Ministry of Defence to scrap $1.5-bn deal for 197 light utility helicopters deal

Written by HumaSiddiqui | New Delhi | Updated: Feb 25 2013, 23:00pm hrs
197 helicopter dealRepresentative image: 'Two rounds of trials for these helicopters have already taken place.' (Reuters)
In the aftermath of the VVIP choppergate, even as the armed forces continue to battle age and obsolescence in their Cheetah/Chetak choppers, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is getting ready to scrap off the request for proposal (RfP) for the $1.5-billion deal for 197 light utility helicopters (LUH).

Sources told FE on conditions of anonymity, "If the197 helicopter RfP is cancelled then it will be unfortunate, this is a very compelling requirement as Indias high altitude border posts struggle for adequate support."

"Also, two rounds of trials for these helicopters have already taken place and a substantial amount of money has been spent on the trials. So, by putting the 197 helicopter deal in cold storage means large amount of money has been wasted and to add to this the in house disagreement between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Army does not bode well for the modernisations plans of the forces," sources added.

The procurement of 197 light helicopters - to replace the ageing Cheetah/Chetak fleets that undertake patrol, reconnaissance and casualty evacuation missions in forward locations and high-altitude areas like Siachen too has been dogged by technical deviation complaints.

"The special technical oversight committee (STOC), has cleared the minor deviations detected in the trials conducted between the twin-engine Kamov and the single-engine Eurocopter, holding both met the operational requirements," said a source.

The old designs of the Cheetah/Chetak have consistently proven themselves in high altitude operations, and remain useful as long as their airframes remain safe. The problem is that at their age, the safety margin is very poor.

As reported earlier by FE, recently the Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC) refused to go ahead with the project on the grounds that the army chief was traveling out of the country. However, sources claim "in the current situation (the VVIP helicopter scam) the government is putting all major deals on hold."

In 2003, India issued an RfP for 197 light helicopters estimating a deal worth between $500-$600 million to buy 60 helicopters outright, with the remaining 137 being built under license by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). Eurocopters AS550 C3 Fennec and Bell Textrons 407 competed in the second and final round of summer trials, and in 2007 the process ended up completely derailed. A new RFP out for a successor Reconnaissance and Surveillance Helicopter program (RSH) went out in 2008, and testing was done in 2010.

Earlier, sources confirmed "both the Eurocopter's Fennec and its competitor, the Russian Kamov Ka-226T, have not completely met the specifications". However, a technical panel has studied the deviations and made certain recommendations to the MoD. The decisions made have not been accepted by the Defence Acquisition Council, said the sources.