Thursday, September 29, 2022

Salvaging Pride After The ‘Dhruv Chopper Disaster’: Why BrahMos Missile Deal Is A Big Breakthrough For India

With the recent Brahmos missile deal with the Philippines, India has taken a giant step towards establishing itself as a key defense exporter in the Indo-Pacific region.

In the past few years, India has made extensive efforts to boost its domestic defense industry and set an ambitious target of five billion dollars of military exports by 2025. The country is also promoting private-sector collaboration in defense production. 

To push the Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) initiative, the Defense Ministry has shelved a number of foreign deals, including the tenders for the import of short-range surface-to-air missiles and 14 helicopters. The government has begun examining import deals that fit under the ‘Buy Global’ category. 

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report on ‘Top 100 arms-producing and military services firms, 2020’, three Indian companies were ranked among the top 100 Global defense corporations.  

But the fact of the matter is that India’s defense manufacturing capabilities are yet to meet the global standard. In 2018, the Indian Army rejected an Indian-made gun after it allegedly failed quality tests for the second year in a row.

There were performance issues with domestically-built weaponry and equipment such as Arjun tanks, light combat planes, and bullet-proof jackets as well. Similar concerns have been raised in the aerospace sector. 

Following three decades of designing and developing its own fighter, India floated a tender for 126 fighters, which was later turned into a contract for 36 Dassault Rafale aircraft.

India has faced significant setbacks in the aerospace business, most notably when Ecuador ordered Dhruv Helicopters from India and promptly pulled out citing maintenance and performance concerns. 

A Huge Setback   

In the late 2000s, the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was successful in securing a $45.2 million deal with Ecuador for Dhruv helicopters. This was seen as a key milestone for India’s indigenous defense production.

Furthermore, India’s Dhruv was positioned as a low-cost alternative to Western utility helicopters. Ecuador had bought seven Dhruv choppers from HAL after a tough competition from Elbit, Eurocopter, and Kazan. 

However, the excitement was short-lived as four of the seven Dhruv advanced light helicopters (ALH) bought from HAL crashed in separate incidents and Ecuador grounded the remaining ones and unilaterally ended the contract with the state-owned firm in 2015. These helicopters were delivered to the country between 2009 and 2012. 

File:Hindustan ALH Dhruv, Ecuador - Air Force JP7505969.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
A file photo of the India-Supplied Advanced Light Helicopter Of the Ecuador Air Force (Wikimedia Commons)

Pilot errors were found in at least two of the chopper crashes. One of them was assigned to transport the country’s President when it went down, though he was not on board, NDTV had reported in 2015.

The Ecuadorian Defense Minister at the time claimed that two of the helicopters had crashed due to mechanical issues and that obtaining spare parts for the choppers from India had proven challenging. Ecuador’s cancellation of the contract was a blow to India’s ambitions to become a major defense exporter. 

In barely five years, the country decided to sell the last three Dhruv helicopters. Ecuador then turned towards western countries and ordered six Airbus H145 copters. These helicopters were purchased to complement four AW119Ke aircraft and to fill the gap left by Dhruv. Ecuadorian Air Force received all the six Airbus H145s by 2021. 

In November 2004, an ALH deployed to the Royal Nepal Army suffered a hard landing, causing damage to its undercarriage and landing gear. Since HAL began manufacturing Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), there have been 16 accidents, the government admitted in the Parliament in 2016. 

File:Indian Army Dhruv Helicopter at Aero India 2013.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
File Image :Indian Army Dhruv Helicopter at Aero India 2013

A small number of countries are already operating Dhruv ALH  including the Maldives, Mauritius, Nepal. Recently, HAL signed a contract with Mauritius for the supply of one Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH Mk III) to the country’s police force. India is also expected to export at least seven Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) and eight Dornier 228 aircraft to the Philippines, The EurAsian Times previously reported. 

Will BrahMos Boost India’s Standing?

On January 14,  2022, Delfin Lorenzana, Secretary of National Defense of the Philippines, confirmed the acquisition of three batteries of BrahMos missile system to be operated by the Philippine Marine Coastal Defense Regiment. With the $375-million deal, Manila has become the first foreign customer of the BrahMos missile system.

Earlier, the Philippines, which was looking for shore-based anti-ship missiles, had signed a framework agreement with the Indian government for the acquisition of Brahmos.

File:BrahMos missile at Engineering Technologies 2012 01.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
BrahMos missile – Wikimedia Commons

The Philippines’ purchase of Indo-Russian BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles would also send out a message to China, which continues to maintain an aggressive posture due to its maritime disputes with several Southeast Asian nations.  

The EurAsian Times had earlier reported that countries Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand are also interested in the BrahMos system. Talks are also underway with Indonesia and Vietnam, according to reports

Indonesia’s defense minister visited India in July 2020 and the possible supply of the BrahMos figured prominently in the talks. The deal with the Philippines will certainly pave the way for more defense exports from India to other interested parties. 

Nitin J Ticku, the managing editor of The EurAsian Times says – The Ecuador episode was a major embarrassment for India, as well as a scar on HAL’s reputation. However, Brahmos is much more reliable as it is developed with the help of Russian technology and Russian missiles technology is regarded as one of the best in the global arms industry.

Ticku added that it is also a crucial move for Russia, which stands to gain a lot from the deal as the Philipines is regarded as a hub for western arms. Since the BrahMos missile contains critical Russian technology, India must have discussed intellectual property rights with Russia before selling it to the Philippines. Overall, both Russia and India are set to hugely benefit from the sale of BrahMos missiles.

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