Eurocopter of France and USA’s Bell Textron will compete in their second and final round of summer trials for the Indian Army contract for 197 light helicopters to replace its aging fleet of Chetaks (Alouette II) and Cheetahs (Alouette III).
The Army Aviation Corps (AAC) proposes to buy 60 helicopters outright with the remaining 137 being built under license by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in a deal worth between $ 500-$ 600 million.
Official sources said the Bell 407 and Eurocopters FENNEC would be tested sometime over the next few weeks in Rajasthan and in the Kashmir mountains where they will eventually be deployed.
The rival helicopters underwent evaluation at Bhatinda, in the Punjab plains in September 2004 and three months later at Leh. The evaluation included one week each of flight-testing and three weeks of maintenance trials.
The 18-year old AAC that operates 11 squadrons of five flights each comprising five helicopters in addition to five independent flights, wants the new helicopter’s to ferry loads of up to 75 kg to troops based at heights of 23,000 feet in Kashmir and on the Siachen Glacier.
Military sources said Russia’s Kamov 226 along with Bell and Eurocopter, had responded to the AAC’s Request For Proposal in late 2003, but was eliminated early during the paper evaluation as it had been unable to obtain flight certification.
But AAC sources said the Ka 226 had subsequently been granted certification and requested participation in the upcoming evaluation, but no decision had yet been taken on the matter. The Ka 226 is reportedly significantly cheaper than its rivals, but the Army like the Air Force and the Navy is keen on moving away from Russian equipment and diversifying its equipment profile.
Eurocopter’s Asia-Pacific vice president Norbert Ducrot stressed the “commonality” and “familiarity” advantage over its rival claiming that the AAC had operated the French-derivative Cheetah and Chetak helicopters for nearly two decades.
He added that the locally designed Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) which is under series production is powered by the Snecma-Turbomeca TM 333 2B2 engine, around 72 of which were acquired four years ago.
HAL was also presently upgrading the Cheetah (renamed Cheetal) and the Chetak (renamed Chetan) by equipping them with the same 333-2B2 engine. The upgraded Cheetal created a world record earlier this year by landing at an altitude of 25,150 feet on Saser Kangi peak, next to the Siachen glacier. Global hub
Bell’s Asia Pacific director Steven Woolston said his company was offering to make India the global hub to produce the Bell 407 model that was principally a commercial machine and not subject to any US sanctions, similar to those imposed after India’s 1998 nuclear tests.
He said several of their helicopters had been in service with provincial governments and public sector undertakings since the late 1990s. Bell had also entered into an agreement with HAL to manufacture tail rotor blades and other flight critical components for the Bell 206 model, deliveries for which were expected by the year-end.