Plans to buy a variety of modern light utility helicopters to replace India’s ageing fleet of military choppers continue to remain stuck in various stages of long procurement chains

As many as nine Chetak and Cheetah helicopters of the Army, Navy and the Indian Air Force (IAF) have crashed in the last five years since 2017, averaging around two accidents a year even as plans to buy a variety of modern light utility helicopters to replace India’s ageing fleet remain stuck in various stages of long procurement chains.

On Tuesday, a Cheetah helicopter crash at Patnitop killed two army officers — Major Rohit Kumar (35) and Major Anuj Rajput (28) — while they were on a routine sortie. This chopper, along with another chopper, was returning to the Udhampur base from the Kishtwar area of Jammu and Kashmir. A Court of Inquiry will establish the exact cause of the crash.

In February last year, a Cheetah helicopter of the Army had crash-landed in Jammu’s Reasi area. There were no casualties.

In 2019, a Cheetah helicopter had crashed in Bhutan, killing two pilots — one from the Indian Army and the other from the Royal Bhutan Army.

As per official data, the Army alone has suffered six accidents onboard Chetak and Cheetah helicopters leading to five fatalities since 2017. In 2016, the Army lost three officers in a Cheetah crash at the Sukna military station.

The Navy in 2019 suffered one accident of its Chetak helicopter due to technical failure. The chopper was ditched at sea. One of the Navy’s Chetak helicopters had a hard landing at INS Rajali in Tamil Nadu, but escaped major damages. There was no loss of life.

The IAF has suffered two accidents since 2017. One involved a Chetak and the other a Cheetah helicopter. The Cheetah helicopter had crash-landed at J&K’s Natha top in May 2018 and the Chetak helicopter had crashed in July the same year as it was attempting emergency landing during a training sortie from Bamrauli near Allahabad. No fatalities were reported in these accidents.

As per data provided by the defence ministry in the Lok Sabha in 2017, the Indian military lost 21 choppers to crashes since 2011.

The sheer number of accidents once again sheds the spotlight on the pressing need to replace vintage Chetak and Cheetah fleet with modern choppers. But plans to buy a variety of choppers to replace the outdated fleet continue to move at a snail’s pace and are currently at different stages of the procurement cycle.

Pressing Need For Modern Helicopters?

The Chetak and Cheetah fleet of the Indian armed forces are from the 1960s and 1970s, and have been the primary workhorse of the defence forces in the sea and extremely high altitude areas, essentially playing key roles of observation, surveillance, logistics support and rescue operations. They are also the main helicopters used by the IAF in training pilots in its three flying schools.

As per its website, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has produced more than 275 of these Cheetahs and 350 Chetaks. However, the helicopters outlived their lives more than a decade ago and have been facing severe serviceability issues.

A senior defence officer told that the biggest problem with the single-engine Chetaks and Cheetahs is their obsolete avionics. “This means a lack of features such as a moving map display, which most modern helicopters have. Modern helicopters have a ground proximity warning system, and weather radar which these vintage choppers lack. They also lack an auto-pilot system, which aggravates the chances of mishandling of controls in case of disorientation in bad weather,” the officer said.

A second defence officer said the armed forces are currently facing a shortage of 25% recce and observation helicopters. The officer said 77% of these helicopters have completed more than 30 years in service while the rest are approaching 50 years of service.

“Because of prolonged maintenance and overhaul requirements, the operational availability in the operational areas is 50%. Also, the technical shelf-life of the oldest helicopters will start terminating in 2023, adding to the shortage of light utility helicopters,” the officer said.

Massive Delay In Procurement

For around two decades now, the three defence services have been demanding modern helicopters and have together projected a need for 498 helicopters.

In 2015, India had inked an inter-governmental deal with Russia to procure 200 twin-engine Kamov-226T helicopters, of which 135 were to be for the Army and 65 for the IAF. While 60 choppers were supposed to be bought in fly-away condition, the rest were to be made as part of a joint venture between HAL and Russian manufacturers.

As per defence sources, the project is stuck over disagreements in the defence ministry over the amount of indigenous content in the helicopters, with Russia apparently offering lower indigenous content.

Meanwhile, a separate HAL project to build 187 light utility helicopters — 126 for the Army and 61 for the IAF — has also seen a massive delay with the induction of the first six choppers expected only at the end of next year. The plan for light utility helicopters for the Army received initial operational clearance in Bengaluru’s Aero India this year, but the armed forces have pointed out technical issues in the tail rotor system of the chopper.

The Navy also has separately initiated the procurement process of 111 naval utility helicopters through the strategic partnership route to replace its Chetak fleet, of which 95 were to be made in India along with a shortlisted Indian partner while the rest would be bought off-the-shelf. But after HAL insisting it should also be considered for the project, there has been little progress on it.