(This was originally posted in Hindustan Times by Rahul Singh)
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is yet to get a contract from the defence ministry for supplying light combat helicopters (LCHs) to the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army, but that has not stopped the state-owned plane maker from manufacturing the helicopters and delivering them to the two services, people familiar with the developments said.
HAL is awaiting a contract from the ministry for 15 limited series production (LSP) helicopters and expects follow-on orders as the IAF and the army have a combined projected requirement of 160 LCHs. Of the initial 15 LSP helicopters approved for purchase by the defence acquisition council (DAC) – India’s apex defence procurement body – 10 are for the IAF and five for the army.
“HAL has already supplied three LCHs to the IAF. The first LCH for the army was completed last month. By the year-end, a total of 10 LCHs would have been delivered to the two services. We are retaining five LCHs for the next year’s programme to keep the production line operational,” a senior HAL official said. In a year-end review of its various activities, the defence ministry had said on January 1 that the case for procurement of LCH from HAL was in the final stage and the contract was likely to be signed in the first quarter of 2021. “We are delivering the helicopters prior to the finalisation of the contract as a proactive measure. That happens sometimes after getting approval from the board of directors,” said a second official.
It is critical for HAL to get the LCH orders on time to keep the production line running. If it becomes inoperative because of lack of orders, the production line will have to be recertified, which is a time-consuming process, the second official said. The IAF and the army need the LCH, and HAL is likely to be awarded the contract soon, a defence ministry official said. “There has been some delay, but the acquisition is on track. It will provide a boost to the Make in India initiative,” he said. The LCH figures on the government’s negative import list that seeks to ban the import of different types of weapons, systems and ammunition over the next five years. In the last one year, the government has imposed a ban on the import of 209 defence items to boost self-reliance in the defence sector.
“India’s military helicopter production capabilities have come of age, and we have reached a stage where we don’t need to import helicopters. LCH will be a potent and versatile platform for the IAF and the army, especially in a high-altitude role,” said Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd), director general, Centre for Air Power Studies. Though not ordered yet, the twin-engine LCH was deployed in the Ladakh sector to support the IAF, in the midst of the border row with China last year. The deployment of the LCH in the Ladakh sector was symbolic in nature and an acknowledgement of the potential that the platform holds.
Meanwhile, HAL has set a March 2022 deadline to carry out the first flight of the LCA (light combat aircraft) Mk-1A jet after wrapping up the necessary design activities, as previously reported by Hindustan Times. Last month, it signed a deal with US firm GE Aviation for 99 F404 engines to power India’s latest indigenous fighter. The defence ministry awarded a ₹48,000-crore contract to HAL for 83 LCA Mk-1A jets for the IAF in February. The first Mk-1A aircraft will be delivered to the air force by March 2024, with the rest slated to join its combat fleet by 2029.