Government opens IAF's combat helicopter bid
The government is set to give the Indian Air Force (IAF) more firepower and capabilities during its 80th anniversary year: New combat and heavy-lift helicopters.
Authoritative sources told India Strategic (www.indiastrategic.in) that the financial bid for the Boeing Apache AH-64D had been opened mid-September while that of the two helicopters in the heavy-lift competition - the Boeing Chinook CH-47F and the Russian Mi-26 - should be opened before September-end or so.
It should not take much time to announce the selection as the company with the lower bid would win the deal(s)s to supply the helicopters. Perhaps, the two choices should formally be announced on Air Force Day on October 8, but possibly before.
In the case of the combat helicopter competition, Russia had withdrawn its Mi-28 earlier this year, leaving the field open only to Boeing. So in this case, Boeing will be the winner for the deal to supply 22 helicopters for around USD 1.4 billion at the estimated market price. Boeing's quote is, of course, secret.
As for the heavy-lift helicopters, the Chinook CH 47F is technically regarded as "more capable" than the Mi-26 but then, the Russian craft carries more under-slung cargo. the IAF will have to make a tough choice here as the Russian machine is not being manufactured now.
Notably, the acquisition programmes of the IAF and the Indian Navy have been on a rather fast track while that of the army has been delayed due to recall and/or revision of several RfPs and other issues.
The government has already cleared a comprehensive upgradation of the IAF's airfields through a programme called MAFI (Modernisation of Airfield Infrastructure), a sophisticated communication network called AFNET, more midair refuelers and AWACS, Pilatus basic trainers, additional transport aircraft - including the C-130J Super Hercules and C 17 Globemaster III - and the selection of the French Dassault Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA).
Sources also told India Strategic that negotiations with Dassault and other stakeholders like systems supplier Thales and engine-maker Safran-Snecma were proceeding smoothly and the deal should conclude within this financial year (ending March 2013) if not in this calendar year. The package of offsets, transfer of technology and partnerships to produce various systems in India is being negotiated. Several delegations have visited the defence ministry and IAF headquarters in New Delhi and HAL facilities in Bangalore. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited is the lead integrator for the MMRCA project.
The IAF also has four big-ticket deals with Russia: more than 270 SU-30MKI fighter jets, 80 Mi-17-1V helicopters, joint production of a multirole transport aircraft (MTA) and an Indian variant of the PAK-50 fifth generation fighter aircraft that will be the arrowhead of the IAF in the 2020s.
Periodic upgrades are also on. The MiG-29 upgrade has been sanctioned while that of the Jaguar is under consideration.
Significantly, defence manufacturers are supported in negotiations by their respective governments, even if the deals are what is known as DCS (Direct Commercial Sales). French diplomats are supporting the MRCA process and US and Russian diplomats their countries' respective equipment.
The Boeing Chinook is on a DCS offer, while the Apache deal is on both commercial and the US Government's Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme, for which the Department of Defence charges a fee of between 2.5 to 5 percent. Certain systems on the Apache, like the Longbow radar and weapons, are proprietary for the US Army. The Longbow, made by Northrop Grumman, can scan up to 256 targets within 30 seconds - and that's a formidable, unmatched capability.
Interestingly, Raytheon's Stinger air-to-ground missiles are on board the Apache, and the company is offering it for other IAF, Indian Army and Navy helicopters.
The US has offered the latest Block-III version of the Apache to India. This model has 26 technology insertions over the previous model that make the machine network-centric.
Network centricity, in fact, is the key for future IAF operations, and mentioned so by its chief, Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne. All air and ground assets of the IAF are currently being networked.
Boeing recently invited a group of Indian journalists to visit its various facilities. We were told that the "newest and most advanced Apache, the AH-64D Apache Block-III, features composite main rotor blades, a composite stabilator, 701D engines with an enhanced digital electronic control unit, an improved drive system that enhances the rotorcraft's performance and 26 new technological insertions".
Ever since the first Apache rolled out in 1984, its various versions to date have logged more than 3.5 million fight hours. The aircraft took part in the first Gulf War in 1991, where this writer witnessed the helicopter, and then again in 2003 against Iraq. It is deployed on regular combat missions in Afghanistan and during the May 2011 operation to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, it was used to provide air cover for the raiding Black Hawks used by the US Navy commandos.
The Apache is powered by two GE T700-701D engines and has ballistic protection for the two-man crew and fuel tanks. It was perhaps the first helicopter to use Kevlar and composite materials for weight-reduction and protection.
(Gulshan Luthra can be contacted at Gulshan.Luthra@IndiaStrategic.in)