Producing a world-class helicopter: India needs to develop a strong indigenous industry

If India were to write out a defence industrial policy it may read as follows: 'to establish and foster a strong indigenous helicopter industry with the design and production capacity to cater to all in-country military requirements and bid for export military and civil markets'. writes Rear Admiral Sudhir Pillai (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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In a significant regional political initiative, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh will engage with a conclave of defence ministers from the IOR (Indian Ocean Region) nations on the sidelines of Aero India 2021 to be held in Bengaluru on February 3.

According to a senior defence ministry official, this engagement will also seek to promote Indian defence exports. "We have matured in helicopters and have several in various categories," the official was quoted by a media organisation. He also said that "India is now capable of designing and manufacturing any kind of a helicopter."

Marketing a world-class helicopter

Such a political level conclave is most welcome. It will provide an opportunity to the IOR ministers and visitors to Aero India to get appraised of the development chronologies of Indian helicopter projects, the technological accomplishments of the Indian DPSUs (defence public sector unit), and the operational deployment of these helicopters by the Indian Armed Forces.

However, to successfully promote exports in this domain, India will need to systematically review the industrial and procurement dimensions and the lessons from this experience thus far. The historiography of Indian aircraft industrial policy as a whole and broader government procurement and acquisition choices tells us a lot about what ails our methods. India will need a lot more than a 'conclave mein charcha' (discussion at conclaves) before it can successfully market a competitive, world-class helicopter.

The Indian experience

India has come a long way from when HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) started licence-production of the French Alouette III (Chetak) and the Lama (Cheetah) from the Aerospatiale stable. With the significant engineering experience gained, HAL has also ventured into design, development and manufacture of light helicopters following up on the C Subramaniam Committee proposals of 1969.

India entered into a 10-year agreement with Aerospatiale to design a single-engine Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH).  In 1977, the Indian Air Force would change this requirement to a twin-engine aircraft when the single-engine ALH was close to fruition. In 1981, the Aerospatiale contract was terminated. In 1984, a seven-year design collaboration was signed with Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm (MBB) of West Germany. Though the Naval Staff Requirement was released by 1985, concepts like achieving 'scale' through a standardised helicopter that would serve all three military services were never given impetus. What has emerged is an ALH that falls short of requirements of the Indian Navy and the resultant reduced 'scale'.

In 1994, MBB's contract would not get renewed, and HAL designers would be forced to go it alone. Was this a HAL request or a Ministry of Defence (MoD) insistence? The design experience and testing data that would go into the production of the MBB BO-105 and its derivatives/follow-on; the EC-125, the BL-117, and the EC-145 would elude India's efforts. Therefore, India's MoD would need to 'fund' HAL R&D efforts deprived of the benefits in such areas that could have accrued from collaboration with foreign helicopter companies. Such an approach has not been an easy road to take.

While there is no doubt of India's designers and engineers' capabilities, the decision to go it alone was myopic given the need to reinvent the wheel in many areas. Such approaches have hampered the production of a standard helicopter, meeting all users' requirements, including that of the Indian Navy. Consequently, we have an indigenously-produced helicopter but falling short of what India needs.

Whither India?

HAL today produces various variants of the ALH evolving from the limited series production (the Indian Navy flies this version but operates it mainly from ashore).   Significant technological inputs have led to the ALH Mk II (glass cockpit), the ALH Mk III (Shakti engine - a HAL co-production of the SAFRAN/ARDIDEN 1H1 engine), and the ALH Mk IV (an armed variant for Close Air Support).  HAL has since also developed RUDRA (weaponised ALH), Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), and a 3-ton plus single-engine Light Utility Helicopter (LUH). Notionally, a large stable with a commonality of airframe and engines; but all in the 'light' to 'not-so-light' and the 'not-so-small' category.

The Indian Navy's requirement is once again on the drawing board after the recent 'Atmanirbharta’ (self-reliance) calls and will need funding and support for R&D, testing, and certification of a Naval ALH with segmented blades and a tail-fold!  Would in-country demand for a specialised naval version be cost-effective?  Given lower' scales,' MoD and HAL had earlier agreed to the Indian Navy processing a case for taking ahead the acquisition of a ‘true’ light (sub-5ton) twin-engine Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH), as a replacement for the Chetak helicopter. Such an acquisition through the Strategic Partnership (SP) model could pave the way in creating Indian private-sector capacities in crucial defence technologies.

A vibrant debate is essential to further the need for policy clarity. What is needed is a growing realisation that the Indian defence industry, funded and nurtured by the Indian government, cannot rely on the state to fill a large part of their order books. Myopia of the past will need to make way for bold new approaches.

'Scale' is an important criterion to define the viability of such efforts. While the Indian government seeks foreign markets to offset relatively low demand and viability within India, the government will also need to liberate companies in the defence industry from the fickleness of policy changes and flaws or inconsistencies in policies of the day.

Herein possibly lies a rub that the Indian government will need to contend with to build a 'viable' helicopter manufacturing base. 'Can the Indian government help the government-owned-and-funded defence helicopter industry break the shackles and rise to the potential essential to market, sell and sustain a product, in preference over prevailing techno-commercial competition?'

India's Ministry of Defence and its Department of Defence Production (DDP) under the Raksha Mantri (defence minister) suffers from a paradox that needs cognisance. The DDP seeks to encourage a wide range of R&D projects, of which aerospace products and helicopter design and manufacturing efforts are one. The costs of such actions are not unsupportable. The dilemma is that the 'ultimate' customer, the Armed Forces, do not have access to funding anywhere near the scale to see even a minority of the R&D projects into production. The SP route, as for the NUH, are needed to be taken ahead, to bring in private funding and business models to offset R&D costs.

The International experience

In such a milieu, India could do well to learn from the track record of Westland Aircraft, an erstwhile British aerospace company focused on helicopters after the Second World War. The inability of government-funded R&D programmes to fund helicopter orders saw Westland evolving shrewdly away from government support by exploiting its position as a very successful exponent of 'licenced production' of foreign designs within the UK and this despite vast in-country potential. The lesson lies in: Westland's ability to break from the meagre funding that British government could afford, to designs utilising US technology, to drawing on the vastly greater R&D resources (of the US industry), backed by federal funds on a grander scale. Thus, the firm could expose the inherent weaknesses of its competitors' position: small-scale government R&D funding offset by production funding on a proportional scale.

Japan is another fine study with many lessons for Indian efforts. Helicopter manufacturing is one of Japan's main components of the military/industrial complex having developed it from 1952. Japan initially focused on repairs of US military aircraft and helicopters stationed in the region. Today Japan's three main producers of helicopters are Mitsubishi (with Sikorsky), Kawasaki (with Boeing), and Fuji Heavy Industries (with Bell). Such collaboration was taken ahead through strategic partnerships with foreign - usually American - companies, through the licensed production routes. Thus, Japanese companies started designing and manufacturing helicopters and their engines through a process of workshare and technology transfer. 

At present, Japan's helicopter manufacturing is a well-developed industry capable of satisfying 96 per cent of its domestic demand. Japan continues an active renewal of its military helicopter fleet, most importantly replacing the Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter, a significant platform of the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force. Despite every capability to go it alone, the Japanese MoD fosters competition to replace the Cobra through licence production. For this Airbus Helicopters, Boeing and Bell have expressed interest in bidding for the work. Interestingly, Japan is requiring its new attack helicopters to be marinized and equipped for shipboard operations!

In 2015, the Japanese Ministry of Defence selected Bell-Subaru for a 150-unit utility helicopter acquisition under the UH-X program. Under the terms of the contract, the partners will build the Bell 412EPI-based helicopters in-country, replacing the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces (JGSDF) fleet of 130 Bell UH-1Js. Each such approach includes civilian versions and a whole of government approach driven through policy imperatives. Do we even attempt standardisation between the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard?

And what does India attempt? To foster an indigenous helicopter industry with export potential through one DPSU (HAL)! Does this allow that one Navratna the flexibility and autonomy to enter into licensing arrangements that amortises commercial and technical risk? Alas, no.

India must corporatise public-sector HAL in a cutthroat world and permit brave new approaches to takeover. It may get merged or acquired or venture-capitalised, allowing the real potential to be studied and nurtured. Can Delhi consider such a radical move? Also, India needs to develop private sector capacities to diversify capabilities for indigenous production. R&D and reinventing the wheel will be unaffordable. The Indian government will need to liberalise policies and take ahead initiatives such as recommendations put up by the Dhirendra Singh Expert Committee in DPP 2016.

Policy imperative

If India were to write out a defence industrial policy it may read as follows: 'to establish and foster a strong indigenous helicopter industry with the design and production capacity to cater to all in-country military requirements and bid for export military and civil markets'. It is only when the latter happens that even the growing domestic civilian market will seek to put their money down on Indian-designed helicopters in any significant numbers.

(The writer, a veteran Sea-King pilot is a former Flag Officer Naval Aviation and a Chief Instructor, Indian Navy, DSSC, Wellington. The views are personal. He can be contacted at sudhir.pillai@gmail.com)

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