|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
There is good news in the offing on the indigenous helicopter front. On February 7, 2020 the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) obtained the initial clearance from the DRDO paving the way for its production. The 3-tonne LUH will eventually replace the ageing Cheetah (HAL built version of Aerospatiale SA-315B Lama) and Chetak (HAL built version of Aerospatiale Alouette-III) helicopters of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force. The military has a requirement of 384 helicopters of which 187 helicopters are to be built by HAL. Of these 187 helicopters planned to be ordered, 126 x LUH are planned for the IA and balance for the IAF. Three prototypes of the LUH have been built. Characteristics of the LUH include: a two-man crew; capacity to carry six passengers; empty weight – 1,910 kg; maximum takeoff weight – 3,120 kg; length – 11.49 m; height – 3.38 m; main rotor diameter – 11.6 m, and; power plant - HAL/Turbomeca Shakti-1U turboshaft engine having 798 KW derated. The LUH is a very agile helicopter having a maximum speed of 250 kmph and cruise speed of 235 kmph. It cannot exceed the speed of 259 kmph which is added safety feature, It has a range of 350 km with a 400 kg weight. Its service ceiling of 6,500 m enables it to operate at very high altitudes including the Saltoro Range in Siachen Glacier area. Its agility can be gauged from its rate of climb, which is 6.66 meters per second or 1,426 feet per minute.
In July 2008, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had floated request for proposals (RFP) to various helicopter companies, including AugustaWestland, Bell Helicopter, Eurocopter, Kamov and Sikorsky for 197 x LUH to be purchased in a fly-away condition directly from the manufacturer in order to speed up their delivery. The possible contract was valued at $750 million, 30 per cent of which was required to be invested within India under the government's policy of industrial offsets. HAL was specified for providing maintenance activities for the fleet though HAL too was reportedly keen to develop LUH indigenously. At that time it was hoped trials for import of LUH would commence in 2009 and deliveries would commence in 2010. Bell Helicopter withdrew its bid in late 2008. Thereafter following the selection of Kamov KA-226T helicopter to meet the requirement, an agreement was signed in December 2015 for the creation of a joint venture (JV) between Rostec, Russian Helicopters and HAL to manufacture the Ka-226T at a new factory to be built at Tumakuru in India. However, HAL was concurrently seeking to design and develop the LUH by establishing partnership with a Western manufacturer having technical knowhow in the field; reportedly. Eurocopter was viewed as the favourite having worked with HAL in previous ventures like the Chetak and Cheetah helicopters.
In February 2009, MoD approved HAL's proposal to enter the design phase for indigenous design to meet the requirements of the LUH as also to explore partnership arrangements. However, after performing preliminary design studies, HAL announced in March 2010 its decision to proceed on the LUH project alone without any international partner participating in its development. In February 2011, HAL unveiled a full-sized mockup of its LUH design with first prototype anticipated to be developed by end 2012 and the first flight scheduled in 2013. However by November 2012 only bottom structure assembly of the LUH ground test vehicle had been completed. In March 2014, HAL announced its LUH capabilities as a civilian multirole helicopter, noting its ability to carry up to six passengers in an appropriate configuration. Production was intended to commence around 2018–2019 with 30 x LUH produced annually at the Tumakuru facility assembly by 2019-2020 and enhanced to 60 x LUH annually from 2023. Following repeated delays, first flight of the first LUH prototype, LUH PT-1 (ZG4620), was conducted next to the HAL facility a Bengaluru on September 6, 2016 marking commencement of the flight test phase of development. Later on February 14, 2017, the first prototype performed an impressive aerobatic display at Aero India 2017. Based on performance of the first prototype, a second improved prototype (PT-2) was developed and flight tested on May 22, 2017. In December 2018, PT-2 flying at an altitude of six km in December 2018 successfully cleared the Envelope Expansion Test at Bengaluru - a critical requirement for certification. The third prototype (PT-3) made its maiden flight on December 14, 2018. Subsequent successful trials include hot weather trials (2018), sea-level trials in Chennai (2018) and Puducherry (2109), cold weather trials (2019) and hot weather trials in high altitude (2019). Cumulatively, the tree prototypes had undertaken some 550 flights as of February 7, 2020, when DRDO accorded initial clearance that would lead to production of the LUH by HAL. Government naturally is focused on increasing defence exports in line with the Prime Minister's target of Inaugurating DefExpo 2020 on February 5, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the target for defence exports in the next five years as $5 billion (some 35,000 crore). Naturally the MoD will pull out all stops to meet the PM's dictum. However, not giving priority to the IA and IAF would be naïve.