When it comes to procurement matters, India’s ministry of defense is an unlikely paragon of efficiency, even on a weekday. That mold broke Aug. 15 when the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), chaired by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, approved procurement of nearly $6.6 billion worth of military equipment and services. Included in that sum is procurement of 111 Naval Utility Helicopters (NUH) at a cost of over $3 billion.
The Acceptance of Necessity (AON) for this program was established in October 2017, following a request for information (RFI) issued in August 2017 for the NUH and 123 Naval Multirole Helicopters (NMRH).
The accelerated process that moved from AON to Defense Council clearance within 10 months is indicative of the Indian Navy’s dogged determination to push long-standing deficiencies of its rotary fleet higher up the national agenda. In March last year, navy chief Adm. Sunil Lanba visited the United States with key officials where the itinerary included discussion on multirole helicopters.
The NUH is the first project under the ministry of defense’s prestigious "strategic partnership" model that “envisages indigenous manufacturing of major defense platforms by an Indian strategic partner, who will collaborate with foreign OEM, acquire niche technologies and set up production facilities in the country.”
This is part of the "Make in India" clarion call sounded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to promote a “vibrant and widespread defense industrial ecosystem in the Indian aviation sector with the private industry and The Micro Small & Medium Enterprises (MSME) as major stakeholders.”
Global aerospace primes such as Airbus, Bell and Leonardo are in the fray for forming strategic partnerships with Indian companies, none of whom (except state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) have yet manufactured complete helicopters.
Another key acquisition program for multi-role helicopters received a shot in the arm from the DAC. A case for procuring 24 MH-60R anti-submarine helicopters through inter-governmental sales was approved in the same DAC meeting Aug. 15. A direct commercial sales case for procuring 16 MRH fell though last June when contract negotiations with Sikorsky broke down on commercial issues.
The Navy has moved quickly to recover lost ground by going the foreign military sales (FMS) route. This time, the defense ministry has shown remarkable speed in according approvals, even though this development muddies the waters for other contenders in the NMRH race such as Airbus, offering the H225, and NH Industries with its NH-90 NATO frigate helicopter.
Two dozen may be a small number, but the long shadow of any Romeo contract will surely fall on the Indian navy's acquisition of 123 NMRH that is set to follow.
With a strategic dialogue with the U.S. government scheduled for early September, Saturday's decisions may provide some relief to U.S. President Trump’s team, which is still seething from the Indian government’s decision to procure the S-400 missile system from Russia.
These approvals have to be followed by formal solicitations, evaluations, technical and commercial negotiations followed by signing on the dotted line. That whole process may take two to three years, followed by aircraft delivery, training and formal induction to service. It could even take a decade or more if the present impetus is not followed through. A general election is also looming on the horizon, where grandstanding and optics may take precedence over actual signing of deals.
For the Indian navy with its blunted rotary edge, hope should float higher than hype.