Bangalore: The defence ministry is working on a plan to acquire 400 light helicopters for the Armed Forces to replace its ageing Cheetah and Chetak fleet, which the army and air force have been using for more than three decades.
India is expected to buy half of the helicopters from a yet-to-be decided foreign vendor and the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) will be asked to design and build the remaining.
“There is an urgent need (of helicopters) for the army. This (plan) is to ensure that there is no further delay,” said one person familiar with the matter, who did not want to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the deal.
New entrant: A file photo of the new version of the Dhruv helicopter during its flight at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd base in Bangalore. (Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint)
The defence ministry had initially planned to issue a tender for 384 helicopters. In December, it withdrew a contract for 197 helicopters awarded to Eurocopter, a unit of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., following complaints by rival US-based Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. that its bid was rejected on “flimsy” grounds.
Under the new plan, about 200 helicopters would be bought in flyaway condition, or without any local integration, from vendors such as Bell Helicopter, British-Italian firm AgustaWestland, Russia’s Kamov and Eurocopter. India would not insist on local production under licence as that would be time-consuming.
HAL, meanwhile, has six years to design and build a home-grown light observation helicopter in the 2.5-3 tonne class, and help replenish the remaining fleet of Cheetah helicopters, said people familiar with the development.
Light helicopters weigh around 3 tonnes.
The new plan will have foreign helicopter makers sourcing aero components and systems of half of the contract value from local vendors under the offset policy for defence deals. The policy mandates vendors to source 30% of the value of contracts worth Rs300 crore or more from local players in a bid to boost India’s defence manufacturing industry.
Analysts say that the army needs light helicopters urgently to replace the Cheetah choppers. “It should have been bought yesterday, not today,” said Ratan Shrivastava, director for aerospace and defence at research firm Frost and Sullivan. “Aircraft is replaced if it is of vintage or due to usage. Both the airframe and engines of Cheetah is over 30 years old,” he said.
Defence ministry spokesman Sitanshu Kar would not confirm this development, but said the ministry would issue a request for proposal (RFP) shortly for the light helicopters. “Only when the RFP is issued, we will know the exact details,” he said.
HAL has built two indigenous helicopters—Lancer, a light attack helicopter based on the Cheetah platform, and Dhruv, the twin-engine advanced light helicopter in use with the Armed Forces.
It is also designing and building a helicopter gunship, the first flight of which is expected this year.