Buoyed by their successes in designing, developing, and manufacturing light helicopters, HAL, the Bangalore headquartered defence public sector aerospace major, on February 4, unveiled publicly for the first time their conceptualised and benchmarked twin-engine, 13-tonne, multi-role, multi-mission, medium-lift helicopter. Terming the Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH) as HAL’s big opportunity to shine in a space hitherto monopolised by the Russian origin, workhorse legacy helicopter, the Mi-17, that is currently used by the Indian Air Force in large numbers, HAL’s Chief Designer (Projects) Rotary Wing, G Syam Nath said a 3D-digital model complete with line replacement units (LRUs) and antennae positioned was ready.

The intended roles of the IMRH will include support air assault, air transport, VIP transport, combat logistics like troop transport, combat search & rescue and casualty evacuation operations. The IMRH will have range that is 25 per cent better than the Mi-17.

While government sanction for the medium-lift helicopter is slated to come in months, HAL expects the rotary wing platform to be flying and ready for certification in seven to eight years from sanction. HAL, which have been working on designing a medium helicopter since 2017, plans to have three flying prototypes of the IMRH, one structural test bed and one ground test bed. The helicopter is to be equipped with a smart cockpit, composite and modular airframe, a HAL-designed retractable tricycle landing gear, automatic (4-Axis) flight control system, state-of-the-art mission systems, advanced avionic systems, a service ceiling of 6.5 km, an endurance of three hours, a payload of 4,000 kg and a maximum speed of 260 kmph. The powerplant will come from a foreign original equipment manufacturer, with HAL currently in talks with two major European engine houses. The helicopter, depending on its configuration, is designed to transport 24 or 36 troops.

Making a presentation on the IMRH, at the ongoing Aero India 2021 jamboree at Air Force Station Yelahanka, Syam Nath said the medium helicopter would first be offered to the Indian armed forces and then to the global market. Nath further stated that the IMRH program would provide the private sector with a tremendous opportunity to participate in a ‘make in India, sell global’ programme. In his estimate, the private sector could benefit from business worth around Rs.35,000 crore.

There are at present around 240 Mi-17 helicopters of three variants operating in the inventory of the Indian Air Force, helicopters which, starting from 2028, will be progressively phased out. The Air Force has indicated a replacement requirement of 250 helicopters in the medium-lift category. The Army, which at present does not have any medium-lift helicopters in its inventory, has also indicated a demand of around 170 medium-lift helicopters, calling them Tactical Battlefield Support helicopters. The Navy, which operates 63 medium helicopters, has indicated a demand of 123 such helicopters. The naval variant of the IMRH will feature blade folding options enabling ship deck operations.

HAL has projected a total requirement of 314 helicopters for the armed forces — 200 for the Air Force, 100 for the Army and 14 for the Navy — totalling an expenditure of around Rs.78,500 crore, with a further Rs.62,800 crore accruing by way of spares support over the life of these helicopters. Of this total of Rs.1,41,300 crore, or $20 billion, 50 per cent of the contract, or Rs.70,650 crore, should come from Indian entities under the Government of India’s Defence Procurement Procedure 2020, in the ‘Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufactured’ category. Syam Nath also indicated that maintenance, repair and overhaul of these helicopters would entail a further business of Rs.78,500 crore, or $11 billion.

From humble beginnings in the 1960s, manufacturing under licence the Chetak and a few years later the Cheetah helicopter, HAL has, since 1984, made commendable strides in designing the multi-role Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), the weaponised version of the ALH, the light combat helicopter, and the light utility helicopter, which was certified in 2019.