The Indian Army has decided to trim its purchase of foreign-made combat helicopters from 198 to 35, reducing the expected bill from $440 million to $80 million, a Defence Ministry official said.
The move will allow India to buy the under-development Light Combat Helicopter from state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), the official said.
But analysts said the move may signal progress in talks between India and Pakistan about combat on the lofty Siachen glacier in the Kargil region in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Last year, India asked for tenders for 198 high-altitude helicopters, said defense analyst Semant Harish, a retired Indian Army captain.
In the meantime, trials of the helicopters competing for the Indian bid have begun ;in the mountainous terrain of Jammu and Kashmir and in Rajasthan’s Thar desert. U.S. Bell Helicopter sent its Bell 407, France’s Eurocopter sent its Fennec AS 550 C3, and Russia’s Kamov sent its Ka-226 to India.
The Indian Army is looking for a combat-and-utility helicopter for all-weather low- and high-altitude combat and rescue operations to replace its heavily used Cheetah and Chetak light combat helicopters, a senior Army Aviation official said. The helicopter will be used to ferry troops above 20,000 feet.
The Army wants the new helicopter to carry advanced axial guns, rocket launchers, anti-tank missiles and air-to-air missiles. It should have next-generation avionics and a reconnaissance system with radar that can handle maritime and land surveillance.
Defence Ministry sources said Eurocopter is the front runner, thanks to the Army’s satisfaction with the Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. HAL built the French-designed aircraft under license, has 40 years of experience with Eurocopter, and will maintain India’s new combat helicopters.
Meanwhile, HAL is close to launching its Light Combat Helicopter program, a 5.5-ton aircraft intended to meet the Indian military’s high-altitude needs. The new helicopter will carry air-to-air missiles, 20mm gun systems, unguided rockets and anti-radiation missiles that also could be used against unmanned aerial vehicles and slow-moving aircraft. It will incorporate a number of stealth features, have tough landing gear, and a cockpit equipped with multifunction display systems designed for night attack.
HAL Chairman Nalini Ranjan Mohanty said the new aircraft will be competitive in price, and that the Army and Air Force are finalizing their requirements.
The project was born after Indian Air Force Mi-35 and Mi-25 gunships failed during the 1999 Kargil battle, where only the Cheetah and Chetak helicopters could ferry troops and material above 20,000 feet.