by Shiv Aroor

An angry HAL has responded to Livefist‘s launch episode of #LivefistTalks, a new YouTube interview series. The inaugural episode, an interview with former Indian Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash, went live yesterday, and included scathing unsparing words on HAL’s performance with naval helicopter requirements.

Speaking about HAL’s move to push the Dhruv helicopter to meet the Indian Navy’s shipborne naval utility helicopter (NUH) requirement after 30 years of non-compliance, Admiral Prakash, a decorated fixed-wing aviator, called HAL ‘lethargic, deadbeat’, a company that had ‘failed to show initiative’ and one that deserved a ‘rap on the knuckles’. The full 30 minute interview, which includes his comments on the naval Dhruv (at 22:40 mark) is here:

Responding to Admiral Prakash’s comments to Livefist, HAL reached out with an angry statement.

“The weapons trials on ALH Navy were completed successfully, certified and cleared for for use by the navy. However automatic blade folding was never promised or attempted on ALH. HAL cannot be blamed for things it did not promise. It is wrong to use words like lethargic etc. because technological initiatives call for in-house funding etc. Without firm visibility of how the money spent would result, it is difficult for any company to take initiative. Easy for retired persons to talk and give endless commentary,” HAL spokesperson Gopal Sutar said.

The Indian Navy’s NUH program looks to procure 111 shipborne helicopters to replace the old fleet of Chetak/Alouette III. Planned as the ambitious first program under India’s Strategic Partnership (SP) rules, the program lifted off early 2019 with an expression of interest from the MoD, and, at last count, three companies in the fray. As it stands, the program is positioned as a contest between the Airbus H135M (in a tie up with Mahindra Aerospace & Defence), Sikorsky S-76D (in a tie-up with TATA) and a navalised version of the Kamov Ka-226T.

In January this year, it emerged that Indian Navy veteran and former Chief of the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) Vice Admiral Raman Puri, who had been hired by the MoD’s Department of Defence Production as a consultant, had objected to the NUH program even considering foreign helicopters when HAL’s Dhruv is readily available. This sparked a series of reports on why the Dhruv was being ‘ignored’.

Even before the Dhruv, HAL had a finger in the NUH via Kamov’s pitch for the navalised Ka-226T. The standard version of the helicopter is to be built by an HAL-Russian Helicopters joint venture at a facility in Tumkur, Karnataka, though the final lap to close the deal has remained elusive for over 2 years now. While the NUH is configured under the Strategic Partnership model to build manufacturing capacity in the private sector, HAL remains plugged into the program through Kamov’s technical bid, which began as a pitch in April 2018.

In February 2019, at the Aero India show in Bangalore, HAL unveiled an ALH Dhruv with a foldable tail boom for shipborne ops, a clear sign that it hadn’t given up on trying to persuade the Indian Navy to accept the platform. HAL has said it will have a foldable blade solution ‘soon’, but the Indian Navy isn’t enthused.

Last month, Commander KP Sanjeev Kumar, a former naval helo pilot & commentator on matters military, wrote in a blog for Times of India, “To be sure, the ALH is yet to meet its own 35 year-old naval staff qualitative requirements (NSQRs) in key areas such as range and endurance, blade folding, stowed dimensions, aircraft availability and serviceability. These are non-negotiable specifications for helicopters that operate for extended duration at sea. The navy did not stumble upon this non-compliance yesterday or in last Aero India air show. This has been the case from the time the Dhruv first took to sea. Even today, the naval ALH is not a platform of choice for a naval warship proceeding out of harbour… The ALH is a wonderful machine. Indian Navy’s two decade ‘social distancing’ from this helicopter was not out of any bias, but out of fundamental incompatibilities. The lessons from this experience must shape our decisions for the future.” (Quote used with permission)

HAL’s irritation is understandable, given it sees the NUH as firm door-slam on any future for the naval Dhruv, and therefore a waste of its belated investments in improving it to meet the Indian Navy specifications baseline requirements for shipborne operations. Last month, the officer quoted above also detailed HAL’s proposal for a 2-segmented blade folding mechanism.

On HAL’s rebuttal, Commander Kumar told Livefist, “Capabilities developed by HAL cannot be created overnight in the private sector by waving a magic wand of Strategic Partnership. It is a baby step. Only time will tell how it turns out for the navy. SP has Cabinet Committee on Security approval. It should be allowed to move along desired lines of building additional capacity in civil sector. There’s no replacement for HAL in the short to medium term. HAL and Indian Navy should continue to remain engaged fruitfully. Both must work on improving synergy while fixing internal flaws. I believe the existing order for 16 additional ALH Mk-3 gives both sides an excellent opportunity to sit across the table and find credible solutions for the ‘last mile connectivity’ issues dogging naval ALH. If we succeed, it will also give navy more options for the future. Blame game helps nobody.”

Livefist has reported before that the Indian Navy has ambitious plans with the NUH, calling for fielded platforms to be capable of sub-surface targeting.