Confusion surrounds an Indian tender for 197 light helicopters, with the government telling Bell Helicopter that it was disqualified in 2005 even though the company has been negotiating with New Delhi for the past two years.

India shortlisted the Bell 407 and Eurocopter EC550 C3 Fennec for the $550 million contract two years ago. But Bell, a Textron subsidiary, has been unexpectedly told that it was disqualified due to an inability to provide a heavy winch.

"The 407 that took part in the 2005 trials had a light winch. India had asked for a letter saying Bell could provide a heavy winch, and this was done. Then about two months ago, Bell was told that it was disqualified in 2005 as it could not guarantee a heavy winch. But the company had done that and the issue was not raised at any meetings since 2005," says a source close to Bell. "Only the government knows what the exact situation is right now."

India is reportedly ready to begin price negotiations with Eurocopter, but industry sources say that this could be delayed while Bell and the US government urge New Delhi to consider the 407.

Jeffrey Kohler, head of the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency, told reporters last week that his country is asking New Delhi to give Bell "a fair opportunity. The US government is not demanding anything or any change [in the contract] from the Indian side. We want a fair and transparent opportunity," he says. "The company would be happy to bring its machine again if the competition is open, fair and transparent."

When asked last week if Eurocopter had won the bid, Indian defence minister A K Anthony said: "It is under process." His comments leave a competition that has being ongoing since 1999 in limbo, say observers. "We've waited for a long time, but a resolution is not near. The minister is being ambiguous, and the army suffers as its equipment gets older while this is resolved," says a New Delhi-based analyst.

India's army needs the helicopters to replace its fleet of 1970s-vintage Hindustan Aeronautics Chetak and Cheetah helicopters. The successful bidder will provide 60 helicopters in a flyaway condition, while the remaining 137 aircraft will be licence-produced by HAL. The winning bidder must also invest 30% of the contracted cost in India under an offset clause.

Source: Flight International