The decision by the Indian government to select Sikorsky Aircraft (a United Technologies Corporation subsidiary) to provide its navy with 16 S-70B Seahawk multi-mission helicopters (with eight further options) is notable in at least two respects.
Firstly, it has selected a "safe-pair-of-hands" with the export version of a proven helicopter with no development issues, other than those that will be associated with integrating whichever systems are selected for the platform. Secondly, the decision publicly restarts its rotorcraft procurement programs, which virtually ground to a halt when former Finmeccanica CEO Giuseppe Orsi and former AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini were accused of the bribery of Indian officials in order to win an order for 12 VIP versions of its AW101 helicopter.
On Oct. 10, both were found not guilty of the main charge by an Italian judge but were given a two-year prison sentence and each fined $1.85 million (€1.5 million) for a lesser charge of false invoicing. Investigations into money laundering continues in India with businessman Gautam Khaitan refused bail on Wednesday, Dec. 3 by the Dehli High Court. Kaitan and 19 other individuals were linked by India’s Enforcement Directorate to money laundering connected with the case.
The S-70B Seahawks with folding rotor blades and tail will be used onboard Indian naval vessels as anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare (ASW/ASuW) platforms in addition to other maritime tasks. According to Sikorsky the Seahawk’s systems would include open architecture weapons management to integrate an advanced sonar with 360 degree search radar, modern air-to-surface missiles, together with torpedoes.
The S-70B is a safe selection in the respect that over 800 of the type have accumulated nearly four million flight hours since going into service with the U.S. Navy in 1982. It has been selected by countries including Australia, Brazil, Japan, Spain, Thailand and Turkey. The acquisition package will likely include support and training.
India’s military helicopter procurement, already notoriously slow, virtually halted while the AgustaWestland case was being examined. In August this year, India cancelled the purchase of 197 Light Utility Helicopters (LUH) worth around $1 billion which was competed by Airbus Helicopter (with its AS550) and Russia’s Kamov (offering its Ka-226T).
The recent announcement that HAL will locate a new factory near Bangalore which will produce light utility helicopters, potentially the re-engined Cheetal, now throws doubt on an international order for the army’s utility helicopter requirement.
Just recently, the Indian Army Aviation Agitation Group was formed by 28 Army aviation wives fearful for their husband’s safety due to the terrible safety record of the army’s beyond out of service date Cheetah (SA 315B Lama) and Chetak (Alouette III) single engine helicopters. Originally built under licenses by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the Indian government has intended to replace the aircraft for at least eight years. These outdated aircraft are used by the army in the most remote locations such as the Siachen Glacier where the military have permanent bases over 20,000 feet. The wives group claim that 191 crashes have claimed the lives of 294 army aviators.
A report from India’s news24 online on Wednesday, Dec. 9 claimed that one of the army’s newer Dhruv advanced light helicopters (ALH) had crashed in the Siachen region although both pilots were said to be safe, proving the dangers of operations in that region.
The cessation of the contract with AgustaWestland for 12 AW101 led to an announcement by Russian Helicopters that around twelve Indian owned Mi-17V5 helicopters manufactured by Kazan Helicopters will be converted to the VIP transport role. These aircraft will likely incorporate the KNEI-8 glass cockpit and PKV-8 autopilot.
Negotiations continue with Boeing over the acquisition of 22 Apache AH-64E attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters.