The Indian Armed Forces are looking for a massive overhaul of their light helicopter fleet to replace the Chetak and Cheetah rotorcraft from service. The requirement stretches to over 350 airframes, a big and lucrative offer for most companies.
The requirement has hit several roadblocks in its course. The global tender has twice been canceled and was finally concluded in 2015 when India and Russia decided to jointly produce Kamov Ka-226T helicopters for the role.
However, even after six years, the deal hasn’t materialized. This is seldom attributed to a ‘wild-card’ entry to the selection process: the HAL-built Light Utility Helicopter (LUH).
Other reports mentioned that the negotiations over Ka-226T helicopters in India have dragged on due to New Delhi’s requirements on the degree of domestic production, Dmitry Shugayev, director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSVTS), had stated.
Concerns for the aging Chetak and Cheetah helicopters first surfaced around the 1990s-2000s, where the procurement of a modern successor soon was felt necessary.
Multiple attempts were made at establishing a competitive tendering program; one such effort specified a total of 197 utility helicopters for the Indian Army, 60 of which were to be directly purchased and the remaining 137 to be produced under license by Indian aerospace company Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
This is also in line with a ‘trend’ that the MoD followed- split the order in two, invite global tenders for one and give the other for development to DPSUs. However, the ministry 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.
However, following the selection of Ka-226T to meet the Indian requirement for 197 helicopters, an agreement was signed in December 2015 for the creation of a joint venture between Rostec, Russian Helicopters and Hindustan Aeronautics to build the helicopters at a new factory to be built at Tumakuru in India.
Going at a parallel pace, the HAL’s new Light Utility Helicopter received Initial Operating Clearance in February 2020. In September 2020, the company announced the completion of final demonstration trials, which involved envelope expansion, performance, flying qualities, payload and landing capabilities at the highest altitudes of Siachen Glacier.
And in November 2021, the Indian Ministry of Defence placed an initial order of 12 airframes(Limited Series Production) with HAL, six each for the Army and the Air Force. According to the reports, over 180 airframes are planned.
Now, here’s where it gets complicated: out of the initial requirement, how many helicopters are actually required and who will receive a bigger order: the Ka-226T or the indigenous LUH?
One of the crucial factors in favor of the LUH is it being developed indigenously, along the lines of the Indian Government’s “Aatmnirbhar Bharat” campaign.
Recently, an extensively upgraded Kamov Ka-226T was unveiled at Dubai Airshow, sparking the debate again over its utility and the ‘big Indian order’.
The helicopter has many unique capabilities: the trademark Kamov co-axial rotor design, digitally designed, and a replaceable mission pod, making it efficient for high altitude and transport capabilities. The lack of a tail rotor also makes it a more compact design.
The most distinctive feature, the Co-Axial rotors allow the helicopter to maintain a high degree of controllability in thin air, resistance to heavy winds and an increased rate of climb – an overall perfect choice for a force like the Indian Army which operates at varying degrees of terrain including active threat environment in the mighty Himalayas.
Nevertheless, it also means a very complex rotor design needing a comparatively higher degree of maintenance.
HAL Light Utility Helicopter
Being indigenously developed having a traditional rotor design, the Light Utility Helicopter boasts “state of the art technology features like Glass cockpit with Multi-Function Displays (MFD) and powered by single Turbo Shaft engine with sufficient power margin to cater to demanding high altitude missions,” according to HAL.
The LUH has completed all the flight trials including the dreaded Siachen Glacier and passed all the tests with flying colors. Having a range of 500 km and a service ceiling of 6.5 km, it will be able to undertake various missions, including emergency medical services (EMS), troop transport, utility, search and rescue (S&R), VVIP, aerial reconnaissance and surveillance missions.
The aircraft is fully indigenously designed and allows for greater autonomy of design flexibility, lesser cost, and better logistical feasibility.
Nevertheless, the co-axial Kamov comes with its own set of technical advantages over the LUH. The Ka-226T has a 100 km more range, two engines, and a better payload capacity when compared to the Indian counterpart.
The total projected requirement for the Indian Army and the Air Force is over 380 light helicopters, which would be completed by induction of both the Kamov and the LUH.