India issues light utility helicopter request for proposals

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India has issued a request for proposals for 197 military light utility helicopters, with the country hoping that deliveries will begin by the end of 2010 after a year-long evaluation.

"All of the helicopters will be bought directly from the manufacturers. Of these, 133 are for the army and 64 for the air force. The services will have a joint evaluation and pick the helicopter that best fits their requirements," says the Indian ministry of defence.

The RFP was sent to AgustaWestland, Bell Helicopter, Eurocopter, Kamov and Sikorsky, who will bid to replace the 1970s-vintage Hindustan Aeronautics Chetak and Cheetah helicopters.

New Delhi has given the companies three months to respond, with trials scheduled to begin in early 2009 and a winner selected by the end of the year.

The contract could be worth up to $750 million, and the companies must reinvest 30% of the value in India under the country's offsets policy. HAL will provide the maintenance in India.

An earlier tender for 197 utility helicopters for the army was called off in December, when the Eurocopter AS550 looked set to pip the Bell 407 to the deal, due to allegations of irregularities in the selection process. The ministry says that there will be safeguards to ensure that this tender is conducted fairly.

Given that the replacement exercise is now almost two years behind schedule, India is asking the manufacturers to deliver all of the helicopters in a fly-away condition to expedite the delivery.

In the earlier tender, the companies were asked to provide only 60 in fly-away condition and HAL was scheduled to licence-produce 137.

The two services, however, have a combined requirement for 384 helicopters. But the production of the remaining 187 is being left to HAL, which is keen to develop and provide a light utility helicopter of its own within the next five years.

The company could also jointly develop this helicopter with the successful bidder. Some observers, however, point out that this arrangement could lead to unnecessary delays.

"Negotiations with the bidders will stretch to 2010 and it is impossible for deliveries to begin in the same year. The most optimistic target is late 2011, more likely early 2012," says a New Delhi-based observer.

"And it is crazy to rely on HAL for the remaining helicopters. It will take more than five years for them to design and manufacture a new helicopter from scratch, even with help from a Western company. Both services need the helicopters urgently and they are the ones who will suffer if there are further delays."

India plans to completely revamp its military helicopter fleets by 2020. The AgustaWestland A129, Bell AH-1Z Cobra, Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow, Eurocopter Tiger, Kamov Ka-52 and Mil Mi-28 are in the contest for a 22-unit attack helicopter requirement, and a tender for anti-submarine warfare and naval reconnaissance helicopters is expected shortly.

India is also finalising a contract for 80 Mil Mi-17-V5 transport helicopters, and continues to induct the HAL Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter.