Bangalore: After years of delays in finalizing a global tender for 197 new helicopters, the Indian Army has recently decided to buy 20 Cheetal helicopters from Bangalore-based military plane maker Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), three people familiar with the matter said.
The army had first floated a global tender for 197 advanced choppers in 2003 to replace its ageing fleet of Cheetahs and Chetaks, also from HAL and in use for at least three decades.
The Cheetal uses the same platform as the Cheetah, even if it has more powerful engines to take troops and weapons to higher altitude regions in the Himalayas and the North-East.
The purchase is the latest of several ad hoc defence deals India has struck in recent years to tide over delays to the army’s modernization plans, often a result of bureaucratic hurdles, cautious decision-making or corruption charges.
“Ad hoc purchases also means you are spending the money allocated for some other aircraft and not necessarily the full funds,” said Deba Ranjan Mohanty, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a strategic think tank in New Delhi.
Each Cheetal costs about Rs25 crore. The estimated cost for the 197 choppers is nearly $1 billion (Rs4,500 crore).
A spokesman for the Indian Army did not respond to calls or emails sent early March.
The delay in the purchase of the 197 helicopters is because the army had to scrap the contract it had given to France-based Eurocopter SA after allegations of unfair trials by competitor Bell Helicopter, a division of Textron Inc. It floated a second tender in 2008.
“Delays mean using old aircraft on extended life, including training and operations,” said a defence ministry official, one of the three people mentioned earlier. “This will affect operational capabilities.” The official and the two other people familiar with the matter did not want to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the development.
“These ad hoc purchases will affect the modernization plans of the armed forces,” said Mohanty.
Nearly half the weapons in India’s military inventory are obsolete, accounting firm KPMG and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) said in a report in January. The defence ministry has had to surrender 3-9% of its capital budget in the previous seven fiscal years as it couldn’t spend all the money allocated to it for weapon purchases, said the KPMG-CII report. India is expected to spend $100 billion (Rs4.5 trillion) by 2022 on buying new aircraft, helicopters, ships, tanks and missiles, it said.
Its most expensive purchase would be that of 126 jet fighters at an estimated $10 billion. Trials are now on for the fighters.
The development of Tejas, the light combat aircraft planned to replace the ageing MiG-21 fleet, has been delayed by at least five years. The government is also yet to finalize the upgradation of 51 Mirage 2000 fighters.
Last week, during Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s visit to New Delhi, India agreed to buy 42 additional Sukhoi 30 MkI fighters. This is to fill gaps and beef up capacity of the Indian Air Force’s fighter squadrons. The air force is operating at least six squadrons below its sanctioned strength of 39.5 squadrons of 18 planes each.
Recently, India opted to buy 145 lightweight towed howitzer guns from BAE Systems Plc. after it had to scrap an earlier tender, in which the front runner Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd was blacklisted on charges of corruption.
When planned procurement processes get delayed and are “fast-tracked through ad-hoc purchases, it also means the model of open competition is also suffering,” said Ratan Shrivastava, director for aerospace and defence at researcher Frost and Sullivan. “You go in for whatever is available, which may not be an optimum solution.”