Light combat helicopter designed and developed by Hindustan Aeronautics. Beyond the current initial order, the Indian Army has committed to ordering 114 LCHs, and the Indian Air Force another 65
On Saturday in Bengaluru, Defence Minister Arun Jaitley underlined the growing capabilities of Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) by inaugurating the production of the indigenous design Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), which HAL has designed, developed and will now manufacture.
On November 7, 2016, the defence ministry had cleared a Rs 2,911-crore procurement of 15 LCHs as a “limited series production” (LSP) order – a little under Rs 200 crore per helicopter. But top HAL sources tell Business Standard the final cost would work out to Rs 231 crore per LCH at 2017-18 prices.
This is less than half the cost of the AH-64E Apache attack helicopters the Indian Air Force (IAF) has bought from Boeing, US. The Apache is more heavily armed and armoured and has the sophisticated Longbow fire control radar. The LCH does not yet have radar, but HAL intends to develop one before mass production begins.
HAL is building the 15 LSP choppers at its Bengaluru helicopter complex. However, the army has committed to ordering 114 LCHs, and the air force another 65, which could be built at an upcoming helicopter production facility in Tumkur.
HAL has custom-designed the 5.8-tonne LCH to provide fire support to the army at mountainous deployment areas on the northern borders, which can be as high as 6,000 metres (almost 20,000 feet).
At these rarefied altitudes, where the shortage of oxygen prevents troops from carrying heavy weapons into battle, the LCH will provide crucial fire support with its 20-millimetre turret gun, 70-millimetre rockets and, to be incorporated later, a guided missile.
“The LCH has demonstrated [the] capability to land and take off from Siachen Range (sic) with considerable load, fuel and weapons that are beyond any other combat helicopter,” stated HAL on Saturday.
Highlighting the LCH’s versatility, HAL stated: “The helicopter can carry out operational roles under extreme weather conditions at different altitudes from sea level, hot weather desert, cold weather and Himalayan altitudes.”
The superb high-altitude performance of the LCH, like that of its precursor in service, the Dhruv advanced light helicopter (ALH), stems from twin Shakti engines, designed for HAL by French helicopter engine maker Turbomeca (now Safran Helicopter Engines), and built in Bengaluru. While the Shakti’s performance at low altitudes is comparable to other engines of its size, it outperforms them significantly at altitudes above 5,000 feet.
The LCH has a narrow fuselage, in which two pilots sit one-behind-the-other in an armoured cockpit that can protect them from small arms firing. Like the Dhruv ALH, on which many of the LCH’s flying technologies were tested, the new attack helicopter has a hinge-less main rotor, a bearing-less tail rotor, integrated dynamic system, crashworthy landing gear and a smart all-glass cockpit.
The LCH’s weapons and sensors were developed and tested on an armed variant of the Dhruv, called the Rudra. HAL’s chairman, T Suvarna Raju, says this evolutionary approach drastically cut down on the LCH’s development time.
The current order does not include a provision for “performance based logistics” (PBL), which constitute an HAL guarantee that a specified percentage of the fleet is available at all times.
As Business Standard reported on March 30 (In a first, HAL assures 75% availability of Dhruv fleet) HAL signed its first PBL contract for the Dhruv, requiring it to position maintenance teams in up to 40 army aviation bases and two maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) hubs in the north and east, from where repair teams could respond to maintenance requests from aviation bases.
Hawk trainer upgrade
Jaitley also inaugurated an HAL-BAE Systems development programme that aims to enhance the Hawk trainer aircraft from an advanced jet trainer (AJT) into a combat-capable platform that “is capable of delivering precise munitions, including air to ground and close combat weapons”, according to HAL.
Unlike most fighter aircraft, including the Tejas, the Hawk cannot fly at supersonic speeds. Yet, there is a need for lower-performance combat aircraft that can fly and manoeuvre in valleys to support army soldiers in an environment where there is no major enemy air threat.
While the IAF has not yet committed to buying the so-called “combatised Hawk”, the presence of Jaitley at the dedication ceremony is significant.