In the latest chapter of its stupefyingly endless quest for critically needed light helicopters, the Indian Army has just sent word officially out that it is looking to lease 20 light helicopters for the reconnaissance and surveillance role. The reason why this is absurd is that the Indian Army has been trying for two decades now to procure roughly 200 light helicopters to replace its fleet of old generation French origin Alouette-II and Alouette-III (Cheetah and Chetak) helicopters.
The army has described the target helicopters in almost precisely the same way it has always described the light utility helicopters it has sought to buy for decades — as light multi-utility platforms for reconnaissance, surveillance, armed recce, direction of artillery fire, scout role in conjunction with attack helicopters, aerial photography, airborne forward air controller and more.
While it is early to judge the army’s intentions, given the litany of Indian RFIs that have ended up being worth less than the paper they’re printed on, it is clear that the army feels pushed into a corner by difficult to explain delays in the procurement of such a basic capability. Not only has the Indian Army followed the Indian Air Force into the uncharted realms of leasing military hardware, but looking to lease 20 such helicopters indicates two things right off the bat in the event that this is a genuine quest and not an act of testing waters to see what’s out there. One, that the Army needs a fresh infusion of such helicopters on an urgent basis given a live operational situation in the northern frontiers. And two, that the Army has given up on any early forward movement on two helicopter programs that are intended to meet the army’s full requirement of such helicopters.
Of a total of nearly 400 such helicopters required by the Indian Army and Indian Air Force, HAL’s Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) and the Indo-Russian license built Ka-226T are to supply about half each. While the LUH, despite rapid strides towards a demonstrable operational capability at high altitudes including multiple operational demonstrations in Ladakh, has managed to only land orders for a dozen airframes, six each for the army and IAF, the Indo-Russian joint venture to build the Ka-226T near Bengaluru has remained paralysed for nearly seven years now, with little clarity on whether the Indian government plans to close the loop on a 2015 agreement to build 200 of the helicopters locally.
India’s military standoff with China in the high altitudes of eastern Ladakh that began in 2020 has visibly accelerated defence procurements, but the light helicopter capability remains out in the cold.
The latest Indian Army RFI on the leasing option is only the latest in a saga of dramatic surges and aborts. In 2007 and again 2014, the Indian Army cancelled contests to acquire 197 helicopters. In both contests, Airbus Helicopters (named Eurocopter till 2013) was reported to be in pole position with its AS 550 C3 Fennec offering. A year after the 2014 abort, the Indian government announced in 2015 that HAL and Russia would negotiate a co-production joint venture around the Ka-226T, a program that has all but fallen apart. This would technically be good news for indigenous industry, given that accelerated development and testing of HAL’s LUH had given the Army the option of choosing a single Indian-origin helicopter type to meet the entire requirement of nearly 400 helicopters.
Which is where the prospect of leasing such helicopters is a bolt from the blue. To be sure, industry members indicate that the RFI was expected and that the Army had been sending out feelers for over a year now. That the Army has felt the need to even reveal that it is willing to consider leasing light helicopters establishes that the worst of India’s military procurement impulses have come full circle.
Separately, the Indian Navy’s quest for 111 shipborne naval utility helicopters (NUH) to replace its own Alouette-III helicopters is also on shaky ground. In 2022, after years of doubling down against HAL’s Dhruv helicopter for the naval utility role, the Indian Navy began paperwork to support the procurement of 60 Dhruv MkIII helicopters from HAL, a sizeable enough number to hint at the possibility that the NUH as we know it was on its last legs. But with the NUH contest not formally called off, the race could theoretically be fought between official contenders the Sikorsky S-76 (which has teamed up with Tata for the campaign), two offerings from Airbus — the H135M and AS565 Panther — and a proposed naval version of the Ka-226T.