The 14th edition of India’s biennial air show Aero India, themed “the runway to a billion opportunities,” focused sharply on indigenous aerospace and defence technologies, in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push for “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (Self-Reliant India). The five-day event, held Feb. 13 to 17 at Air Force Station Yelahanka, Bangalore, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi himself, and was attended by over 800 exhibitors, including 110 foreign exhibitors.

While flying displays by various fighters, formation aerobatic teams and the maiden appearance of two fifth-generation fighter Lockheed Martin F-35As enthralled the crowds, the rotary side of this edition unmistakably belonged to state-owned defence major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

The full range of the company’s helicopter products — light twin Advanced Light Helicopter (DHRUV, all marks), 3-ton, single-engine Light Utility Helicopter (LUH), and the newly-inducted 5.8-ton Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) “Prachand” — occupied vantage at the show. The Indo-French Ardiden 1H1 Shakti engine powers the DHRUV (MK-3, MK-4) and LCH, while a derated variant of the Ardiden 1U powers the LUH.

A scale model of the Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH) was also on display at HAL’s indoor pavilion. During the show, HAL revealed that it had signed a workshare agreement with Safran Helicopter Engines for the joint development of an engine intended for the 13-ton IMH and its naval version DBMRH (deck-based multi role helicopter). The entire family of HAL helicopters, totalling close to 1,000 aircraft over five variants, will thus be equipped with turboshaft engines customized to meet exacting “hot and high” requirements.

The show was preceded by the inauguration of India’s largest helicopter manufacturing facility by the Prime Minister on Feb. 6. This factory, spreading over 615 acres, was set up by HAL at Tumkur, about 70 miles outside Bangalore, for series production of the LUH. An Inter-governmental Agreement (IGA) between New Delhi and Moscow for jointly manufacturing the Ka-226T “Climber” at the plant continues to languish due to workshare differences.

The plant, though underutilized at present, would cater for series production of LUH, LCH and IMRH, besides augmenting the manufacture and MRO of HAL’s rotary product range. The Indian army and air force have projected a requirement of 400 light helicopters to replace vintage Alouette-II and Lama. With Ka-226T in limbo, most, if not all, will come via the LUH route.

With delivery of over 300 DHRUV and the first tranche of four LCH Prachand to the Indian air force (with more soon to follow: 65 for the air force and 97 for army), limited series production of LUH and preliminary design of IMRH in the bag, HAL’s dominance over the Indian defence forces’ helicopter requirements for the foreseeable future is complete. The navy and coast guard have each already acquired 16 DHRUV MK-III-MR (Maritime Role). During Aero India, ICG’s Additional Director General Rakesh Pal was quoted saying the coast guard will be placing an immediate order for another nine and subsequent orders for 20 more MK-III-MR. As per sources, the navy has issued a letter of intent for 60 customized helicopters in a similar category, called Utility Helicopter Maritime (UHM).

This essentially means curtains for the Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) program that was envisaged by engaging the private sector through a Strategic Partnership (SP) model; the remaining numbers would be unviable to justify a new route. Private sector companies in this space — rich in talent and enterprise but lacking on firm orders — would likely have to contend with making sub-assemblies and spare parts going forward.