After LCA Tejas-FA-50 Clash, South Korea Set To Challenge India’s LCH Prachand With Light Armed Helos

Following the successful export of its fighter jets and overpowering Indian (LCA Tejas) and Chinese (JF-17) fighters, South Korea is set to expand its defense export portfolio by targeting the international helicopter market. 

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South Korea had some degree of advantage over Indian and Chinese jets; however, when it comes to choppers, India appears to have a clear lead over South Korea. Not only is India operating its Light Combat Choppers at dizzying heights, but several nations have shown strong interest in acquiring these helos.

Korean choppers, on the other hand, are really struggling.

Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd. (KAI), the nation’s sole aircraft manufacturer, is confident that its ambition to export helicopters might be nearing realization.

KAI has established a strong global presence with its FA-50 fighter aircraft and KT-1 trainer jets. However, the company has faced challenges in replicating this success with its helicopters.

KAI manufactures the Korean Utility Helicopter (KUH), known as Surion, which has been deployed in the South Korean Army since 2012 and has variants used by the Marine Corps, police, Coast Guard, and other services. Despite its versatility, the Surion has not attracted foreign buyers.

Now, South Korea is betting on a new contender: the Light Armed Helicopter (LAH). Developed by KAI between 2015 and 2022, the LAH is designed to replace the South Korean Army’s aging fleet of US-origin 500MD Tow and Bell AH-1S Cobra attack helicopters.

The LAH performed its maiden flight in 2019 and has since made significant progress towards entering mass production. In August 2023, KAI signed an agreement with Airbus Helicopters to begin serial production of the LAH.

This was followed by a significant 1.4 trillion won (US$1.08 billion) contract in December 2023 with the Defense Acquisition Program Administration to deliver the first LAH units to the South Korean Army by the end of the year. The Army plans to operate approximately 170 units in the future.

Jung Sung-jin, a senior manager of KAI’s rotary-wing production team, told Yonhap that the assembly of core components was 80 percent complete and would be finished by August.

The helicopter would then undergo ground tests and test flights, with delivery scheduled for November. Jung highlighted the assembly line’s capacity to produce 2.5 units per month, or 30 units annually.

South Korea’s Confidence In LAH’s Potential

The Light Armed Helicopter is being produced by KAI at its facility in Sacheon, South Korea, based on the Airbus H155 platform. Airbus Helicopters is supplying the necessary kits for mass production.

It can perform multiple mission roles, including light attack, close air support, escort, and troop transport duties. This helicopter will replace the MD500 Defender and AH-1S Cobra helicopters in the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA).

The LAH prototypes have undergone rigorous testing, including 80 days in Yellowknife, Canada, and over 2,000 hours of testing under various conditions.

The company is currently conducting flight tests of a black prototype No. 2 at its airfield in Sacheon, about 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul.

KAI LAH – Korea Aerospace Industries, Ltd.

During the latest demonstration for reporters, the helicopter showcased its maneuvers at altitudes of 30-50 meters, generating strong wind and the distinctive smell of engine combustion.

Jeong Young-uk, KAI’s test pilot, emphasized the LAH’s advanced flight systems and firepower, which include a three-barreled 20 mm turret gun, 70 mm unguided rockets, and the Cheongeom air-launched anti-tank guided missile with an 8-km range.

The LAH also features a drone deployment system, enhancing its battlefield capabilities. Jeong likened the LAH’s sophistication to that of the Hyundai Grandeur (an executive sedan manufactured and marketed by South Korean manufacturer Hyundai since 1986), highlighting its control, convenience, and survivability.

“When combined with four reconnaissance and suicide drones that can be launched from the fuselage, its [LAH’s] attack capability can be comparable to that of Boeing’s AH-64 Apache attack helicopter,” Jung claimed.

While KAI currently relies on foreign parts for the main gearbox – a critical component for a helicopter’s airworthiness and safety — the company has ambitious plans to produce its gearbox by 2027.

If successful, South Korea will join an elite group of nations capable of producing main gearboxes for helicopters, including the United States, Britain, France, and Italy.

Challenge From India

South Korea is optimistic about securing deals for the LAH in the coming months, signaling a new chapter for KAI’s global business and bolstering South Korea’s competitiveness in the defense industry.

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Seoul is maintaining secrecy regarding the details of current negotiations and hasn’t revealed the countries involved, suggesting that discussions are nearing completion. Despite this, the LAH is still in its initial developmental phase and must showcase its capabilities internationally to garner substantial interest.

The competition in the light-armed helicopter category is fierce. India’s Tejas fighter jet faced stiff competition from South Korea’s FA-50 and lost the Malaysian contract. It is aggressively marketing its Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) ‘Prachand’ (Sanskrit for “fierce”) to various countries.

Unlike the LAH, which has yet to be delivered to South Korean military units, India’s Prachand was inducted into the Indian Air Force on October 3, 2022.

India’s LCH Prachand has demonstrated its capability by being the only helicopter in the world capable of landing and taking off at 16,400 feet, a feat essential for operations in the Siachen Glacier.

HAL Prachand – Wikipedia

This high-altitude performance is tailored to India’s unique security challenges, which differ significantly from South Korea’s strategic needs.

Further solidifying its position, the Indian Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) approved the procurement of 156 LCH Prachand helicopters on November 30, 2023, with 66 allocated for the Indian Air Force and the remainder for the Indian Army.

While South Korea has not disclosed the countries involved in its negotiations, HAL has openly discussed potential export orders for the Prachand with several countries, including the Philippines, Argentina, Nigeria, and Egypt.

South East Asian nations will remain key export markets for both South Korea and India.

These discussions highlight the competitive landscape that KAI has to navigate to secure its international contracts. As the LAH moves closer to international deployment, South Korea’s efforts to penetrate the global helicopter market will be closely watched, especially in light of the stiff competition from India’s LCH Prachand.