Ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India, New Delhi’s plan to acquire new light utility helicopters – Kamov Ka-226T from Russia has run into complications, again.
According to reports, New Delhi could withdraw from the previous deal with Moscow and might direct the funds to procure indigenously developed solutions.
The complications aren’t new. The Indian Army and the Air Force are looking to replace their light utility helicopter fleet consisting of Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. The existing helicopters have been serving well over their service life, with 70% of the fleet being more than 30 years old.
The replacements were to be made by 200 Russian Kamov Ka-226T helicopters, for which a deal was signed in December 2015 for the creation of a joint venture between HAL and Rostec.
60 airframes were to be imported while the rest were to be made locally in India. The remaining requirement had to be completed by the homegrown Light Utility Helicopters.
However, the Indian government underestimated HAL’s expertise in developing helicopters after the much-successful Dhruv helicopters – and it became tough when both (foreign and indigenous) projects are coming to fruition at the same time.
According to EconomicTimes, New Delhi might push back the Ka-226T deal with Russia, instead opting for some ‘off-the-shelf’ purchases. This news comes a week before the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India, which might see the finalization of key defense deals including the AK-203 plant in Amethi which lies in the province of Uttar Pradesh.
However, the report explicitly mentions that the Ka-226T deal had ‘very few backers in the government,’ owing to the costs involved in the maintenance of complex co-axial rotors in the Russian helicopter. Also, negotiations for the inclusion of more locally manufactured parts didn’t yield satisfactory results.
This might be a major breakthrough for HAL’s homegrown alternative, the Light Utility Helicopter or the LUH, signaling that the Kamov orders could land in its favor.
In February 2020, the Light Utility Helicopter received Initial Operating Clearance. Later that year in September, HAL announced the completion of final demonstration trials involving envelope expansion, performance, flying qualities, payload and landing capabilities at Siachen Glacier. In November 2021, the Indian Ministry of Defence placed an initial order of 12 LSP (Limited Series Production) airframes, 6 each for the Army and the Air Force.
The Indian Armed Forces use these helicopters for a variety of missions. Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC), Search and Rescue (SAR), Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR), troops and material transport to high altitude areas where heavy helicopters can’t reach, reconnaissance, VVIP transport, and other utility operations.
Such light helicopters having a higher service ceiling serve as a ‘lifeline’ to the arduous Himalayan terrain with lesser road infrastructure and connectivity. Therefore, HAL is also looking forward to civilian orders as well.
With manufacturing capability in concern, the company is expecting that its new upcoming helicopter facility in Tumakuru, Karnataka, will boost the capability to produce 100 light utility helicopters each year. Tumakuru is just 70 kilometers from HAL facilities in Bengaluru and shall start manufacturing vertical lift rotorcraft from March 2022.
Compared to the Kamov Ka-226T, the indigenous LUH is a traditional rotor design that is far simpler and cheaper to maintain than its Russian counterpart having coaxial rotors. This enables the fleet to have more reliability and operational readiness.
While adding complexity, coaxial rotors do have their own advantages, like the elimination of a tail rotor (making it compact and more engine efficient), more lifting capacity, higher rate of climb, better survivability, controllability and resistance to side winds. The Ka-226T also has a detachable cabin module giving it a high degree of modularity for different mission requirements.
Nevertheless, the economics of production and maintenance outweigh the advantages offered by Ka-22T for the Indian Armed Forces. Local development and production mean that future development of its variants is easier, and money is circulated in the own economic boundaries of the nation.
It boosts local expertise, gives experience, creates employment, enhances the quality of life, easier integration of upgrades, and plays its role in the overall prosperity of own people. If orders do go in favor of Light Utility Helicopter, it will be in line with the spirit of the ‘Aatmnirbhar Bharat’ or Self-Reliant India campaign by the Indian Government.
Nevertheless, the Indian journey for Kamovs isn’t over yet. As of 4th December, no official confirmation for scrapping the deal has been made and even if scrapped, some off-the-shelf procurements will be done to bridge the gap until production of LUH pick up speed.
Most of the aging Cheetahs and Chetaks have to be decommissioned by 2023, which necessitates foreign procurements.