(This was originally posted in Times Of India by Rajat Pandit)
With replacements for old Cheetah and Chetak helicopters still stuck in red-tape amid the continuing military confrontation with China, the armed forces are planning to approach the government to procure “a minimum inescapable quantity” of the already-selected Russian Kamov-226T choppers in a flyaway condition. Defence sources say the need to replace obsolete single-engine Cheetahs and Chetaks of the vintage of 1960s-1970s, which are dogged by a high crash rate and major serviceability problems, has become an “existential operational necessity” now.
“Operational availability of Cheetahs/Chetaks along the northern borders with China as well as the Siachen Glacier-Saltoro Ridge region with Pakistan is down to just 50%. The technical life of older Cheetahs/Chetaks will begin expiring in 2023. New light utility helicopters (LUHs) are desperately required for reconnaissance as well as sustenance of troops in forwarding areas,” a source said.
The Army, IAF and Navy have been demanding new LUHs for almost 20 years now, with their total requirement being 498 choppers. After the proposed procurement of 197 such choppers from abroad was scrapped twice, India had inked an inter-governmental agreement with Russia to acquire 200 twin-engine Kamov-226T choppers for Army (135) and IAF (65) in 2015. The first 60 were to come in a fly-away condition, with the other 140 to be manufactured by a joint venture between Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) and Rostec Corp/Russian Helicopters.
“But the project is still stuck at the technical evaluation stage, primarily due to disagreements over the proportion of indigenous content. Russia is offering slightly lower indigenous content than what India wants,” said another source.
A separate HAL project to build another 126 indigenous LUHs for Army and 61 for IAF has also been delayed for years. “The first six of these LUHs are now likely to be inducted in December 2022. There are still some technical issues with these LUHs, including problems with tail rotor systems in high-altitude areas,” he added.
As for the Russian choppers, a single Ka-226T in flyaway condition will cost around $6 million. The per unit cost of the choppers to be made in India, in turn, will be close to $11 million due to associated costs of land acquisition, labour, technology transfers and the like. “Importing all the 200 choppers will force India to depend on Russia for spares and maintenance. So, a certain number of Ka-226Ts should be procured on a fast-track basis to bridge the gap till the indigenous LUHs of HAL can be inducted in large numbers,” he added.