It’s a phrase thrown about often in this business, but in the compulsively bumpy world of Indian aviation procurement, there are few occasions when an item chosen for the armed forces is a certain, unequivocal game-changer. The Indian government’s decision to clear a deal for 15 Boeing Ch-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters steps far from the slapdash, frequently fallible procurement paths the armed forces have taken all too often. For one thing, the Chinook won a competition. Two, the government’s decision to close the deal comes nearly three years of negotiations later — an indication, perhaps and hopefully, that India has closed the best deal it could for the product. But now that the decks are truly cleared for a direct commercial sale contract between the Indian MoD and Boeing Defense, it’s useful to examine sentiments within the Indian Air Force, which will operate the Chinooks possibly from its Chandigarh base, but possible closer to the country’s capital too. Here are five reasons why the CH-47F Chinook in IAF colours (as detailed for the first time by artist Saurav Chordia above) could be a true game-changer in Indian service:
1. The IAF has had a troubled run with its spare heavylift rotory wing capability. Of the four Mi-26 Halos it bought in the eighties, three remain (one was written off after a severe crash-landing five years ago). But even before the accident, the platform has had typically severe serviceability issues that have mostly seen only one in the air at any given time — not the worst of scenarios for such a small fleet, but grossly less than what the IAF wanted from these machines. Replaced with a full-sized fleet of new generation helicopters will give IAF planners the kind of heavylift rotory wing flexibility they’ve never had before. Squadron-sized numbers (and, of course, newer circumstances) will shore up serviceability and put more numbers in pilots’ hands. The last few years have demonstrated that the ability to have more than one of these helicopters in the air at any given time is the difference, quite literally, between life and death. More numbers of heavylift copters in aero-bridge operations during humanitarian relief or disaster reconstruction work will be crucial.
2. Trials in 2010-11 convinced the IAF in no small measure that the tandem rotor capability would enormously boost what they were already doing with the conventionally framed Mi-26, especially in high-altitude operations. A comparison of what the tandem rotored Chinook could do in terms of landing approach capability, centre of gravity envelope etc., as opposed to the aerodynamic, performance and safety constraints on the CH-53 Super Stallion/Mi-26 proved to be too substantive to ignore. In simple terms, the IAF was convinced the Chinook could get more done, cleaner and safer.
3. The Chinook is substantially smaller and with a lower payload capacity than the Mi-26, but a higher degree of loading/unloading flexibility (especially rear loading) coupled with a significantly greater number of cargo/troops/equipment configurations convinced the IAF that switching to the tandem rotor machine made more sense than explore the very capable Mi-26T2, that sports better engines, avionics and safety features than the variant the IAF currently operates. The Chinook’s performance with under-slung cargo also won the IAF over.
4. The Chinook’s flying qualities, agility in the air, significantly lower rotor diameter and landing flexibility will allow the IAF to fly it where it couldn’t have even thought of taking the Mi-26. High altitude border areas, along narrow ridges and valleys, to deliver equipment, humans or materials for construction, road-building/repair, communications infrastructure building, disaster relief, casualty evacuation or any of the several other mission profiles the Chinook is built for. Why is that a game-changer? Because the IAF cannot satisfactorily deliver heavy payloads to precise sites even now. If not fully in some areas, tandem rotor operations will close the gap significantly, allowing the IAF to deliver closer to sites of requirement than ever before.
5. The Chinook is only the second heavylift helicopter the IAF will have ever operated. Unlike the Mi-26 that has performed strictly a troop/cargo transport role, the Chinook will obviously have a special missions profile as well. While the IAF has been looking at the MH-47 special operations configuration, the CH-47F variant it has chosen will definitely be used for special operations training and exercises, and will necessarily integrated with the larger joint special forces orbat. The IAF, a master at finding innovative new uses for its kit, could throw up several surprises behind the stick of a Chinook.