The Army's massive contract for 197 light multirole high-altitude helicopte
rs, as a fleet replacement for the Cheetah and Chetak fleets, is reported to be in the bag (well, almost) for European consortium EADS Eurocopter's AS 550 C3 Fennec . Reports suggest that officials from EADS will be in India soon for final contractual and price negotiations of the country's largest single helicopter purchase so far. The loser in the competition, worth between $650-700 million is, of course, the Bell ARH-70A, an armed reconnaisance variant of the bestselling corporate Bell-407. When the deal is signed, 60 Fennec C3s will be built and shipped to India from France, while 137 will be license produced by HAL. First, a little bit about the two helicopters, and then a short history of the purchase.
From the very start, Eurocopter has pitched the Fennec as a "logical" follow-on to the Alouette-II (Cheetah) and the Alouette-III (Chetak) fleets that exclusively form the light multipurpose rotorwing assets of all three services and the Coast Guard. Their advertising suggested that it would be imprudent to buy American helicopters when the Indian Army had used Aerospatiale (since merged into Eurocopter under EADS) choppers for so long. The AS 550 C3 is a new generation, single-engined (Turbomeca Arriel 2B with FADEC) multirole helicopter built for reconnaisance, surveillance & observation, tactical combat missions, search and rescue and relief delivery. According to its maker, it is also suited for hot climates and high altitude. The Fennec can be armed with axial weapons, a 20mm cannon, rocket pods, machine guns, ant-tank guided missiles and air-to-air missiles. In a troop carrying configuration, the chopper holds a pilot and five troops. And in a freight role, it can deliver a 3 metre-cube payload.
Over the last two years, the Fennec was pitted by the Indian Army against the Bell ARH-70A (armed reconnaisance helicopter), an armed variant of the Bell-407, that it began configuring in r
esponse to the US Army's requirement of a nimble and swift armed reconnaisance chopper (the US Army needs 512). The ARH-70A is powered by a single Honeywell HTS900-2 turbine engine and can be armed with a 0.50-cal Gatling gun, and a 7-tube 2.75" FFAR (folding fin aerial rockets) launcher. Earlier this month, however, a miffed US Army decided it would rethink the possibility of allowing Bell to continue developing the ARH-70 as a result of schedule overruns -- this decision was later revoked, and Bell was granted a short reprieve. The final decision is still awaited from the US Army, and it is highly likely that the Indian government's decision was at least in part a reflection of Bell's failure to meet deadlines with one of its chief customers. The PTI
news agency carried a virtual deluge of pieces through much of the latter-half of last year quoting Bell officials as certain that the Indian Army tender would be won by them, and that they expected to head into final negotiations shortly. But as always, it's a little more complicated than that.
The Army floated its requirements for about 200 new helicopters in 2004 (this was revised to 180 and then 197), after which two schedules of tests were conducted in 2005 on the two contenders. The Kamov-226 (NATO name Hoodlum!) light multirole helicopter responded to the Army's RFP in 2004, but was ejected in the first downselect in early 2005 because it hadn't been certified and therefore wasn't invited for trial evaluations. There were a total of two trial rounds held in Northern Ladakh and the plains of Punjab. In March 2006, I visited Leh with the Army to watch flying operations of the AAC's 666 Siachen Falcons
Cheetah squadron. In the event, I arrived there a few days after the Fennec had completed high-altitude tests at Siachen and base camp. The Lieutenant Colonel who flew that particular schedule of tests said at the time that the Fennec had been virtually ruled out. He revealed that on two separate occasions, the evaluation Fennec had hard landings. But that, apparently, was not all. He, and a few of the other Army pilots we met there, said the Fennec was not as "solid" in high wind conditions as the Bell-407 airframe had apparently proven to be. There were, apparently, "other" issues with the Fennec as well. Either way, in 2005, HAL signed memoranda of understanding with both Bell Textron and Eurocopter for small outsourcing contracts and technology development partnerships. I also remember a large number of the pilots there telling me and the other reporters that no matter what, the Cheetahs and Chetaks had to go. They were also somewhat unkindly pessimistic about HAL's Chetan/Cheetal up-engined offers. "It's all very well to up-engine. But without changing the transmission system, what's the point -- it's a total waste," one of them said. Well anyway, those were the tests.
What were the Army's real technical findings of both choppers? When I returned to Delhi, I found that there was a somewhat homogeneous opinion on the performance of the Fennec C3, and that even though both helicopters had "issues", the Bell was probably a "safer" bet. Late last year, there was talk that the deal might actually be split up the middle (or the IAF's tender for 80 light helicopters be given to the loser in the Army tender) with equal numbers of helicopters bought from the Europeans and the Americans. This was stiffly opposed by the Army and the Aquisitions wing, the latter of which was already under pressure and censure from the MoD for not facilitating a more streamlined modernisation programme that could have allowed the AAC, IAF (both of course cannot tolerate the existence of the other) to coordinate their independently large helicopter purchases. But that of course didn't happen. So even though all three services need helicopters of comparable size (but not mission), the government will spend time and money negotiating independently. Former Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash was a staunch critic of this criminal imprudence and never failed to say so when he had the chance.
But a $700 million helicopter deal is no small fish. With trouble in paradise over the Indo-US nuclear deal, it's quite possible that the government decided not to throw so much Washington's way. Like all defence purchases, this must have been an element in consideration. The government is after all, buying six extremely expensive C-130J Super Hercules for the Garud force, in addition to the showpiece USS Trenton landing platform dock. So why give the Americans another handshake, especially when there's a frightening element of India's most ambitious foreign policy venture either caving on or being carved to suit the facilitator nation? Whatever it is, when EADS signs on the dotted line, it's probably going to be looking through the crack in the door it squeezed through.