Can India's Advanced Light Helicopter, survive in the international marketplace?
NOVEMBER WAS an important month for Indian aerospace. According to industry officials, one of the most significant projects for the Indian Government - the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) - finally showed signs of life.
It would be improper to doubt their assertions that, after decades of perseverance and struggle, the country's aeronautical research and development has finally come of age. After all, the third prototype ALH was successfully demonstrated by state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) at the HEXA '95 helicopter exhibition in Bangalore in early November, and the fourth and penultimate prototype is scheduled to be test-flown before the end of December.
The fact remains, however, that the official rhetoric disguises a far less encouraging picture. The project has already cost more than $165 million and produced only ten orders so far. The aircraft, are not expected to be delivered to the Indian defence sector before 1997, approximately four years behind schedule.
Targeted at an international market estimated to be worth $20 billion, the twin-engine 4t machine belongs to the "workhorse" class of helicopter. The multi-role ALH can also be used to conduct civilian functions such as off shore operations and policing, however.
HAL claims that the ALH is a generation ahead of contemporary helicopters, including the Eurocopter Dauphin, the Bell 212 and 412, or the Sikorsky S-76. The advanced-technology features incorporated into the ALH include a hingeless main rotor and bearingless tail rotor, both manufactured from composites, and an integrated dynamic system, which combines various rotor systems into one unit. The Indian helicopter is also the first of its class to have a composite structure, allowing a greater payload. The composite-structured Eurocopter EC135 and McDonnell Douglas Explorer are 1-1.5t lighter than the ALH.
According to HAL managing director Dr Krishnadas Nair, the technological input which has gone into the ALH has put India at the forefront of helicopter technology, and HAL chairman Ram Niwas Sharma believes that the helicopter will hold its own in the international marketplace. According to Sharma, there exists a helicopter-replacement market of about 2,500 machines in this class alone. The ALH, he adds, is easily capable of claiming 1,000 orders. Demand in India's civil and military markets alone is believed to stand at 300 a year. Sharma's confidence stems from the ALH's $4.5 million price tag, compared with an average of $6.5 million for equivalent models.
This is an optimistic outlook, however, and doubts about the market prospects of the ALH remain. The company is most concerned about the international arena.
According to Mike Robbins, managing director of Bell Helicopter Textron India, the ALH project will lose a lot of money simply because the world market does not have the capacity to absorb the number of helicopters that Indian officials have been visualising. His view is that the world market requirement for new helicopters is in the region of 500 a year.
At the same time, a senior executive at Israel Aircraft Industries emphasises that there is also a tendency among the armed forces these days to upgrade and modernise existing aircraft rather than buy new machines.
Major international aerospace companies are believed to be expressing an interest in forming joint ventures with HAL to co-produce the ALH and fit it with modern weapons systems. Among the delegates at the Bangalore exhibition were representatives from US-based Bell and Eurocopter France -seizing the opportunity to push their own wares. Recent reports suggest that AlliedSignal has also entered the fray. According to official sources, Swedish aircraft manufacturer Saab and SFIM of France are competing for the weapon-systems contract, which includes laser-guided missiles.
For its own part HAL, is interested in joint ventures because of the attractions the financial muscle of a big company would offer, and for the added expertise in market research.
Saab has been working with HAL and Bharat Electronics on the manufacture of anti-tank systems. The Swedish company is believed to be planning a major role in developing Indian missile systems such as the Trishul, Nag and Aakash and, according to Saab vice-president Christer Dahlberg, is competing to offer sighting systems for the ALH. SFIM, meanwhile, is proposing technology transfer and marketing support as part of a similar deal.
Whichever partner HAL ends up with, it will have a tough time shifting units. Several countries operate protectionist rules, most notably the USA, which is the biggest single market for helicopters, and industry observers believe it will take several years at best for the ALH to make an impact on the world market.
Source: Flight International