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August 30, 2014

Light-utility choppers to be made in India, not imported

 The Modi government on Friday scrapped the long-pending acquisition of 197 light-utility helicopters from abroad, the selection process for which has been dogged by corruption allegations and technical deviations.

Instead, the Arun Jaitley-led defence acquisitions council (DAC) decided all the 384 light-utility helicopters needed by the Army and IAF to replace their ageing Cheetah/Chetak fleets will be made in India with foreign collaboration.

The step will boost the indigenous defence production sector, and is in tune with Modi's exhortation to global companies to "come, make in India". Top defence ministry officials, in fact, said the "buy and make Indian" categorization of the light-utility helicopters had the potential to give Rs 40,000 crore worth of business to the domestic industry.

But, it's equally true that the military's already long wait to replace their virtually obsolete Cheetah/Chetak helicopters, used even in high-altitude areas like Siachen, just got longer. The 197-helicopter deal, which had Russian Kamov-226T and Eurocopter AS 550 C3 Fennec locked in competition since 2008, has now been scrapped for the third time over the last decade due to irregularities.
Defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics has also failed to deliver on its project to develop 187 similar helicopters, which was sanctioned by the Cabinet committee on security in February 2009, in a double whammy for the armed forces.But there was better news on other helicopter fronts, even as the DAC cleared military modernisation proposals worth around Rs 20,000 crore. Ahead of Modi's visit to the US next month, two major deals worth $2.5 billion for the iconic American Apache attack and Chinook heavy-lift helicopters cleared the last hurdle when the DAC approved the revised offsets packages submitted by aviation major Boeing.The $1.4 billion deal for 22 AH-64D Apache Longbow gunships, armed with deadly Hellfire and Stinger missiles, and the $1.1 billion one for 15 CH-47F Chinooks, equipped with powerful contra-rotating tandem rotors, will now have to get the final nod from the finance ministry and then Cabinet committee on security.

The DAC also gave the go-ahead for the opening of commercial bids for the acquisition of 16 naval multi-role helicopters (MRH). It was on hold for long since one of the two contenders in the fray, the European NH-90 helicopter, has Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica as a partner. The other contender is the American Sikorsky-70B chopper.

With the government this week imposing "a partial ban" on Finmeccanica, whose UK-based subsidiary AgustaWestland is embroiled in the VVIP helicopter scandal, the NH-90 helicopter may lose out in the 16-MRH contract.

The contract is critical for the Navy, grappling with a crippling shortage of anti-submarine warfare helicopters, since it is to be followed by a bigger one for 123 helicopters at a cost of over $3 billion.

AgustaWestland, whose now infamous Rs 3,546 crore contract for 12 VVIP helicopters was cancelled by India in January, had also initially figured in the 197-helicopter project. The CBI is investigating the role played by an Indian Army brigadier who allegedly demanded money from AgustaWestland to swing the 197-helicopter deal its way as well, as was reported by TOI earlier.
- Timesofindia   

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