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The Indian Navy's helicopter plans and purchases

Saurav Jha @SJha1618

Updated: December 30, 2013, 4:22 PM IST
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Any decent sized surface warship in today's navy has the capability to host at least one navalized helicopter if not more. The steady accretion in the Indian Navy's (IN's) surface fleet therefore naturally also means that there is a need to augment the number of ship-borne helicopters in its inventory. Besides, the Navy in any case has ever expanding roles and responsibilities which translate into requirements for greater rotary capability.

To that end, IN has been looking to bring in new utility and multirole helicopters in order to both replace legacy units as well as increase the overall number of such machines under its ambit while simultaneously introducing new technology. It would therefore be worthwhile to take a closer look at the status of various helicopter tenders issued by the IN as well as the opportunities for domestic industry therein.

The Navy has actually been running a competition for 16 naval multirole helicopters (NMRH) since 2011 with the request for information (RFI) being issued in July that year. The two down-selected contenders in the fray are a maritime variant of the European-built NH90 known as the NATO frigate helicopter (NFH) from NH Industries and an export variant of the US-made SH-60 Seahawk from Sikorsky called the S-70B. Despite the trials for the $1.2 billion contract with the winning bidder required to deliver all helicopters within 46 months of contract signing in three phases were completed in 2011 itself, this tender has actually been delayed more than once with the latest slippage happening in mid-2013 when the Ministry of Defence (MOD) asked both finalists to extend the validity of their bids by another six months in July 2013.

Problems started in early 2012 itself with this particular tender when in a letter to the MOD, NH Industries claimed that competitor Sikorsky's entry may not actually be technically compliant with certain parameters laid down in the Navy's request for proposal (RFP) unless the S-70B helicopter had been granted waivers for the same. IN however stated in the media that NH Industries was looking to mislead MOD and cause delays by raising unreasonable concerns. As far as IN is concerned both helicopters have met naval staff qualitative requirements (NSQRs) for a multi-role chopper with its primary missions consisting of anti-submarine (ASW) and anti-surface warfare(ASuW) and secondary roles such as search and rescue (SAR), transport, casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) etc.

The cut throat competition probably arose on account of the fact that the RFP also stipulated that IN would have the option of placing orders for another 44 helicopters, on completion of the contract for the initial 16. Furthermore it was widely expected throughout 2012 that a follow on tender for another 75 units would be issued that year.

Finally, in early 2013, IN issued a global RFI for more NMRH which probably went further than what most expected given that it was for 123 units , making it the largest such tender for multirole helicopters anywhere in the world. The stakes naturally are higher than ever before now.

The latest postponement of the opening of commercial bids for the initial tender however means that even if the contract were to be sewn up within this fiscal i.e 2013-14 the first helicopter cannot be delivered before 2015-16 at the earliest.

Moreover, a global RFP worth 6-8 billion U.S dollars to follow the new RFI for 123 NMRH in the 9 to 12.5-tonne maximum take-off weight (MTOW) class is likely to be issued which is attracting interest from a wider set of contenders including Lockheed Martin with its MH-60R/S (which shares its airframe with the S-70B), Eurocopter with its EC 725 Caracal and Russian Helicopters with Kamov products and perhaps even AgustaWestland with one of the navalized variants of the AW-101 Merlin.

One of the other reasons why the initial 16 unit contract may be delayed relates to the contenders being reluctant to discharge offset obligations in their entirety. However this is a little strange, at least in the case of Sikorsky which is already getting complete S-92 helicopter cabins built in India by Tata Advanced Systems Limited which involves the local manufacture of some 5000 components. What is more, it was believed that given the degree of commonality between the S-92 and the S-70, the latter was always a front runner for the NMRH contract.

Meanwhile, IN is also looking around for an upgrade partner for its existing fleet of 30 odd Agusta Westland Sea King helicopters. The situation in this arena is also a little tricky because a 2008 proposal to bring on board Israeli companies for the upgrade package was vehemently opposed by AgustaWestland and it remains to be seen how the Navy plans to execute the upgrade this time around.

As such the proposed upgrade package mainly includes new composite main rotor blades, five AMLCD cockpit Displays (two primary flight displays and three multi-function displays), an automatic flight control system (AFCS), twin AHRS for providing aircraft attitude and heading information to the cockpit display and AFCS. It is understood that IN is seeking an almost similar upgrade package for some six Kamov Ka-25 helicopters as well. As an aside, the integration of DRDO's SV-2000 radar with some Kamov units is also being carried out.

Beyond the NMRH tender, IN is of course also looking to replace its current holding of Chetak and Cheetah helicopters with a new naval utility helicopter (NUH). The procurement process for NUH actually began even before the NMRH competition with the RFI being issued way back in 2010. Since then this project has seen another RFI being issued in 2011 followed by a RFP in 2012 for 56 NUH (with 28 additional options) at a total cost of around a billion US dollars. The latest RFP specifies that in addition to 56 choppers, three simulators, 28 spare engines and associated equipment are to be delivered within eight years of contract signature.

Moreover, as per the RFP, NUH can have a MTOW of 4.5 tons, should be capable of being armed 70mm rocket launchers, 12.7mm guns, lightweight torpedoes as well as depth charges. It must have 'a modern airframe design, proven fuel-efficient engines and fully-integrated advanced avionics'.

NUH will be used for both shore-based and offshore operations by IN and should be able to operate from ship decks in all-weather day and night conditions. Interestingly IN also wants the NUH to be able to operate from surfaces covered by snow, sleet, sand, water and slush.

Now the 2012 RFP had been issued to all global majors with NUH contenders being Eurocopter's AS565 MBe Panther, Agusta Westland's AW-109LUH, and offerings from US-based Bell and Kamov of Russia.

However, the AgustaWestland scandal has probably had an impact on this tender since MOD stated in April 2013 that only two companies had responded to the RFP and one of them was AgustaWestland with the other being Eurocopter. If AgustaWestland ends up being blacklisted over the VVIP helicopters scam then IN may be left with a veritable single vendor situation which may lead to the whole process being scrapped and re-tendered.

Meanwhile, even as the Navy explores international options, it has again begun inducting more home grown helicopters as well. In November 2013, IN inaugurated its first Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Dhruv unit, INAS 322, shore-based in Kochi under the Western Naval command which besides conducting SAR operations will also be used for heli-borne insertions and armed patrol with night vision devices. In fact the Dhruv has been cleared for night time SAR as well. The rekindling of IN interest in the Dhruv probably stems from heightened requirements in the arena of low intensity maritime operations and coastal security post 26/11. Further delays in the NUH tender is also bringing HAL's own light utility helicopter (LUH) project into play whose development will be completed by 2015.

HAL probably could expect more from the Navy if it moves forward quicker on the Indian Multirole Helicopter (IMRH) project. The IMRH as the name implies is a project to build a domestic multirole helicopter in the 12 ton MTOW category with a maximum speed of 275kmh, maximum payload of 3.5 tons at sea level , 500 km range at sea level and service ceiling of 6500 metres. Interestingly the very same companies that are responding to the NMRH tender are also those who are in talks with HAL for collaborative purposes on the IMRH.

For instance, Sikorsky may be open to co- producing up to 400 multi-role helicopters with HAL if one of its designs were to be chosen as the basis for developing IMRH, which could garner orders of more than 300 units from the services alone by 2030. The IN with its stated aim of fielding 200 ships by that time is likely to be a major customer for IMRH.

In the years to come, it is quite clear that IN will continue to grow into a very substantial air force in its own right and rotary requirements will become bigger than what they are projected to be even now. Given the level of spend being envisaged it is important that India's domestic aerospace sector identifies the right strategy to capitalize on IN's rotary plans.
First Published: December 30, 2013, 4:22 PM IST

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