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Indian HAL Dhruv Helicopters Likely To Emerge Victorious Over Airbus Choppers In Philippines Defense Deal – Reports

India is likely to sell at least seven Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) and eight Dornier 228 aircraft to the Philippines, as part of New Delhi’s line of credit to Manila. 

The maritime variant of Dhruv ALH is currently being evaluated by the Philippines. This entailed equipping the Dhruv Mark III with marine policing capabilities and transforming the standard ALH into the Dhruv Maritime Role (MR) variant, Business Standard reported

Manila’s marine helicopter acquisition, according to industry and market estimates, has come down to a direct fight between two helicopters: the Dhruv MR and the Airbus Helicopters Panther AS565. The contract with the Philippines would be worth Rs 3,000 crore. 

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Indian Navy inducted 3 indigenously-built HAL’s advanced light helicopters ALH Dhruv MKIII – (via Twitter)

India’s state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is pushing its Dhruv MR variant aggressively, stating that both helicopters are about the same price, however, HAL is ready to provide a better maintenance package, including spares and assistance. Manila would also have the option of doing its own MRO. 

In its annual report for 2020-21, HAL first indicated Manila’s interest in purchasing these two ‘Made in India’ platforms. “Our chances in the Philippines appear bright,” HAL’s chairman, R Madhavan, told Business Standard. HAL manufactured the Dhruv MR as the “original equipment manufacturer” (OEM) of the Dhruv without being hampered by end-user restrictions.

HAL Strengthening India’s Airpower 

The Dhruv ALH has become more sophisticated while also becoming more expensive. The Dhruv Mark I, the first ALH variant, was sold to the military for Rs 45-50 crore whereas, each Dhruv Mark III, with its glass cockpit and anti-vibration dampers, costs Rs 70 crore. The maritime role fitments will add additional Rs 40 crore to the cost of each Dhruv MR, bringing the total cost around Rs 110 crore.

As HAL develops new and more advanced variations, its expertise in the design and development of helicopters also grows. More than 320 Dhruvs have been delivered to the Army, according to the HAL chief. 

In November 2013, the Indian Navy commissioned its first Dhruv (Mk I) squadron. In April 2021, the Indian Navy (IN) commissioned its first naval air squadron outfitted with the indigenously designed and developed Dhruv Mk III Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH).

HAL has been awarded a contract to produce 16 ALH Mk III aircraft, an enhanced variant with Shakti-1H engines, a new electronic warfare (EW) suite and warning systems, autonomous chaff and flare dispensers, and a better vibration control system.

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi handed over a HAL-produced LCH to the Indian Air Force (IAF). The light combat helicopter includes sophisticated technologies and stealth features for combat missions. During a recent visit to HAL, IAF chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhary inquired if the Dhruv might be equipped with extra capabilities.

“Just select the systems you want,” HAL’s helicopter engineers answered. “Within the boundaries of the ALH’s flying capacity, we can incorporate them all.” 

Key Challenges

A small number of countries are already operating Dhruv ALH  including the Maldives, Mauritius, Nepal. Myanmar is reportedly interested in acquiring these platforms as well. Despite India’s tremendous potential as a helicopter exporter, “end-user” difficulties continue to limit the HAL’s maneuverability. 

With HAL’s choppers still having a 50-55 percent indigenous content but instead essential systems still flowing from the UK, Israel, and France, exporting these helicopters necessitates export permissions from these source countries.

This frequently implies political agreement over which nations these choppers may be sold to. Supplier countries are sometimes hesitant to provide weapons to countries like Myanmar.

Dhruv ALH gifted by India to Maldives
A Dhruv ALH gifted by India to the Maldives. (Wikipedia)

Despite all the hype about ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’ (self-reliant India), simple economics prevents indigenous content from exceeding 50-55 percent. The composite material used to make the helicopter fuselage is imported.

No Indian companies produce the aluminum alloys used in the chopper since they aren’t required in large enough quantities to provide economies of scale.

Ejection seats, for example, are a complex product that is nearly fully gobbled up by British manufacturer Martin-Baker, according to HAL’s engineers. Similarly, Cobham, another British company, manufactures mid-air refueling equipment for nearly the entire western aerospace market.

Exports of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter engines will continue to account for 25-30% of the cost of aircraft until Indian enterprises begin manufacturing them.

ALH Dhruv Mk III 

ALH MK III helicopters have a number of systems that were previously only found on the Indian Navy’s heavier, multi-role helicopters. These helicopters are equipped with advanced surveillance radar and electro-optical equipment, allowing them to perform maritime reconnaissance as well as long-range Search and Rescue operations at any time of day or night.

It is equipped with a heavy machine gun to carry out constabulary missions in addition to special operations capabilities. The helicopters also have a detachable Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) to transport critically ill patients and are equipped with a variety of modern avionics, making it an all-weather aircraft.

Indian Navy Dhruv ALH Mark-III
An Indian Navy Dhruv ALH Mark-III. (via Twitter)

The contract for the Indian Navy entails the integration of 19 major systems with the existing ALH MK III, including IFF MKXII & ATC Xpdr with ADS-B Out, V/UHF communication system, traffic alert and collision avoidance (TCAS-I), SAR Homer system, automatic deployable emergency locator transmitter (ADELT), loud hailer, radio altimeter, rescue basket, medical intensive care unit (MICU), IADS system, AFCS, digital video recording system (SSDVR), automatic identification system (AIS), high-intensity searchlight (HISL), pressure refueling system, control grip, EO POD Rev III, surveillance radar system and 12.7 mm gun system.

Six of the 16 naval Mk-III ALHs will be outfitted with a low-frequency dipping sonar (LFDS) developed by the Naval Physical and Oceanographic Laboratory in Kochi. Bharat Electronics Limited, a state-owned company, manufactures the sonar’s units, with a slew of sub-vendors downstream.