The Indian Navy (IN) issued a Request for Information (RFI) for lease of 24 light helicopters on Friday, Apr 23, 2021. This follows parleys with few Indian operators and OEMs starting last November. The RFI seeks responses from helicopter OEMs, authorised leasing firms, third party financiers or government-sponsored agencies for 24 helicopters with ground support equipment (GSE), maintenance support including Performance-based Logistics (PBL), and training of aircrew and maintainers. The lease will proceed along Chapter IX of the latest Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP 2020). The period of initial lease is five years, extendable by another five years, with an option to buy back the airframes at residual value.
This is the first time the IN has resorted to leasing helicopters. The acute shortfall in light helicopters, low availability of obsolescent Chetaks (Alouette IIIB) and a Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) program meandering inconclusively has likely driven IN to invoke the ‘lease’ option included in the latest DAP. However, naval sources confirmed to this writer that the lease program in no way dilutes either the numbers or importance of NUH.
The highlights of the proposed lease are summarised below:
- Twin-engine helicopters under 5-tons with wheeled undercarriage and blade folding
- Capable of day & night sustained operations from afloat and ashore
- Missions include SAR, casualty evacuation, communication and Low Intensity Maritime Operations (LIMO)
- Offered helicopters should have a residual life of 15 years at commencement of lease
- Flying and ‘Operator’ level maintenance by IN crew; rest by the lessor or OEM partner
- 75% serviceability to be ensured at two bases — one each on western and eastern seaboard
- Minimum flying quantum of 360 hours per year, with a surge capacity of 50 hours per month for 2 months in a year
- Capable of embarked operations up to 180 days in a year; 120 days at a stretch, when required, once a year
Outline specifications match that of a civil offshore-configured light twin and include weather radar, standard equipment for flying under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) in Class D airspace’, Automatic Identification System (AIS), rescue hoist, emergency floats, etc. Notable additions include an electro-optic, infrared (EO/IR) payload, Gen III (& above) night vision goggle (NVG) compatible cockpit, feasibility of integrating a cabin-mounted 7.62mm machine gun, and underslung capability of 900 kg.
The RFI clearly means a helicopter that can operate ‘integral‘ to a warship — an interesting difference from the recently supplied HAL-manufactured ALH Mk-3 Maritime Role helicopters (ALH Mk-3 MR) for coastal security. It is this difference that both sides need to understand clearly — one where indigenous naval helicopter development faltered in the past.
Chetak inventory at an all-time low
The lease aims to fill the gap left behind by the dwindling numbers of Chetak, with some added features. Naval helicopter pilots first cut their teeth on the 2-ton Chetak, a light single-engine copter maintained by a team of 4-5 crew. It can be launched from ‘strike down’ condition in hangar in less than 30 minutes; scrambled in under five minutes; blades fold in less than 10 mins. It requires no traversing gear and can fly for weeks with nothing more than frontline servicing. It has no complicated avionics or sensors that require special training. The simplicity of this machine is unmatched. However, it is well past its glory days, barely supportable, and has nil utility by night. The IN has hardly enough to cover the frontline SAR requirements, let alone support training and sustained embarkations. Whether this void will be bridged by latest acquisition ‘Dhruv’ ALH Mk-3 MR, optimised for shore-based operations, remains to be seen.
Leased helicopters in civil aviation
Civil offshore flying is one of the most rigorous sectors in the helicopter industry. In Bombay High, each airframe flies 80-90 hours per month with a serviceability rate close to 90%. Contracts impose severe ‘liquidated damages’ (LD) and penalty clauses that preclude more than 1-2 days of downtime per month. Helicopters are serviced within narrow maintenance windows when they return from the sea each day (and they do — an important point). A helicopter turning ‘AOG’ (aircraft on ground) out at sea can wipe out the company’s earnings in a matter of hours. Clients (ONGC, for instance) award ‘crew change’ or ‘production’ contracts through competitive bidding process to helicopter operators like Pawan Hans Limited (PHL), Global Vectra Helicorp Ltd (GVHL), Heligo Charters, etc. that have company-owned or leased helicopters flown, maintained and operated by their own crew. This ‘wet lease’ arrangement gives the operator (say, GVHL) maximum flexibility and the client (say, ONGC) maximum value. Deep third-line maintenance activities are undertaken by highly-skilled aircraft maintenance engineers (AME) and technicians within small hangars, modest resources and non-tensile timelines. Depot-level 5000-hourly inspections are completed in 1-2 months; 2500-hourly in less than ten days, using op-logistics chains that cut across the globe. Every penny counts; there are no weekly PowerPoint briefings; no scope for finger-pointing or shifting blame. ‘Perform or perish’ is the mantra.
Operating leased helicopters in a naval setting
The model envisaged by IN, as gleaned from the RFI, is however slightly different. It appears closer to a ‘dry operating lease’ arrangement — something between wet and dry lease. It is a model low on lease duration but high on numbers & specifications. This approach though understandable is not without its pitfalls.
As opposed to civil offshore helicopters, naval operations require helicopters to embark ships for extended durations where only frontline servicing or ‘O’ level maintenance activity is possible. For example, IN ships with embarked helicopters routinely carry out extended ‘Patrol off Gulf’ (POG), Overseas Deployment (OSD) and cross-coast deployments thousands of miles away from home port.
The lease modalities and costing by the lessor in the proposed lease would have to take into account deeper levels of servicing and maintenance at lessee’s premises ashore, including, as specified in the RFI, “breakdown at any place in India”. This will throw up exigencies outside the ambit of ‘O’ level. For example, if the helicopter breaks down or becomes ‘AOG’ in the middle of the sea, how will the lessor hook-up with military-diplomatic op-logistics networks? Delivering 75% serviceability in situations outside the reach of the lessor/OEM may pose challenges that upend the very purpose of leasing. It is learnt that these issues are being discussed in a series of meetings ongoing since December 2020. Perhaps a multidisciplinary naval team could visit one of India’s large offshore helicopter operators to get first-hand insights into successful lease models that have been in operation for years.
Points to ponder
A few minor observations that a coarse reading of the RFI brought to my mind are listed below. Please note, this is purely my personal opinion and not for or against any specific product or OEM:
- Few technical parameters appear to be infructuous. For instance, the RFI seeks ‘dual channel cross talking FADEC’ for the powerplant — difficult to justify for this case. The cost-benefit ratio of such obtuse demands must be understood and rationalised.
- The inclusion of a multi-spectral EO/IR payload, though desirable, falls short of being an ‘essential’ criteria for intended roles. Such kits are found on civil airborne law enforcement (ALE) helicopters and include daylight optics plus infrared sensors for night use. However, it may drive up costs and impose delays on otherwise compliant platforms. This could end up denying us quick, easy and low-cost access to technology — the very purpose of leasing. Further, the incoming 16 ALH Mk-3 MR and 24 MH-60Rs will come with all this and more.
- There is needless foray into describing contingency power, one engine inoperative (OEI) operation etc, where, for example, a simple “helicopter should be certified under Category A” may have sufficed.
- Achieving ‘180 days at sea in a year’ for a seagoing force under a ‘dry lease’ model is a tough ask & needs careful analysis.
- If lessor is to provide for the movement of helicopter in and out of ship hangar, manual traversing emerges as the natural choice. Anything above 3.5-4 tons would require a deck-based traversing solution to be also provided by the lessor. This will drive up the costs for heavier, more capable helicopters, thus leaving an uneven playing field.
- Excluding single-engine helicopters and those with skid landing gear leaves many capable light-singles out of the game. It restricts choices that can be assessed for suitability at a later stage. The problems faced by IN in operating Chetaks (in the twilight of their life) is well understood. But should this slam the door shut on single-engine helicopters and turn naval aviation into an all-twin fleet? One hopes this aspect has been well researched vis-a-vis latest advancements in light singles.
- Every new type/make that is inducted takes time to settle down. There’s a learning curve; pilots and ground crew learn on the job. Going by past experience of major aircraft induction and a first-time lease of this nature, five year lease is too short.
The RFI seeks responses by 18 Jun 2021, followed by finalisation of Leasing Operational Requirements (LOR), Approval of Necessity (AoN) within 6 months, solicitation of offers, technical evaluation, cost negotiations and award of contract within stipulated timelines under DAP. More than half dozen established OEMs, including non-scheduled operators from India and abroad, have reportedly evinced interest in the case.
Given the reality of numbers and extreme paucity of light helicopters in the IN, this program can ill-afford to be another experiment without clear, time-bound outcomes. I recommend we stick with Kelly Johnson’s KISS principle, going forward.