The US$1 billion deal for procurement of the Russian Kamov Ka-226T ‘Hoodlum’ light utility helicopters, which has been in limbo for nearly a decade now, seems to have been buried.
With India remaining committed to ‘Atmanirbharta’ (self-reliance), the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (soon to be renamed Indian Aero-Space Force) will be opting for indigenous Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) to operate from its high-altitude de facto borders with China and Pakistan.
The ties between the US and India turned frosty towards the end of 2023, making India cozying up to Russia. The messaging from the Indian Minister of External Affairs (MEA), Dr. S. Jaishankar’s Russia visit has made clear that the India-Russia ties are going strong despite the world’s opposition. There has been no indication that the impasse on the Kamov Ka-226T deal has been overcome.
The two countries have agreed to joint production of more military hardware. But the Kamov Ka-226 T ‘Hoodlum’ deal is still in turbulence.
Floated in 2014, India showed interest in purchasing 200 of these helicopters. However, the Russian Kamov manufacturer and the Indian aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) have not been able to iron out their differences over the transfer of technology, indigenous content, and the project’s total cost.
Besides, there has been a looming threat of inviting sanctions from the US as the building of the twin-engine Ka-226T will require the import of French engines to power the rotorcraft.
The Indian Army and the IAF have a cumulative requirement of more than 400 Light utility helicopters. The Ministry of Defense, in 2015, had envisaged that the order would be split into two parts – 200 procured from a foreign original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and an additional 200 supplied by HAL through indigenous development.
The IAF has informed the Parliament Committee on Defense that the force “presently has Chetak/Cheetah/Cheetal, Mi17/Mi-171V/Mi-17V-5, Mi-26, Mi-35, ALH, LCH, Chinook and Apache helicopters in its inventory. Of these, Chetak and Cheetah will be replaced by HAL-made LUH, and Mi-17 will be replaced by Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH) developed by HAL or any other equivalent platform.”
This will be quite a departure from the Russian-platform-dominated inventory of the IAF. The future helicopter fleet of the IAF will have indigenous and US-made rotary wing aircraft.
In high-altitude areas, like the Siachen Glacier, the small helicopter fleet is essential for delivering supplies and assisting with evacuations. This was further illustrated during the India-China standoff that has been ongoing since 2020 in the high-altitude regions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
India had signed an inter-governmental agreement with Russia to manufacture the ‘Hoodlums’ in India under a Joint Venture. However, the negotiations reached an impasse like the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft arrangement.
Even as no official cancellation of the tender has been announced, the Indian Armed Forces have clarified that they will be meeting their helicopter requirements indigenously.
Light Utility Helicopter
Currently, the Army possesses 190 helicopters in its fleet, including Cheetah, Chetak, and Cheetal helicopters. These are the helicopters remaining from a total of 246 helicopters.
Around 25 helicopters usually undergo maintenance at HAL at any given time, indicating a deficiency of approximately 37 percent in this segment. Most of the fleet, 130 of the 190 helicopters, are aged between 30 and 50.
The IAF inducted the French-origin helicopter, called Aloutte III, in 1962. And they have completed 60 years of service. The Navy and the Indian Coast Guard also operate these helicopters.
The development of the indigenous LUH was going on parallel to the negotiations for Kamov Ka-226T helicopters. The Indian Defense Acquisition Council (DAC) cleared the decks to procure 12 helicopters undergoing operational testing in the lofty Himalayas.
A more significant contract for over 180 LUH is expected to be finalized by January 2024, with deliveries projected to commence from 2026 onward. In sync with it, the helicopter manufacturing facility of the HAL was inaugurated in February 2023. The LUH was unveiled here. The factory is India’s largest helicopter manufacturing facility and will initially produce LUHs.
Initially, this factory will produce around 30 helicopters per year, which can be enhanced to 60 and then 90 per year in a phased manner. The LUH, a 3-ton class helicopter with a glass cockpit, will serve roles in reconnaissance, surveillance, and light transport. It boasts a maximum speed of 220 kmph, a service ceiling of 6.5 km, and a range of 350 km with a 400 kg payload.
Also, HAL and Safran have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to produce a second helicopter engine as part of a technology transfer so that it could power a variety of military helicopters that were still in the development stage.
For example, the Ardiden 1H1 Shakti engines built by a HAL-Safran combine power India’s Dhruv advanced light helicopter (ALH) and light combat helicopter (LCH). At the same time, the LUH is equipped with the similarly co-designed Shakti 1U single turbo-shaft engine variant. This HAL-Safran JV would significantly alleviate India’s problems with helicopter engines.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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