The Indian navy has issued a Request for Information (RFI) for the lease of 24 light helicopters. The move follows initial parleys with a few Indian operators and OEMs starting last November

The RFI seeks responses from helicopter OEMs, authorized leasing firms, third party financiers or government-sponsored agencies for 24 helicopters with ground support equipment, all maintenance support including performance-based logistics, and training of aircrew and maintainers. The lease will be guided by chapter IX of the latest Defence Acquisition Procedure. The period of initial lease is five years, extendable by another five years, with an option to buy back the airframes at residual value.

This is the first time the Indian navy has resorted to leasing helicopters. The acute shortfall in light helicopters, low availability of obsolescent Chetaks (Alouette-IIIB) and a Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) program meandering inconclusively has likely driven the navy to exercise the “lease’ "option included in the latest DAP.

However, naval sources have highlighted that the lease program has no impact on the NUH and the two are not mutually exclusive.

The RFI calls for twin-engine helicopters under five tons with wheeled undercarriage and blade folding. They must be capable of sustained operations day and night from afloat and ashore, and their roles will include search-and-rescue, casualty evacuation, communication and low intensity maritime operations. The helicopters should have a residual life of 15 years at the start of the lease, with the flying and “O” level maintenance to be performed by the Indian Navy (and the rest by the lessor or OEM partner).

A serviceability of 75 percent is to be ensured at two bases — one each on western and eastern seaboard.

The aircraft will have a minimum flying quantum of 360 hours per year, with a surge capacity of 50 hours per month for two months in a year. The must be capable of embarked operations up to 180 days in a year — 120 days at a stretch, when required, once a year.

The basic specifications match that of a civil offshore-configured light twin, and include weather radar, standard equipment for instrument flight rules in Class D airspace, AIS, rescue hoist, and emergency floats.

Notable additions include an EO/IR payload, third generation night vision goggle-compatible cockpit, the feasibility of integrating a cabin-mounted 7.62mm machine gun, and an underslung capability of 900 kilograms.

The contours of the RFI clearly indicate a helicopter that can operate “integral” to a warship — an interesting difference from the recently supplied HAL-manufactured Dhruv MK-3 Maritime Role helicopters for coastal security.

As opposed to civil offshore helicopters, naval operations require helicopters to embark ships for extended durations where only frontline servicing or “O” level maintenance activity is possible. For example, Indian navy ships with embarked helicopters routinely carry out extended “Patrol off Gulf” and Overseas Deployment.

The lease modalities and costing by the lessor would have to take into account deeper levels of servicing and maintenance, including, as specified in the RFI, “breakdown at any place in India.” This may throw up exigencies that are outside the ambit of “O” level if the helicopter breaks down or becomes “AOG” in the middle of the sea. Delivering 75 percent serviceability in situations outside the reach of the lessor/OEM will pose special challenges.

The RFI seeks responses by June 18, and this will be followed by an Approval of Necessity (AoN) within six months and award of contract within stipulated timelines under DAP.

About seven established OEMs and non-scheduled operators from India and abroad are believed to have evinced interest in the lease.