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Copter hunt gets hotter
- Race between US & Russian choppers as army, IAF weigh options

New Delhi, Aug. 14: The army and the air force are now totting up the scores in a competition between American and Russian helicopter gunships, one of which will replace the attack copters in the Indian armed forces.

The attack helicopter fleet, currently made up of ageing Soviet-origin Mi 25s and Mi 35s, is in the custody of the IAF but is meant to support land operations of the army.

The IAF will initially procure 22 attack copters either the Boeing-made AH64 D Apache Longbow or the Mil Mi 28 (Havoc) with the option of expanding the order to 40. The contract for the helicopters, minus the weapons and the ammunition, is expected to be upwards of $550 million.

The trials of the helicopters were held in Ladakh and Rajasthan and also in the US and Russia. Defence ministry sources said the IAF’s recommendation was being processed and a decision could be taken by the end of the month.

The twin-engine, twin-cockpit Mi 28 has a single under-nose gun and rocket pods attached to short wings. The Boeing AH64 D Apache is a four-blade, twin-engine attack helicopter that fires Hellfire missiles and has a tandem cockpit for two. Both the helicopters are heavily armoured for close combat.

Though the attack helicopter is at the combat edge of the armed forces, the bigger contract would be for 197 light-utility helicopters for both the army and the air force. The order may be expanded for 310 helicopters in this category.

This would make up the bulk of the Army Aviation Corps’ helicopter fleet which in any case is larger than the air force’s. The Eurocopter AS 550 Fennec and the Russian Kamov Ka 226 helicopters are competing for the order. Trials for these, too, have been completed.

The helicopters in this category are meant for surveillance and observation but may also be armed for combat. They will replace the Cheetahs and Chetaks, which are of 1960s and 1970s vintage.

Defence minister A.K. Antony cancelled the competition in this category in 2008 after allegations that Eurocopter had not fielded the military version of the helicopter in the trials. At the time, Bell had also competed but it did not re-bid for the order.

The AS 550 Fennec is a single-engine machine that its makers claim has performed at such heights that it will have no problem in flying in the Siachen glacier. Its competitor, the Ka 226, is twin-engined with contra-rotating rotors (two pairs of rotors one above the other, one rotating clockwise and the other counter-clockwise) and the Russians claim this makes it safer and more stable.

The IAF is also expecting to sign a contract this year to acquire heavy-lift helicopters for which Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook and the Russian Mil Mi 26 T2 are competing. The Russian Mi 26’s claim to fame is that it can lift the Chinook. But an older version of the Mi 26 is in the IAF’s inventory it has three of them but a chronic shortage of spares has made it difficult to operate the machines.

Last week, suspected Taliban shot down a Chinook carrying US special forces, including 20 SEALs who were involved in the raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. The Chinook is used by the US forces extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The IAF is looking to buy 15 heavy-lift helicopters chiefly to ferry the BAe Land Systems M777 ultra-light howitzers, which the army has nearly finalised with the US, to high-altitude posts on the frontier with China.

Army and air force officers complain that all these procurements are long overdue and decisions have been put off either because of single-vendor situations or on the suspicion of corruption. The moves to acquire the helicopters were first initiated about seven years ago.

The only major helicopter-procurement apart from the Hindustan Aeronautics-made Advanced Light Helicopter Dhruv that the government has concluded has been for 12 Agusta Westland AW 101 machines for VVIP transport.

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