NEWTOWN, Conn. - The Indian Defense Ministry has taken the long-expected step of cancelling a tender for 197 light utility helicopters (LUHs) that has proven particularly problematic. One of India's largest and most controversial projects, the LUH acquisition stretches back to 2003. It was intended to involve the $1 billion procurement of 197 light utility helicopters intended for use with both the Indian Army and Air Force. Of these, 133 were to be assigned to the Indian Army, with the Air Force receiving the remainder.
The aim of the project was to secure a successor platform for the Army's obsolete Chetak (a localized knock-off of the Aerospatiale SA 316 Alouette III) and 1970's-vintage Cheetah (Aerospatiale SA 315B Lama) helicopters. The impetus for this procurement program was the 1999 Kargil conflict, where the high-altitude warfare in the mountainous terrain posed a logistical problem for the Indian Army. Today the requirement remains, with the Army's Cheetah fleet well past its service lifespan and the strategic center of gravity having shifted from the border with Pakistan to the high altitudes of the Himalayas straddling the China-India border.
But the need for light utility helicopters to perform troop transport duties in the high elevations of the Himalayas remains an open sore requirement for both the Indian Army and Air Force. The first tender was scrapped in December 2007 due to alleged irregularities in the procurement process involving the brother of the head of the trials team. A fresh tender was then issued on April 30, 2008, but deviations in the tender clauses noted in a report submitted to the Indian MoD in 2011 caused concern in the ministry. By February 13, 2013, the Defense Acquisition Council (DAC) had decided to indefinitely suspend the program.
Then in April 2013, the DAC asked Indian Army Chief General Bikram Singh to launch an investigation into alleged improprieties involving an Army Aviation Corps (AAC) officer and other Army and MoD personnel within the LUH program. The alleged misconduct arose following the discovery of an unsigned note in mid-2013 in Italy during an investigation into corruption charges in another defense program, this one involving the acquisition of 12 AgustaWestland AW101 VIP transport helicopters. The note claimed that the officer heading the AAC's flight evaluation team offered to tilt the December 2010 trials in favor of the AgustaWestland AW119 'Koala' platform in return for $5 million. Finally, on January 4, 2014, the Central Bureau of Investigation charged the officer with "abuse of official position" and forgery. But with elections fast approaching the UMP government-appointed leadership in the Defense Ministry opted to delay cancelling the tender until a new government assumed power.
Thus, despite the Indian Air Force imploring the Defense Ministry to speed up the acquisition of new light utility helicopters shortly after it lost a brand-new Russian-built Mi-17 helicopter during a rescue mission in the Himalayas on June 25, 2013, the project has instead once again been scrapped altogether. The young, conservative government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed power with the vow to expedite the desperately-needed modernization of India's armed forces and has tried so far to make good on that promise. But despite the need to wipe the slate clean on lingering controversial programs the requirements remain the same for both the Air Force and Army, with the latter in particular confronting a significant capabilities gap as it seeks to strengthen its position vis-à-vis China along their shared - and disputed - border in the Himalayas. It appears that the Defense Ministry will extend to local industry the opportunity to produce around 400 such light utility helicopters to meet the requirements of both service branches. That in itself represents a risk as the chronicles of domestic aerospace giant Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) leave much to be desired.