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), around 600 of the new Fennec helicopters could be made in India, depending upon the price and required rate of production.
The Indian Army recently chose the European Eurocopter Fennec over the US Bell 407, and its technical evaluation report is being processed at the Ministry of Defence. Discussions are beginning with Eurocopter for the best possible technical specifications within a given price.
The government though has still not officially disclosed if the Fennec has been chosen by the Indian Army. But India Strategic had learnt reliably, as reported in its April issue, that the Army had indeed preferred this helicopter in its technical trials.
The army is buying 197 helicopters for multi-role deployment, 60 of them in flyaway condition and the rest gradually assembled in India by the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL).
The number of Fennecs for IAF would be less than that, but set to nearly match that of the Army over the years as the requirements grow.
Indications at the recent Paris Air Show were that Safran, which makes the helicopter's Turbomeca Arrius engine, will further fine-tune the system for still better performance. The engine has the Full-Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) for optimized performance.
Air Chief Marshal Major, who is a helicopter pilot, visited various aircraft and helicopter companies at the Show and evinced keen interest in the development of the new systems.
He pointed out though that IAF was a fighting force and that its options for various aircraft, helicopters, weapons and systems were in accordance with the calculated Air Staff Requirements (ASR) and not based on what machine which air chief flew.
"We want the best in fighters, best in onboard systems, best in weapons, best in helicopters, and the best of everything for our officers and men," he told India Strategic.
As for the Eurocopter, or the replacement for the Cheetahs, the air chief did not disclose if the IAF would also buy some helicopters in a flyaway condition or they would be assembled at HAL and then delivered to the IAF.
Eurocopter, Turbomeca and Safran are now part of the aerospace major, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS) company.
Eurocopter is also supplying the Turbomeca 333-2B engines for the Dhruv, the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) designed and developed by HAL for the air force, army, navy, coast guard and police forces.
The helicopter requirements of all the services in India, including those paramilitary and police, has grown substantially, even for peace time and disaster relief. So it is not just a case of only replacing the existing stock with them but also of meeting the new needs. However, the new needs also warrant different types.
IAF also needs new helicopters for VVIP requirements, and the process to acquire them is already under way. These helicopters would be equipped with special protection measures.
As for the Mi 17 1V, IAF is phasing out the older versions of this machine but retaining and upgrading the 1V model. As this helicopter is already flying with IAF from around 20 years, the order for them is a follow-on step and does not require floating a fresh tender.
Mi 17 1V is in fact the work horse of IAF, and also the backbone of its helicopter fleet.
As for the heavy lift helicopters, IAF is keen to lay its hands on whatever is available. When there is a civil emergency, it is tasked to help. But it has no helicopters or not in adequate numbers.
The Mi 26 is as big as the An 12 transport aircraft that the IAF once used - now phased out - and it could easily go to 16000 feet, and ferry even heavy guns like Bofors to that height. But how and where do you get the spares from? is the big question.
Designated "Halo' by NATO, the Mi 26 is the most powerful helicopter ever made. It was inducted by the Soviet forces in 1983 and a little later by India in small numbers in two batches.
Chinook was first deployed 50 years ago in the Vietnam war. But the machine sold today is entirely new, except that it has the same twin-rotor concept. It has a sophisticated glass cockpit and very powerful General Electric engines. Due to its versatile capability, it was chosen by the US Air Force (USAF) for the future Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) machine although its competitors have sought rebids and the US Department of Defense is likely to decide on that by November.
Air Chief Marshal Major said that that the Defence Procurement Policy (DPP) 2006 would facilitate the induction of various systems as the IAF could conduct trials speedily and the Ministry of Defence could also do the required clearance likewise.
He said that due attention was also being given to meet the requirement of combat helicopters.
The Indian Air Force uses the Mi 25 Soviet vintage helicopters, but as the 1999 Kargil War showed, IAF needs machines which can go to 25,000 or 26,000 feet, or even higher.
The Mi 25, although a good machine, has a service ceiling of 14,500 feet.
Most important though, over the last 15 years, the technology in every thing, the platforms and the systems they carry, has changed tremendously in what is called as the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). So whatever is acquired today, has to be in line with any anticipated technological developments over the next 30 to 40 years.
Any platform has to have a modular approach to enable replacement of equipment that gets outdated with better and contemporary systems as they evolve.