The news of the Ka-226T deal is heartening as the requirement of helicopters of the three services is growing as has been the clamour for replacements of existing fleets
Towards the end of 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed 16 bilateral agreements with Russia during his visit to that country, the most significant one amongst these being the deal for the manufacture in India of 200 Kamov Ka-226T helicopters. Hailed by the media and the government as a giant step for ‘Make in India’, the deal was described by Sergei Chemov, CEO of Rostec, the Russian state-owned industrial conglomerate thus, “This is the first Russian-Indian high-tech project implemented by the Indian Government within the framework of the ‘Make in India’ programme.”
A Russian-Indian joint venture involving Rostec, Rosoboronexport, Russian Helicopters and an Indian entity was envisaged as the manufacturing machinery. In the days that followed the signing of the deal, there was speculation that Reliance Defence may be in the reckoning as the Indian partner, but the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) finally emerged as the associate for the Ka-226T project. Indeed, in January this year, Prime Minister Modi laid the foundation stone for a new helicopter manufacturing facility for HAL near Tumkur (renamed in 2014 as Tumakuru) 70 km north-west of Bengaluru. The facility is seen as a significant step in HAL’s widening of its helicopter production capability. The details of the deal are not yet available in the public domain and the agreement between the joint venture partners on work-share and transfer of technology is not yet clearly known. However, the news is heartening as in recent years, the requirement of helicopters of all three services which is already large is growing as has been the clamour for replacements of existing fleets.
According to the website of the Indian Air Force (IAF), its helicopter fleet has over 500 machines. Of these, over 200 are medium-lift helicopters of the Russian Mi-8/Mi-17 family including the Mi-17V5, the latest version which has advanced avionics and weapon systems. It has a power plant that permits it to fly usefully at high elevation helipads, a necessity born out of our high altitude terrain. These helicopters are employed for special operations, logistic support missions to remote high altitude helipads, search and rescue and armed role. The remaining fleet consists of Chetak/Cheetah/Cheetal light utility helicopters (LUH) and Dhruv advanced light helicopter (ALH), an HAL produced 5,500 kg, twin-engine machine. To augment the medium-lift inventory and replace ageing Mi-8s, the IAF had ordered 80 Mi-17V5 helicopters in 2008, the first of which was received in February 2012. In August 2010, it was reported that India planned to order another 59 Mi-17V5s. The capability of the IAF in the medium-lift category would be notably enhanced when all the Mi-17V5s are inducted. Heavy-lift and attack helicopters are not discussed here as they are not relevant to the Ka-226T procurement.
In the LUH category, the IAF has been on a weak wicket. The Chetak and the Cheetah have had maintenance problems since the French closed production lines in the 1980s with the exception that Eurocopter, now Airbus Helicopters, has kept a production line open for rotor blades solely for the Indian market as this represent a niche technology. HAL has been finding it increasingly problematic to keep the ever-reducing numbers in the air. The Chetak/Cheetah fleet was to be replaced by 197 LUH to be procured from abroad. Of these, 64 were for the IAF. The tender was first floated in 2003 for which the Eurocopter AS 550 C3 Fennec and Russian Kamov Ka-226 were the final contenders and the arrangement envisaged licence production by HAL. However, this effort did not succeed and the tender that was floated for the second time in 2007, was finally cancelled. The effort to procure the LUH from abroad to replace the ageing fleets of Cheetah and Chetak has fructified by way of the Kamov Ka-226T deal for 200 platforms under the ‘Make in India’ scheme.
The Kamov Ka-226T
The Kamov Ka-226T is produced by Russian Helicopters, a leading player in the global helicopter industry and a part of state corporation Rostec. It is a twin-engine, powerful, light multi-role helicopter with a coaxial, contra-rotating main rotor system that obviates the need for a tail rotor which in turn has the advantage of requiring less space to manoeuvre as the fuselage does not extend beyond the area swept by the rotors. It also provides extra safety to the rear opening door. The Ka-226T can operate by day and night, in adverse weather conditions and in temperatures ranging from -50°C to +50°C. The Ka-226T helicopter boasts of a modular design and can be delivered in a variety of cofigurations. The passenger model can comfortably seat up to seven while the transport model can carry 1,050 kg internally or 1,100 kg on an external sling. It has an operational ceiling of 6,100 metres altitude and can hover out of ground effect (OGE) at 4,600 metres. Its maximum take-off weight (MTOW) is 3,600 kg (3,800 kg with external load). The Chetak/Cheetah, in comparison, have an MTOW of 2,200 kg and 1,950 kg respectively.
HAL is developing under its own steam, the LUH which is a single-engine design with an MTOW of 2,700 kg. It will have a glass cockpit with MFDs and will be deployed for reconnaissance and surveillance role. The helicopter will be capable of flying at 220 kmph; will have a service ceiling of 6,500 metres and a range of 350 km with 500 kg payload. The LUH was expected to fly at the end of 2015 to coincide with HAL’s 75th anniversary celebrations; but there has been some delay. HAL intends to produce 187 of these although the total requirement of the three services for this class of aircraft is estimated to be more than double that number. With a maximum AUW of 5.5 tonnes, the Dhruv ALH lies just on the borderline between ‘light’ and ‘medium’. In contrast, the Chetak has an AUW of 2,200 kg and the Cheetah just 1,950 kg. While the Cheetah can carry three passengers, the Chetak can carry five in addition to a two-man crew, the Dhruv ALH has a MTOW of 5,500 kg and can carry 14 passengers besides the crew. Series production of Dhruv ALH started in 2001 and it has a twin-engine safety to offer while the LUH is a single-engine design. The Cheetal, which is Cheetah with the Shakti aero-engine, was introduced to augment Cheetah fleet for Op Meghdoot. Its better load carrying capability and reliability have encouraged the IAF to order a small number (reportedly 20) for its fleet.
The promotion of the Ka-226T deal as a major ‘Make in India’ project has been termed as ‘disingenuous’ by some defence analysits who point out that the reality of the programme was decided upon in December 2014 during President Putin’s visit to India. It includes the direct import of 50 helicopters to meet India’s immediate requirements to replace Chetaks/Cheetahs. Thereafter HAL would start partnering in the manufacturing process, gradually increasing the indigenous content to a maximum of 30 per cent, some of which could be subcontracted to private players. The remaining 70 per cent (including the French Turbomeca engines) would continue to be imported. The qualitative nature of transfer of technology is also a big question mark. However, if one were to set aside the efforts being made to project the Ka-226T deal as a ‘Make in India’ coup, the production of the helicopter in India is still good news for the three services as this category of helicopters is the most widely used by all three. The advantage it offers of twin-engine safety, makes it an object of desire for the services which have long suffered the single engine Chetak/Cheetah and are not over enthusiastic about HAL’s LUH, again a single-engine machine.
There is, however, the issue of the Ka-226T production by HAL conflicting with its home grown LUH as both types would vie for the same space in rotary-wing platform usage by the Indian military. Although HAL would derive more profit from sale of the LUH than the Ka-226T, it is possible to foresee both types progressing at suitable pace as the new facility at Tumkur would cater to the enhanced requirement of production capability. In any case, the Russians would anticipate this clash of interests and can be expected to inject in the final agreement. a penalty clause for delay.
The helicopter requirements of the Indian military, given India’s territorial expanse of more than 30,00,000 sq km and land borders of more than 15,000 km with its neighbours which include two decidedly inimical ones, are large and all three services are constantly seeking more helicopters. Existing numbers are always in short supply vis-à-vis the demands made by user units and formations. To that extent, the finalisation of the Ka-226T deal is heartening.
However, any discussion on military helicopter fleets is inextricably linked to the evolution of indigenous capability in the helicopter design and development, with obvious preference being for indigenously produced military platforms over foreign ones. The Ka-226T deal and its predication to HAL shows that it is unlikely that the aerospace manufacturing industry in India would move substantially away from public sector towards a free market environment. Under that disposition, it is impossible to hope that we would produce leading edge rotary-wing platforms as transfer of technology would be minimal and licence production albeit with up to 30 per cent indigenous content of insignificant technological level, would continue to self-perpetuate. Leading edge helicopter technology advances in the years to come would thus remain beyond the reach of HAL and hence India. The only silver lining visible is that under the deal, India is expected to be allowed to export the Ka-226T produced by HAL.