|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
Adverse affects of decades of neglect of defence and negative defence budgets in actual terms under various governments are coming to fore, faced with the Chinese aggression. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has pointed out that the upgrade of 90 x medium lift Mi-17 helicopters of the Indian Air Force (IAF) proposed in 2002 could not be achieved even after 18 years. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) concluded a contract with Elbit Systems of Israel for the upgrade of the 90 helicopters at 618.23 crore only in January 2017 – 15 years after the IAF proposed it. In its report tabled in Parliament on September 23, CAG observed: “After upgradation, 56 of these helicopters would be left with less than two years of life. The expenditure of 222.92 crore being incurred on their upgradation is not justified.”
For the upgrade, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Bharat Electronics Limited were also to supply 1,720 crore (raising overall upgrade cost to 1,942.92 crore) worth of essential components. But the contract for this has yet not been concluded between the MoD and HAL, BEL for this supply. Thus even after 18 years, upgradation of the helicopters has not been completed. Incidentally of the 90 x Mi-17 helicopters, 56 were inducted into the IAF during 1984-89 and have a ‘total calendar life’ of 35 years. This is indeed a sad state of affairs and the irony is no one would be held accountable for the slipshod handling and wasteful expenditure.
The CAG report specifically points out the following:
In another development, the Armed Forces have once again sounded alarm over their ageing and virtually obsolete Cheetah and Chetak helicopters, stressing that the 'total technical life' of these light utility choppers will begin ending from 2023 onwards. Media has quoted a senior military official saying, “The defence ministry has been told that a critical operational void is fast emerging due to the vintage single-engine Cheetah and Chetak fleets. The bulk of them are over 40 years old.”
Currently the Army, IAF and Navy hold 187 Chetak and 205 Cheetah helicopters which also service high-altitude areas like the Siachen Glacier region. These are ageing and have huge serviceability problems. The Armed Forces have been demanding new light helicopters as replacements for the past 15 years plus. Overall, the three Services together need 483 new light utility helicopters immediately and the number will keep going up with every helicopter phased out or lost. But lackadaisical attitude, vested interests and red-tape as under is hindering replacements:
HAL has just rolled out the 300th Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH-Dhruv) and conducted ‘ground run’ of the first Limited Series Production (LSP) of Light Combat Helicopter-Limited Series Production (LCH-LSP). However, it appears that while HAL wants to bag every contract, its production capacity remains limited.
It will be prudent for us to acknowledge that the strain on helicopters will be very high not only due to the India-China standoff this winter but in the years to come. The possibility of limited war with China is live and there may be attrition to our helicopter holdings. China’s latest claim of not recognising Ladakh as part of India indicates China will remain hostile to India in the foreseeable future.
Considering the above, our policy makers need to ensure the following: one, number of medium lift helicopter required by the military should not be allowed to dwindle - provide replacement through ‘Make in India’ with strategic partnership with HAL or part requirement met through Buy (Global – Manufacture in India) under Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020 if numbers become critical; two, kick-start the Kamov project lying in limbo on war footing; three, let the project for 111 armed, twin-engine naval utility helicopters under strategic partnership for which Indian firms are shortlisted proceed ‘without HAL’ – involve HAL for producing medium-lift helicopters under strategic partnership, and; four, increase HAL capacity for ALH-Dhruv and LUH production.