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Tests above 20K ft done, Ministry of Defence orders 12 choppers

Purchase of Light Utility Helicopters from HAL under Make in India

Ministry of Defence | defence sector | Helicopters

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

The LUH being tested on the Siachen Glacier

The (MoD) on Tuesday cleared the purchase of 12 Light Utility (LUH) from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) under the Make in India category.

The eponymous LUH has comprehensively proved its ability to operate at the world’s highest helipads — such as along the Saltoro Ridge, where the Indian Army is deployed in super-high-altitude picquets to defend the Siachen Glacier.

In recent testing, HAL’s veteran test pilot, Group Captain Unni Nair flew the Army Aviation Corps chief, Lt Gen A K Suri, in a LUH in Ladakh. Nair, who has test-flown a range of HAL in the high altitudes of the Siachen Glacier, had flown the Dhruv advanced light helicopter (ALH) in 2010 to the 21,000-feet-high Sonam Post — the world’s highest military helipad. In 2018, he tested the LUH to above 20,000 feet. The new Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), like its forebears, will also be tested in the most brutal of operating conditions and at the highest altitudes.

Powering that world-beating performance is a helicopter engine, the Shakti, which HAL commissioned French engine-maker Turbomeca (now renamed Safran Helicopter Engines) to design for operations along India’s high-altitude borders. It is the Shakti engine that makes the Dhruv ALH, the LCH, and now the LUH, superior to most other that are powered by less versatile engines. The Shakti, which is built under licence at HAL, will power an entire family of HAL-built helicopters.

The Shakti-powered Dhruv ALH has already changed the operating dynamics along India’s high-altitude Himalayan defences. The capability to airlift soldiers in an emergency allows far-flung posts to be manned with fewer soldiers. In a crisis, soldiers can be airlifted quickly from lower altitudes to crisis points, and casualties can be evacuated. When they see a Dhruv (and soon, a LUH) flying in, the soldiers on isolated piquets like Sonam know that there is space on board for essential stores, letters and even occasional goodies from families and comrades.

While only a dozen LUH were cleared for purchase today, there will eventually be over 200 of these helicopters in service in the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the army. The need is for almost 400 light helicopters to replace the three services’ obsolescent Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. New Delhi and Moscow signed an inter-government agreement in 2015 to jointly build about 200 Kamov-226T light helicopters, but that proposal has run into heavy weather over workshare issues.

Given the disagreement, HAL could well end up building 400 LUHs for the military. There is also optimism that the LUH could capture sizeable export orders.

The LUH clearance was one of four “Make in India” capital procurements that were accepted on Tuesday by the MoD’s apex procurement body, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC). The others, which totalled up to Rs 7,965 crore, included the Lynx U2 Naval Fire Control System from Bharat Electronics Limited and the mid-life upgradation of Dornier-228 aircraft from HAL.

Adding further impetus to the Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) project, the MoD foreclosed the planned overseas procurement of 125 millimetre naval guns from BAE Systems Inc for four frigates being built for the navy. Instead, the warships will be armed with upgraded 76 mm Super Rapid Gun Mounts that Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd is manufacturing in Haridwar under licence from Italian firm, OTO Melara.

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First Published: Tue, November 02 2021. 23:06 IST