India has come a long way since the Indian aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) first started manufacturing helicopters in 1962, by entering an agreement with Sud-Aviation (presently Eurocopter, France) for production of the Aloutte III (Indian name Chetak). The first Chetak in ‘Fly Away’ condition was delivered in 1965. The Helicopter Division of HAL was established in July 1970. It was meant to manufacture helicopters to cater to the growing needs of the Indian armed forces and other agencies. License agreement for production of Cheetah (LAMA SA 315-B) was signed with Société Nationale Industrielle Aérospatiale (SNIAS), now Eurocopter, in 1970. First Cheetah manufactured from raw materials was delivered to the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1976-1977.
Today, the Helicopter Division manufactures Cheetah, Chetak, Cheetal, Lancer, Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Rudra ALH – Weapon Systems Integrated (WSI), Prachand Light Combat Helicopter (LCH). Delivery of the HAL Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) to the IAF and the Indian Army (IA) has begun, and formal induction will take place shortly. Meanwhile, the HAL is working on the medium-lift Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH).The Helicopter Division is supported by the co-located Rotary Wing Research & Design Centre (RWR & DC). The MRO division caters to the Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul activities of helicopters and HAL’s Rotary Wing Academy focuses on training of pilots.
The Cheetal helicopter, which is a re-engined variant of the Cheetah helicopter, set the world record of the world’s highest landing at ‘SaserKangri’ of Himalayas in 2006. To date, the Helicopter division of HAL has manufactured 600 single-engine helicopters of Chetak/Cheetah class and over 350 ALH variants. The helicopter division is accredited with AS 9100 C & ISO 14001:2004 certifications. The division is also approved by Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for CAR 21, CAR 145 and CAR M certifications.
Chetak and Cheetah Variants
The Chetak is a two-tonne class, seven-seater, multi-role helicopter powered by Artouste–IIIB turbo shaft engine. It has a Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) of 2200kg, cruise speed of 185 Km/h, endurance of three hours and range of 500 kilometres. It is suitable for commuting, transporting small cargo/material, casualty evacuation, Search and Rescue (SAR), aerial survey and patrolling, emergency medical services, off-shore operations and under-slung operations. Till date, HAL has produced more than 350 of these helicopters.
Recently, HAL has received orders for Chetak helicopters from Namibia and Suriname. In March 2022, the Chetak helicopter completed 60 years of service in the IAF.
The Cheetah is a high performance helicopter designed for operation over a very wide range of weight, centre-of-gravity and altitude conditions. The five-seater Cheetah is lighter, much more manoeuverable and rugged in construction. The MTOW is 1950 kg, Cruise speed of 192 kmph, endurance of three hours ten minutes and a range of 560 kilometres. The helicopter is suitable for commuting, observation, surveillance, logistics support, rescue operations and high altitude missions. Till date, HAL has produced more than 275 Cheetah helicopters.
In the 1990s, HAL converted the Cheetah into a light attack helicopter called the “Lancer”. This version of the helicopter has bulletproof front panels and a crew seat. It is optimised for anti-insurgency operations, close air support, suppression of enemy fire, attack on vehicular convoys, destruction of enemy machine gun positions and anti-armour applications. It carries two jettisonable gun-cum-rocket pods on the armament pylon on each side. Each pod carries one 12.7 mm gun and three 70 mm rockets. The helicopter has a weapons aiming gunsight. The range, endurance and cruise speed reduce slightly in this configuration.
The Cheetal is the re-engined version of the Cheetah with enhanced high altitude operational capabilities and maintainability as well as to provide a mid-life upgrade for safe and reliable operations. The Artouste–IIIB engine of Cheetah was replaced with the modern fuel efficient TM333–2M2 engine with FADEC for better performance. The engine has a quicker start-up and easier re-lighting procedure; improved reliability and easier engine handling; higher thermal margins resulting in better climb performance at high altitudes; lower noise levels and lower Specific Fuel Consumption (SFC) that allows better range and increased endurance. Other features of the helicopter are lightweight electrically driven Artificial Horizon, Directional Gyro, Flight Monitoring System (FMS), Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) and modern electrical system. Currently, ten Cheetal helicopters are in operation with the IAF and more are being produced for other operators. The base performance indicators are similar to Cheetah, but the range has increased to 640 km and endurance to three hours 50 minutes.
The HAL designed and produced ALH-Dhruv is a twin-engine, multi-role, multi-mission helicopter in the 5.5-tonne weight class. The basic helicopter is produced in both skid and wheeled version. The development of the Dhruv was announced in November 1984. The aircraft made its first flight on August 20, 1992, and was inducted into the Indian Armed Forces in March 2002. The aircraft is certified for both civil and military operations. A total of 228 Dhruv Helicopters have been produced by March 2017, including 216 for the Indian Armed Forces. The Dhruv is being built in four main variants. The ALH Mk I is the base variant powered by the TM-333-2B2 engine for utility role. The ALH Mk II has an Integrated Architecture Display System (IADS) or glass cockpit.
The ALH Mk III has the Shakti engine which is a higher power variant of the TM-333-2B2 engine developed jointly by HAL and Turbomeca to meet the high altitude operational requirement and additional payload capacity. The Mk III has the IADS with digital moving map, an electronic warfare suite, electro optical pod, Counter Measure Dispensing System (CMDS), infra-red suppressor, health and usage monitoring system, a Solid State Digital Video Recorder (SSDVR) and the engine particle separator. This variant used for utility role in high altitudes.
The ALH Mk IV (Rudra) is the weaponised variant with mission sensors. It is equipped with Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR), day-and-night optical cameras and a thermal imaging sights interface. It also has a helmet pointing system, data-link, infra-red jammer and an obstacle avoidance system. This helicopter is armed with French Nexter 20mm turret gun, Belgian 70 mm rocket pods and MBDA Mistral Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM) and Air-to-Air Missiles (AAM). It also carries indigenous Helina (Dhruvastra) anti-tank missile. Work on the programme started in December 1998, and the prototype Rudra conducted its maiden flight on August 16, 2007. The MTOW of the basic version of the Dhruv is 5,500 kg and that of the Mk IV is 5,800 kg. It will be used for attack, close air support and high altitude operations. Though the IA is the primary customer, the IAF and the Indian Navy (IN) also have also shown interest. The Rudra has a maximum speed of 280kmph, a range of 590km and endurance of 3.8 hours.
The ALH Mk III-MR for marine reconnaissance is for the IN and the Indian Coast Guard (ICG). Designed for Maritime Reconnaissance and Coastal Security (MRCS), the helicopter provides for a float envelope, the Single Hoist Ordnance Loading system (SHOLs), a winch and comes with modern avionics and equipment for offshore roles. It has nose-mounted surveillance radar with 270 degrees coverage and including weather mode. The helicopter has multi-spectral electro-optic pod for reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition and range finding. There is a removable Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) for air ambulance role. This variant has a slew-able high intensity searchlight on the port side and a loud hailer on the starboard side. There is a 12.7mm cabin-mounted machine gun.
The civil variant of the ALH (ALH-Civil) is powered by Turbomeca TM333-2B2. It is a 12-seater helicopter that received type certificate on October 31, 2003. There are both wheeled and skid variants. The “Garuda Vasudha” variant is a Dhruv fitted with a Heliborne Geophysical Survey System (HGSS). More than 200 Dhruvs are already operating with the Indian Armed Forces. Another order of 159 Dhruv helicopters for the IAF and the IA is under execution. HAL is also executing an order for 73 ALH for the IA, IN, ICG, for ALH Mk-III and Mk-IV variants. The other operators in India include the Border Security Force (BSF), the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), the State Governments of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Karnataka, the Geological Survey of India and a private air ambulance operator in Bengaluru. Israel has an ALH on lease since 2007, primarily to support marketing. Maldives, Mauritius and Nepal operate the ALH. Ambulance variants are flying in Turkey and Peru. The Philippine Coast Guard is a prospective customer.
HAL LCH “Prachand”
The HAL Prachand is the indigenous multi-role, Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) ordered by the IAF and the IA. Its flight ceiling is the highest among all attack helicopters in the world. The LCH has high commonality with the ALH. The narrow fuselage has pilot and co-pilot/gunner in tandem configuration. It incorporates stealth features with low RCS and IR suppressor, a glass cockpit, armour protection, night attack capability and crashworthy landing gear and bottom surface for better survivability, among others. It has CMDS, electro-optical pod, HMDS and EW suite. There are four external weapon hard-points. The weapon suite includes one 20mm M621 cannon on Nexter THL-20 turret, 4×12 FZ275 LGR rockets, 4×2 Mistral Anti-tank guided missiles, 4×4 Dhruvastra are planned. The LCH will also later carry two HSLD-250 Precision-Guided Munitions and two Pre-fragmented Bombs 250. With a maximum speed of 268kmph and range of 550km, it has a service ceiling of 6.5km.
The true impetus for the development of the LCH Prachand came after the Kargil War with Pakistan in 1999. The LCH was finally launched in 2006 and the first flight was on March 29, 2010. An extensive test programme followed on four prototypes. There were supplier-related delays in between. The LCH became the first attack helicopter to land in Siachen at altitudes as high as 15,800 feet (4,815 metres). In August 2017, limited series production began. On November 19, 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally handed over the LCH to Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, CAS, IAF, clearing the way for full scale induction. On October 03, 2022, the LCH was formally inducted into the IAF and was officially named ‘Prachand’. By November 2022, the IA began receiving its LCH. Both the IAF and the IA have deployed the LCH on the LAC near the border with China.
The HAL Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) and its derivative Light Observation Helicopter are meant for military and civilian applications. These are intended to replace the Chetak and Cheetah helicopters currently in service with the Indian Armed Forces. The LUH is a new generation, three-tonne class helicopter incorporating state-of-the-art technology features including a glass cockpit. It is powered by single turbo-shaft engine with sufficient power margin to cater to demanding high altitude missions.
The Indian Armed Forces have been looking for a new LUH since the late 1990s. Multiple attempts at establishing a competitive tendering programme for as many as 197 LUH for the IA and the IAF under license production with many foreign vendors such as Agusta Westland (now Leonardo Helicopters), Bell Helicopter, Eurocopter, Kamov, and Sikorsky did not succeed. The Kamov Ka-226Twas shortlisted in December 2015, and an agreement signed for the creation of a joint venture between Rostec, Russian Helicopters and HAL. Meanwhile, HAL had been developing its own LUH. The mock-up was first displayed at Aero India 2011. HAL promptly performed preliminary design studies on a prospective light helicopter, powered by a single HAL/Turbomeca Shakti turbo-shaft engine.
In March 2010, HAL announced that it had decided to proceed with the LUH project alone. In parallel, HAL promoted its LUH in civil roles with six passengers. The first-flight took place on September 06, 2016. On February 14, 2017, the first prototype performed an aerobatic display in Aero India 2017. By December 2018, the third prototype was also flying. On February 07, 2020, the LUH received its Initial Operational Clearance (IOC).The LUH has now completed acceptance trails and is ready for induction. Limited Series Production (LSP) aircraft are under flight trails. HAL intends to undertake mass production of the LUH at its new helicopter manufacturing complex at Tumkur, renamed as Tumakuru, which will have the capacity to produce helicopters of three-tonne to 12-tonne category. The target is to build 30 LUHs and later increase to 60 helicopters per year. The IA and the IAF will get two LSP each in 2023. After that, HAL will start rolling out the Series Production (SP) variants. Many private sector companies are involved in sub-systems supplies. The gearbox was developed by Hyderabad-based Microtec, the ring gear is by Shanti Gears and transmission, avionics hardware is supplied by Chennai-based Data Patterns. Indigenous content of over 60 percent is planned. Orders for six LUH each for the IA and the IAF have been placed. The LUH will be equipped with Generation 3 (GEN III) night-vision technology.
The LUH is powered by a single 750KW rated Shakti-1U turboshaft engine derived from Safran Ardiden, co-developed by HAL and Turbomeca. The aircraft will have a maximum speed of 260kmph, service ceiling of up to 6.5km, a range of 350km and MTOW of 3.12 tonne and an empty weight of 1.91 tonne. The LUH will carry two pilots and maximum of six passengers. Externally, it is capable of carrying one tonne under-slung. LUH missions will include Emergency Medical Services (EMS), troop transport, utility, Search and Rescue (S&R), aerial reconnaissance and surveillance missions. The LUH is the only helicopter in the three-tonne class to have foldable rotors. The IAF has planned to induct 61 LUH and the IA 126. ICG and some other civil operators are likely to place orders for this platform.
Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH)
In the late 2000s, HAL had invited bids from major global rotorcraft manufacturers to co-develop a medium-lift helicopter and was in talks with Eurocopter and Mil Helicopters. Later, with the success of ALH, HAL become confident and decided to go it alone. The Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH) is be a medium-lift 13-tonne helicopter under development by HAL for the Indian Armed Forces for air assault, air-attack, anti-submarine, anti-surface, military transport and VIP transport roles. It is meant to replace all the current Mil Mi-17 and Mil Mi-8 helicopters serving in the Indian Armed Forces.
The IMRH will be powered by two engines with five-blade main rotor and four-blade tail-rotor. The helicopter is being designed keeping in mind the global competitors in this range such as, the Sikorsky S-92, Agusta Westland AW-101, NH Industries NH-90, Eurocopter EC-725 and Mil Mi-17. The aircraft will have modular construction approach to save time and distribute tasks to various Indian vendors. Composites will be used extensively to reduce weight. The IAF is looking at the capability to carry 24 to 36 seated troops or a load of 4,500kg. The IA too wants to acquire these, but this aspect is still under deliberation. There will be a naval variant as well. The maximum speed will be close to 300kmph, range of 800km, and service ceiling of 6,700m. It will have a glass cockpit, modern avionics and a crash-worthy landing gear. It will be the most spacious helicopter in its category that will have four hard-points to carry weapons. The total weapon carrying capacity will be 1,600kg. It will be able to carry 1,000kg at a four kilometre altitude, the best by any aircraft in its class. The craft will have an EW and self-protection suite.
The naval version will have anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare roles and include a sonar and sea-scanner radar with a customised cockpit. It will have longer range, higher payload capacity and foldable rotors. The Indian Armed Forces would initially require around 350 helicopters and in the long run, the figure could go up to 550. The scaled model tests of the helicopter have been on since 2021. By March 2022, HAL completed preliminary design work and is ready for prototype development. The first-flight of the prototype is expected in 2025-26. Six prototypes are planned for trials before production and its entry into service would be closer to 2030. The IMRH will be manufactured at the HAL’s new factory in Tumkur. The engines will be designed and manufactured by HAL-Safran joint venture.
Challenges Ahead for India
It can be seen that India has come of age in rotary-wing design and development. The 335 HAL Dhruv fleet has already logged more than 340,000 flying hours. The HAL-Dhruv based IAF’s helicopter formation air display team ‘Sarang’ is among the best in the world and has a good safety record. HAL has developed significant Indian vendor base. The Dhruv Mk I is priced at around Rs 45 crore and the Dhruv Mk III costs around Rs 70 crore. With full maritime role fitments, the Dhruv MR costs around Rs 110 crore.
The aircraft has around 55 percent indigenous content. Some essential systems are still imported from the UK, Israel and France. Some aluminium alloys, composite materials, avionics and weapons are still imported. The aero-engine which accounts for nearly 30 percent of the aircraft cost, is still Turbomecca-led and has imported components. Also, many service specific operational equipment are imported. Further indigenisation is still work in progress. The initial helicopters sold to Nepal and Ecuador had maintenance safety issues. These have since been resolved. Of the nearly 350 helicopters delivered, 23 ALH variants have crashed till date. Some have been attributed to manufacturing issues. By October 2015, a total of four Ecuadorian Dhruvs had crashed reportedly due to mechanical equipment and Ecuador grounded the fleet. In October 2015, Ecuador cancelled the contract and withdrew the surviving helicopters from service. Non-delivery of parts and high accident rate were cited. Manufacturing quality would have to be maintained and design issues continuously reviewed. Meanwhile, the Maldives, Mauritius and Nepal are still operating this platform. Myanmar is reportedly interested in acquiring this helicopter. For exports, India would require clearance from foreign equipment suppliers.
For marketing the ALH Dhruv, initially HAL had tied up with the Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) for the joint manufacture of an international version of ALH Dhruv. The IAI was to develop and supply advanced avionics. However, the project did not make much headway. HAL is now marketing on its own. With a unit price at least 15 percent less than its rivals, the Dhruv has a potential market in Latin America, Africa, West Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific Rim nations. Air forces from around 35 countries have made inquiries for Dhruv, along with requests for demonstrations. Flight certification for Europe and North America is also being planned in order to tap the large civilian markets there. Considering the significant manufacturing capability, the marketing needs to be pushed both at corporate and political level.
There is significant and growing civil helicopter market in India that needs to be tapped. This would mean increased production and customer support. HAL would have to develop spares stocking and supply chains. It will have to help build and support Indian vendors. As the numbers increase there will be requirement for Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO). HAL should consider bringing a major private player into helicopter manufacturing and MRO. Bharat Dynamics and HAL must develop private vendors for critical import dependent avionics and weapons where numbers are significant. India should, in parallel, start working on a heavy helicopter of the Chinook class. Indian helicopter manufacturing has reached an infliction point. India does not need to import light or medium helicopters in the future. It is a win-win situation that needs a whole of country approach to exploit and make India a significant manufacturing and MRO hub and exporter.