How the newly inducted IAF Chinook heavy-lift helicopters provide huge versatility in operations
M Matheswaran May 22, 2019/Opinion
The Indian Air Force inducted the first batch of four Boeing C-47 F(I) Chinook helicopters last month into its inventory. These are part of the order for fifteen heavy lift helicopters. With a payload capability of 10 tonnes and a significantly good high altitude performance, the Chinooks fill a long-felt gap in IAF’s heavy lift helicopter capability. For long the IAF had depended solely on its small fleet of Russian built Mi-26 helicopter, which is still the world’s largest and heaviest payload helicopter. The Mi-26, with an enormous payload capability of 20 tonnes, had provided yeoman service for more than two decades.
Starting with a fleet of four aircraft, the Mi-26 has played extensive role in meeting major airlift requirements of material, machinery, and men, for the military and civil administration in the Himalayan border regions.With one aircraft having crashed few years ago, the surviving fleet had been hampered by maintenance and technical support problems, virtually bringing to halt the heavy heli-lift capability of the IAF. Besides, increasing emphasis on infrastructure build-up in the border regions has highlighted the importance of heli-lift capabilities for both the IAF and the Indian Army. This is what prompted the IAF to look out for building and enhancing its heli-lift capabilities in the heavy-segment.
India’s borderlands, dominated by the mighty Himalayan ranges, are unique, treacherous, and the most demanding in the world. The need to operate at altitudes higher than 20000 ft on regular basis is unique to India, and is a challenge to most helicopters designed in the West and Russia. Operations in Indian environment puts gruelling demands on these helicopters. High altitude performance in other parts of the world is at less than 20000ft, in fact, it would average between 5000 and 10000 ft, with exceptions at 15000 ft. In India, 20000 ft operations would be routine in the Himalayan stretches and valleys all across our nearly 4000 km long border in the north and north-west. High altitude operations put severe demands on the engine, has a drastic reduction in effective payload, and has adverse impact on total technical life. These will need to be addressed by appropriate technical enhancements that are fairly expensive as well.
Indian MOD signed the contract with M/s Boeing in Sep 2015 for supply of 15 CH-47F(I) Chinook Helicopters. The contract is for USD 1.1 billion, with an option clause for further seven aircraft. All 15 aircraft are planned to be supplied before March, 2020. It is almost certain that the option clause would be exercised. The first aircraft was handed over in a ceremony at the manufacturer’s production facility in Philadelphia on Feb 1 st , and the first batch of four were shipped out to Mundra Port in Gujarat. The four were then assembled and integrated into fully operational helicopters at the IAF base in Chandigarh and inducted on the 25 th March. Some of the specialist systems, self-protection systems and EW equipment are contracted through the FMS (Foreign Military Sales) procedure.
While the payload capability is only half that of the Mi-26 helicopter, the Chinook provides huge versatility in operations. The IAF version is the CH-47 F(I), which is the latest and advanced version of the Chinook, designed more than 50 years ago in 1962. The IAF aircraft is upgraded with new generation avionics and flight control systems that make the aircraft capable of very precise and versatile operations during day and night. The Chinook’s twin-rotor design gives it good agility and stability in high altitude operations. Its advanced mission computer and the DAFCS (Digital Automatic Flight Control System) allows the pilot to feed in the complete mission profile and fly automatically and with hover precision in one foot increments vertically and laterally. The CH-47 F(I) is an advanced multi mission helicopter with the true multi-role, vertical-lift capability. It contains a fully integrated, digital cockpit management system, Common Aviation Architecture Cockpit and advanced cargo-handling capabilities that complement the aircraft’s mission performance and handling characteristics. Its primary role will be for transportation of troops, artillery, equipment, and fuel. The army is particularly keen on the Chinook heavy heli-lift capability for transportation and deployment of its recently procured M-777 Ultra-Light howitzer artillery guns in the Himalayan border regions with China.
As opposed to the small fleet of three Mi-26 helicopters, the larger fleet size of the CH- 47 F(I) would provide the IAF immense flexibility and availability of aircraft for a variety of tasks. It will provide a boost to the construction of infrastructure and border road projects, long overdue. Border Roads Organisation would get a fillip to its long-delayed road construction projects in the north-east. Our continued requirements of aerial maintenance in remote regions will be better served with this new capability, as also for critical needs of HADR operations, in missions for transportation of relief supplies, and evacuation of refugees. The IAF plans to deploy the two squadrons, one in the Western sector in Himachal Pradesh and adjoining Himalayan regions, and the other in the East sector in Assam/Arunachal Pradesh.
The Chinook acquisition was also accompanied by acquisition of the Apache attack helicopter, also from Boeing. Both contracts, worth together over USD 3.5 billion, were signed on the same day on 28 Sep 2015. Both are also a combination of DCS (Direct Commercial Sales) and FMS (Foreign Military Sales) processes. The two inductions have followed a series of procurements from the USA, mostly through the FMS route. Having started with the first major defence deal in 2008, the Indo-USA defence business is likely to touch a whopping USD 18 billion by the end of 2019. Most of these acquisitions are through FMS and are virtually replacing the earlier Russian fleets: Apache replacing the Mi-35, Chinook replacing Mi-26, Sikorsky MH-60 Romeo replacing the Kamov in the Navy, with the likelihood of 110 NMRH to follow; this is a sort of indirect CAATSA in play.
It is important for India to realise that while many of these acquisitions have given significant teeth to Indian operational capability, in terms of business it has been huge business to the US companies with very little to show for India in 3 terms of Technology transfer or industrial gain in terms of manufacture or co-design and co- development.
The CAG report number 3 of 2019 comes down heavily on these acquisitions. It castigates the MOD and the IAF for procedural lapses, long drawn out acquisition processes, and more importantly of having skewed the QRs in such a way that only Chinook and Apache would have been successful. That’s a serious indictment. However, India will do well to remember that major procurements like the Apache and the Chinook at huge costs, while meeting the IAF’s operational requirements, should also be leveraged to benefit India’s larger strategic interests of technology acquisition, industrial capability, global partnerships, and of course, strengthening US-India strategic partnership. It needs to be a win-win for both.
The author is retired Air Marshal and former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. He is the founding Chairman and President of The Peninsula Foundation, Chennai. Views expressed are personal.
This article was published earlier in Financial Express.