October 04, 2015

India-US helicopter deal


JUST in time for Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US, the cabinet approved the much earlier declared yet long-pending Indian acquisition of 22 Apache AH- 64E attack helicopters and 15 Chinook CH-47F heavy lift copters, both made by Boeing, with an option for 11 more Apaches and 7 more Chinooks, at a total cost of $3.1 billion (Rs 1900 crores). The intended purchase was first spoken about almost five years ago and more or less announced after field trials in 2012 but, in the usual way in Indian defence purchases, had to go through a labyrinthine round of decisions, approvals by different ministries and committees, price negotiations and finally confirmation by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) which is mandatory for orders larger than Rs 1000 crores.

The deal sees the US consolidating its position as one of the top countries supplying military hardware to India, in a brief span of just over a decade after opening up military sales to India in the aftermath of the Indo-US nuclear deal and signing of the US-India Defence Framework Agreement. India has now bought close to $13bn (Rs 80,600 crores) worth of defence equipment from the US during this period. In turn, India emerged as the top buyer of US arms in 2013.

Most of these US acquisitions have followed the government-to-government route under what are termed Foreign Military Sales (FMS) which, under US legislative provisions, requires prior approval of the US Congress and also involves reciprocal obligations on the part of the buyer, in this case India, regarding sharing of data, potential checks on end-use etc. On the Indian side, under its Defence Procurement Policy, no tendering or competitive bidding process is called for. While these are important issues, they are not of immediate relevance for purposes of this article, and hence will not be expanded upon here.

This particular helicopter deal, though, has been on Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) basis so the deal was inked basically between Boeing and the Indian government. Since the weapons systems and radars are covered under FMS, a part of the deal was with the US government too. 

There can be little to complain about the quality or merit of the helicopters ordered, serious questions must be asked about the perspective behind these and other recent acquisitions, both as regards the structure of the Indian armed forces as revealed by these choices and the strategic vision that shapes them.  




The Apache AH64E combat helicopters are advanced versions of the renowned AH64D Longbow, with as many as 26 improvements over the latter, which has a solid track record and an apparently well-founded reputation of being among the best ground attack helicopters in the world, with proven performance in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.  Over 2000 Apache helicopters are in service with many militaries around the world for whom it is the main attack chopper used for strikes against tanks, armour, radar stations and similar ground installations.  

The Apache began as the Hughes Helicopter YAH-64 which the US Army ordered into full production in 1982. Hughes was taken over by McDonnell Douglas which continued developing the aircraft as the AH64 that entered US Army service in 1986 before the company was in turn acquired by Boeing which introduced the significantly upgraded version named AH64D into the US Army in 1997. So the basic aircraft has been around for some time, but having gone through major design changes and upgrades of controls, avionics and weapons systems. The 64E version that India has acquired entered into service with the US Army recently in 2014.

The Apache attack copter has built its reputation on its proven deep strike capability, ability to destroy targets, and capacity to resist or withstand heavy damage itself. It has all-weather, night-fighting capabilities including simultaneous detection of upto 128 targets in under a minute and engagement with 16 of them. The Apache 64E has stealth features, advanced sensors and beyond-visual-range (BVR) targeting capabilities. While details are not known, it is likely the Apaches will come with Lockheed Martin Longbow missiles. The Indian Army has requested for an additional 30-plus Apaches under its own control.

The Apaches were selected in preference to the Russian Mi-28N Night Hunter copters that Russia offered, an Indian decision that did not sit well with Russia, already chafing at its former steady customer seemingly turning away from it towards Western suppliers. Showing its displeasure, and also diversifying its customer base just as India was diversifying its supply lines, Russia soon thereafter started supplying Mi-series helicopters to Pakistan!  

The Chinooks are redoubtable helicopters too, going back even earlier to 1960. Designed for carrying troops, supplies or lifting heavy pieces of artillery or other equipment upto 9.5 tons, the Chinook has the heaviest lift capability among Western helicopters. Its power, aided by the distinctive twin contra-rotating rotors which eliminate the usual vertically-rotating tail rotor seen on most helicopters, makes it still rank among the fastest of military helicopters. The Air Force sees its relevance in the context of manoeuvrability in hilly terrains, troop transport and especially delivery of armour, artillery and even road-building and other construction materials to relatively inaccessible places.

The CH-47F is the most recent version, having entered service with the US Army in 2007, with a new more powerful engine, upgraded airframe, advanced sensors, avionics and flight control systems. The Netherlands, Britain, Canada, Australia and other nations operate sizeable fleets of Chinook CH-47F which is their heavy-lift chopper of choice.

Interestingly, the US military is seeking further Chinook upgrades well into the 2030s and a major new version in the middle of the century, taking the Chinook into almost a century of existence, probably unrecognisable by them except for its fundamental structure and silhouette. This is a powerful demonstration of aircraft design and recovery of R&D costs over the long term, how a successful basic model has lasting value stretching well beyond the original conception through successive upgrades and newer versions. One wishes Indian defence R&D organisations had internalised this lesson by now so that the long-term cost savings of indigenous technology development compared to serial imports would be sharply brought out.




Unfortunately, these helicopter acquisitions follow a pattern in many recent Indian acquisitions, especially from the US, which have not formed part of a strategic vision reflected in an appropriately selected mix of hardware in suitable numbers, but about ad hoc purchases of items of equipment that fill specific perceived gaps in India’s military portfolio at a given point of time, with size of the order seemingly determined with a short-term perspective or to match budgetary constraints at that juncture.

The recent bungled decision on acquisition of the French Rafale is a case in point. After long deliberations, the Air Force arrived at a clearly defined choice of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) which, along with similar numbers of Sukhoi-30 MkI air superiority fighters, would form the mainstay of the Air Force over an extended period of time, especially given the inordinate delay in induction of the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). After considerable dilly-dallying over unending negotiations over price and offsets including technology transfer, the BJP-led government chose to buy outright 36 Rafale aircraft. Gone were the fleet strength of 126 MMRCA required by the Air Force, and with it the substantive technology transfer that could have been expected. India is now left with barely 2 squadrons of Rafales, adding to the zoo of different aircraft types that makes up the Indian Air Force, and no build-up of indigenous capability bar the odd assembly or sub-contract roles assigned to the fledgling private sector.

Purchases from the US in particular often seem to exemplify this tendency. In several cases, India has felt the need to replace ageing Russian equipment earlier used by India, or felt that US hardware offer exceptional capabilities, especially an edge over contemporary variants available from India’s traditional defence supplier, Russia. Of course, regrettably there have been no indigenous alternatives on offer, or even on the horizon, in most of these cases.

India has acquired a handful of P8i maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft which are quite distinctive. On the other hand, the C-130J Hercules and the giant Globemaster transport aircraft are veteran systems dating back several decades, which undoubtedly have solid reputations but are scarcely cutting-edge weapon systems or in categories for which other suppliers could not be found. Some commentators have even felt that a few of these equipment may have been selected as offering some degree of match between a need to buy US hardware and felt needs of the Indian military.

Overall, this pattern of acquisitions by India especially in military aircraft has meant that a series of piece-meal purchases have been made, with little strategic vision in terms of threat perception, military doctrine or characteristics of armed forces commensurate with these. In the process India has accumulated small numbers of many assorted types of aircraft, too few in each type to have serious impact in foreseeable conflicts and amounting to a menagerie of aircraft types that pose major logistical headaches even in peacetime leave alone at times of conflict. And while the pink press has been making much of the around $600 million of offsets that are likely to be generated, these offsets contracts may mean some earnings for the private sector companies involved which may include the Tatas, L&T and Mahindra Aerospace, but no significant acquisition of technology or capability will accrue to India, which is simply not possible with such small numbers.