by Commodore G Prakash (Retd)

‘War is politics by other means’, said the 19th-century Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. In India, it appears that even ‘procurement for war’, is politics by other means. The pitfalls of this are dangerous for national prestige and security, and they stare us in the face especially in the kind of times that we are in now.

Every professional seeks the best of tools to ply his trade. The armed forces cannot be any different. But there is one criticality in the case of the armed forces, which is, that failure is no option for them. So, it is with much dismay that I watched the recent war of word triggered off by HAL once again entering the Navy’s long-running attempts to get Utility Helicopters (NUH). Somewhere among the discussions on the technicalities of the DPM, DAC, the sublime text of some Para 23 of Chapter II of the Defence Procurement Policy of 2016 (DPP-2016) etc, the criticality of the NUH for the Navy are lost for the common man.

An Excellent Example

I was lucky to operate from the Seaking Mk-42Bs from 1989, when they were brand new. Rightly called Flying Frigates, they could match Frigates in water for operational capabilities. Developed by Westland Helicopters, UK, to our operational specifications developed from 1978 and frozen by 1982, technically known as NSQRs (Naval Staff Qualifying Requirements), 20 helicopters arrived in India between 1988 and 1990.

NSQRs are written through an elaborate process. First, the threat to be addressed is identified, then the best method to optimally mitigate the threat is decided, what is available in the world is evaluated, the money available is considered and finally, the all-important Govt approval is obtained.

When they were born, the 42Bs were the best Multirole Helicopters (MRH) in the world. A true game-changer, it made the Navy proud and we who operated those aircraft felt like real kings of the sea. How else could one have felt, when one could get the entire Makaran coast on one screen, in graphic detail, with a single sweep of the Radar from 5000 feet up in the air? An Indian equivalent in the future was a legitimate fantasy.

A Great Plan Gone Bust

Well understanding the timeless advantages of indigenisation, while pursuing the 42Bs, the Navy also laid down NSQRs for an Indian Multirole Helicopter. It is unrealistic to expect HAL, the lone Aircraft manufacturer in India, to make its maiden helicopter to the standards of established manufacturers like Westland, NSQRs were laid down for a smaller, lighter version. Like for the 42Bs, these too were developed from 1978 and frozen by 1982. The plan was that while the Navy maintained its operational superiority over adversaries with the 42Bs, HAL would make a light MRH, gain critical experience and then graduate to making the replacement for the 42Bs one day. With IAF and Army too needing indigenous helicopters, HAL was onto something big. It was an excellent plan. But it went bust, at least for the Navy.

Maritime Helicopters Are Different

Helicopters for use at sea, especially MRH, greatly differ from their cousins designed for use on land. Being the lone aircraft producer in India, it would have been great if HAL had understood these and worked towards developing proficiencies for use in the future. Here are some examples.

Rotor Hub & Blades

On land, a helicopter can approach for landing from any direction, turn into wind and land. But while landing on a moving ship, this freedom of direction is curtailed. This can be overcome to an extent, through the design of the blade system and the rotor head. Further, to reduce the workload of Pilots during prolonged hover or during landing/ take off, the rotor blades should not be connected directly on to the rotor hub. This is good only on land. The ideal construction of rotor blades for ship operations is the Articulated Blade System which damps inputs to the Pilot reducing his workload.

Boat Like Bottom

While engaged in Anti-Submarine Warfare, one of their staple roles, MRH operate at very low levels, hovering for hours. During prolonged hover, both its fine gas turbine engines are straining to hold up about 10 tons of weight defying gravity. Now, if any engine has a problem, the helicopter has to sit on the water. The Pilots can now attempt a tricky running take off with one engine, from the sea. For this to be practical, the bottom of the helicopter has to be like a boat’s.

Extra Focus On Corrosion

Air at low levels at sea are salt-laden. Further, while in hover, helicopters get enveloped by a cloud of fine saltwater spray, which pushes highly corrosive salt into every little pore of the helicopter. To prevent corrosion, special materials are required in certain parts.

Folded Blades & Tail

Space on warships being premium, helicopters have to be made compact for stowage inside hangars. So, their blades, and in the case of larger helicopters, tails too, have to be folded. How compactly the blades be folded, also matters. Because, even when stowed safely inside hangars, helicopters and their blades could move in very violent seas and get damaged. So, they have to be compact, staying well within the confines of hangars, with some leeway for movement in violent seas.

Speed of Blade Spreading & Folding

Torpedoes being a great threat for ships, they have to be ever ready to accelerate fast and manoeuvre violently to outrun incoming torpedoes. However, ships cannot manoeuvre while launching or recovering helicopters, and for the period when blades are being spread or folded. Hence it is important that the entire process of bringing helicopters out from their hangars onto the flight deck, spreading their blades, launching them, recovering them, folding their blades and stowing them in hangars be expeditious. Every second saved is critical for the safety of the ship involved. This is best achieved if done automatically. The five massive 30 feet long blades of the 42Bs fold or spread in less than a minute, with a complex system involving pneumatics and hydraulics, operated by a single switch in the cockpit.

Helicopters operate during day and night from ships, regardless of rain, wind or waves. When they descend onto the deck for landing, the deck too comes up violently and impacts the helicopter’s wheels as the ship lurches over waves. This requires unique features in the undercarriage system.

Basic Weight & Capacity Excess

Helicopters at sea need much excess capacity to carry several sensors that helicopters on land do not carry. Excess capacity is also required for the ability to assume different roles, by carrying different armament. Sufficient fuel is also required to get useful time on a mission, carrying weapons, which, if unused, have to be brought back. For this, the basic weight of the aircraft has to be kept strictly in check.

HAL Went For Scale

For a first-time manufacturer dealing with the differing requirements of the three services, we can’t fault HAL for not having focused on the unique naval requirements in the initial years. Despite the Navy highlighting the fact that good maritime helicopters have to be designed primarily as maritime helicopters, HAL went for the majority requirement and produced a helicopter primarily designed for use on land. Converting this for use at sea was an inherently flawed idea. Similar was the case for an automatic blade fold system. Strong advice from the Navy to consult Westland, which had a well-proven system, was ignored. This, despite the Navy giving a written undertaking in 1992 that it will acquire 120 helicopters. An undertaking, which was given almost ten years before the first naval version flew. How much more can any customer show genuine support?

The Aftermath

At first flight, almost 20 years after the NSQRs were frozen, almost every NSQR was unfulfilled. And the subsequent journey has not been encouraging. The net result has been some loss of confidence in HAL over the years and an image of an entity that needs to improve customer relationship. This is bound to reflect in every interaction.

The NUH Story

Light utility helicopters are a godsend in war and peace. They are the ubiquitous ‘Angels’, on whom rests the great task of saving lives, through SAR. At sea, they are also used to move personnel and light loads from ship to ship, for limited weapon drops and surveillance. For an incredible 60 years, the Indian Navy has managed with the Chetak Helicopter, the Indian avatar of the French Allouette. Every member of the crew that flies this helicopter today must be awarded gallantry medals for just daring to fly them. The need for a replacement has been known for far too long. Formally, the current NUH case dates back to 2008.


Synergy among various arms of the state is critical for collective success. While retired Officers or professional watchers would comment on issues based on their past experience and knowledge, it is those currently occupying official positions, who should treat these as useful suggestions and work for the collective good. Hence it was heartening to see the CMD of HAL Bangalore himself giving an interview shared widely on media. Surely he meant well. But certain inaccuracies and insinuations in that interview were avoidable.

Elected governments in democracies have a tough job of spending money without attracting allegations. Naturally, they would make intricate systems, structures, and regulations for this. However, a pitfall of this is inordinate delays in procurement and loopholes for interested parties to hold up well-meaning processes. HAL’s recent re-entry into the NUH case is one such case.

It was only after HAL had earlier admitted to not being able to meet the Navy’s requirements for the NUH that the Navy opted for the NUH under the Govt’s Strategic Partnership (SP) Model. The SP Model aims for the Indian Company chosen as the Strategic Partner to make a helicopter with more than 60% indigenous components. Compared to this, the ‘indigenous’ ALH still has only 37% of indigenous components. The NUH is actually the first project which has the potential to fulfil every gain that the SP model envisages. HAL re-entering the fray with a non-existent product, promising wonders in too short a time, may not be helpful. What the CMD mentioned as ‘a couple of changes’ required to meet the Navy’s requirements, are actually work on engines and the rotor hub, which is akin to designing a new helicopter altogether. Moreover, these have been pending for over two decades.

What is to be achieved by scuttling the NUH through the SP model? Is it the emergence of a much-needed competitor, especially in the private sector? If yes, it is sad, because that is against the very aim of the SP model.

CMD HAL’s words that the NUH being ‘quite a big contract, (people) will be looking at it from a different angle’, was avoidable insinuation. Further, by saying that the Navy was looking ‘at some foreign OEM’s aircraft, particularly one aircraft’ and that ‘specific NUH RFQ/ RFI was designed for that’, he virtually cast aspersions on the wisdom, propriety and authority of the MoD. Moreover, the process of shortlisting and procurement is that of the Defence Acquisition Council headed by the RM and the Empowered Project Committee, with a very limited role of the Navy. The insinuation is therefore on the bureaucrat driven acquisition system, that too before the process has even begun.

Working Towards Victory

Down history victories have been claimed by the gloved hand that wields the sword and failures dumped on the rust at the cutting edge of the sword. It is the hand that must keep the sword sharp. The Navy and the MoD understands this and strive untiringly for it, despite the inherent limitations of processes. The fighting man has proven time and again that he will fight with whatever is available. What is promised in the future is of no use to him, as it doesn’t scare the enemy in front of him.

Departments going by the advice of senior veterans who were rabidly anti-import while they were in service, even at the cost of operational efficiency, will have limitations in seeing the light. The motivations that drove them while in uniform, that too when they were directly responsible for conducting war, are only likely to be stronger now, creating blindness to the dire needs of operational efficiency. It is important to remember, that synergy is key.