MoD looks to induct foreign choppers in Navy, expert advises otherwise

Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Karambir Singh, addresses a press conference in New Delhi | PTI
With the Ministry of Defence (MoD) poised to sanction on Friday a Rs 21,738-crore project to build 111 naval utility helicopters (NUH) in an Indian private sector firm, a MoD expert has suggested the project be scrapped.

The MoD and the Navy want the NUH to be a foreign helicopter, built through the strategic partner (SP) model. This involves selecting a deep-pocketed Indian private firm as the SP, which will build the helicopters in India using technology supplied by a separately selected foreign original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

However, former integrated defence staff chief, Vice Admiral Raman Puri (retired), who the department of defence production has appointed as consultant, has advised against inducting a foreign helicopter as NUH, when defence public sector unit Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) is in a position to supply a naval version of its indigenous Dhruv advanced light helicopter (ALH).

Puri has recommended the indigenous Dhruv chopper over a foreign design, citing Para 23 of Chapter II of the Defence Procurement Policy of 2016 (DPP-2016), which states: “Preference will be given to indigenous design, development, and manufacture of defence equipment. Therefore, whenever the required arms, ammunition, and equipment are possible to be made by the Indian industry, within the timelines required by the services, the procurement will be made from Indian sources.”

On November 19, the MoD asked HAL for its comments. HAL has replied that it is “generally in agreement with the viewpoints provided by the consultant”.

Puri also pointed out that Para 23 states: “Accordingly the (MoD’s) categorisation committee, while considering categorisation under the DPP will follow a preferred order of categorisation,” in which ‘Buy (Indian–IDDM)’ is top priority. IDDM is the acronym for ‘Indian Designed, Developed and Manufactured’, a criterion the Dhruv ALH meets.

HAL has pointed out to the MoD that the Dhruv ALH has been in operation with the Navy and Coast Guard for about two decades. It notes: “ALH has proved its robustness in all operating conditions, as validated by accruing more than 260,000 flying hours and (flying) more than 280 helicopters in the services of various customers.”

The Navy has opted for a foreign helicopter, to be built on the SP model, because the Dhruv ALH does not have foldable rotor blades that allow it to be parked within the cramped confines of a hangar on a warship.

But HAL’s response to the MoD states: “The design of ALH is such that role change can be achieved with minimum modifications and minimum time, which will enable the navy to use this helicopter…” 

HAL wrote that, while it did not earlier possess technology for foldable blades for the Dhruv, it “initiated a project with internal funding to design and develop a blade/tail boom folding mechanism on the ALH, which will meet the stowage requirements of the NUH”.

HAL executives say foldable blades can be easily developed in two-three years, a period shorter than what the MoD will take to sign a global NUH contract.

HAL’s letter also notes that the tender requires the foreign OEM to transfer nine critical technologies, which include a rotor system, transmission system, hydraulics, self-sealing fuel tanks, vibration isolation system and others. “All these critical technologies are available with HAL in the case of the ALH-based NUH, as it is HAL’s own development,” says HAL’s letter, which Business Standard has reviewed.

HAL also claims that “many other critical and advanced technologies (are) available with HAL, like the avionics system, glass cockpit, composite airframe technologies, etc.”

Puri’s recommendations also reflect his opinion that it would be wasteful to buy a foreign helicopter, pay for transfer of technology (ToT), and develop manufacturing capability in an Indian private sector SP when all this already exists with HAL.

He has pointed out that the SP’s new manufacturing line would have no work after building 111 NUHs for the Navy. The ‘transfer of technology’ cost paid to the OEM and the cost of setting up a new NUH production line would make a foreign NUH far more expensive than the Dhruv, which HAL already manufactures in Bengaluru.

“Since the ALH-based NUH is conceived, designed, and developed by HAL, there is no necessity for any ToT and thus a substantial amount of foreign exchange… can be saved,” HAL has argued.

HAL has also pointed out that it would be able to integrate weapons and sensors to meet the Navy’s requirements in the future, upgrade the platform at any stage in its lifecycle, resolve technical issues and carry out ‘obsolescence management’, which involves ensuring the supply of spare parts all through its service life.

Puri’s intervention and HAL’s argument will not be welcomed by private sector firms who have responded to the MoD’s NUH tender. These include Tata Advanced Systems, Adani Defence, Mahindra Defence, Reliance Defence, and the Kalyani Group. In addition, HAL submitted two responses — one in its individual capacity and another in a joint venture with Russian Helicopters called Indo-Russian Helicopters.

The foreign helicopters in the fray include two Airbus helicopters — the AS 565 Mbe (Panther) and the H145M — as well as US firm Sikorsky’s S76D and the Russian Kamov 226T. The Panther is regarded as the front runner.

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