February 8, 2023

Army wives say India is sacrificing soldiers by operating antique helicopters

Source – The Wire ( Rahul bedi )

The Indian Army Wives Agitation Group said in the letter that 31 military pilots had died, not by fighting the enemy, but in accidents involving the Cheetah and Chetak helicopters since 2017.17 hours ago Rescue operation after a Cheetah helicopter of the Indian Army crashed in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh near the boundary with China on the morning of October 5, 2022, killing one of the two pilots onboard.
The 140-strong Indian Army Wives Agitation Group dispatched an anguished letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday over the military’s continuance in operating vintage Cheetah and Chetak light utility helicopters (LUH), one of which crashed yet again earlier this week, killing its pilot and seriously injuring the co-pilot.

Lieutenant Colonel Saurabh Yadav, an experienced helicopter instructor died, while his co-pilot was hospitalised after their Cheetah (Aerospatiale SA-315B Lama) crashed near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh on October 4. The cause of the accident is under investigation, but preliminary reports indicate engine failure in the legacy platform.

“Do the armed forces officers and their families not have the right to live in an India that provides safe flying machines to its (military) pilots to safeguard the nation?” asked the distressed Army Wives Agitation Group missive of the PM. It claimed that 31 military pilots had died, not by fighting the enemy, but in accidents involving both these helicopters since 2017, for no fault of theirs.

Can the PM, the letter further remonstrated, possibly safeguard the nation’s soldiers by making them operate these two six-decade-old helicopter types that first joined service in the early 1960s and had now become “flying coffins“, but still comprised the rotary-wing ‘backbone’ of the three services.

E-mailed by Meenal Wagh Bhosale, founder of the Group that included wives of mostly serving Army Aviation Corps (AAC) pilots and engineers responsible for operating and maintaining the outdated Cheetahs and Chetaks (Aerospatiale Alouette III), the letter further stated that in the 75th year of its independence, India was continuing to ‘sacrifice’ its soldiers by forcing them to operate antique and technically inefficient helicopters.

“There is no reason whatsoever for the AAC and the Indian Air Force (IAF) to continue operating these helicopters nearly 60 years after they were first inducted,” said Bhosale, the Nasik-based lawyer, who had also filed a legal petition in 2014 questioning the continuance of Cheetahs and Chetaks employed on disaster management missions and in high altitude areas like Siachen. She told The Wire that this was the first time that serving army officers’ wives had thus filed a petition “challenging the safety of India’s true heroes”.

The Chetak helicopter of the Indian Army which crash landed following a technical snag, in Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020.

Overwrought by the steadily mounting death toll of young AAC officers due to the outmoded Chetak and Cheetah helicopters they piloted, mostly in perilous mountainous terrain, Bhosale founded the Army Wives Group the same year. Soon after, the Group met with then defence minister Manohar Parrikar and petitioned him to retire both outdated LUHs which incorporated technology from the late 1950s and early 1960s.

They told Parrikar that 191 of these helicopters had crashed, killing 294 pilots over three previous decades. The Group maintained that a large proportion of these fatalities had occurred in the Himalayas, where the two rotary aircraft provided a ‘lifeline’ to army formations deployed along India’s disputed borders with Pakistan and China, by effecting supply drops and casualty evacuation in normally perilous weather conditions.

Bhosale said Parrikar was ‘patient and sympathetic’ in hearing out their grievances and assured them that replacing the Chetaks and Cheetahs was the MoD’s priority. A former army chief too gave them similar assurances. But little or nothing happened thereafter, as between them the three services still operated around 187 Chetaks and some 200 Cheetahs, all of which had now become increasingly problematic to technically support, repair and overhaul. Both single-engine helicopters have been licence-built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) since 1962 and 1977 respectively,

Meanwhile, alongside the IAF, the AAC employs the bulk of Chetak and Cheetah helicopters following its formation in late 1986. Currently, it is believed to operate around 60 and 120 of the two LUHs for assorted missions like transporting men and material, casualty evacuation, search and rescue, aerial survey and patrolling, off-shore and under-slung military operations.

The first lot of two-ton seven-seat Alouette IIIs imported from France’s Sud Aviation (presently Airbus Defence and Space) were christened Chetak and inducted into IAF service in 1962. Thereafter, following a transfer of technology agreement with HAL, deliveries of the first batch of licence-built Chetak’s to the IAF-initially assembled from knocked-down and semi-knocked down kits-began three years later, in 1965. The last Chetak delivery to the IAF is believed to have taken place in 2021.

Once the AAC was formed in 1986, many Chetaks transferred to it under a complex agreement, rife with operational rivalry with the IAF, and were pressed largely into service along the Pakistani and Chinese borders. But much to the AAC’s irritation, the IAF continued to operate the armed Chetaks in an anti-tank role, for casualty evacuation and for general diverse duties, while its lighter Cheetahs operated Forward Area Control flights. According to HAL’s website, it had series built over 350 Chetaks, including 85 for the Indian Navy (IN), which still operates around 60 of them.

Rescue operation after a Cheetah helicopter of the Indian Army crashed in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh near the boundary with China on Wednesday morning, killing one of the two pilots onboard.

In 1970, HAL signed another licence agreement with France’s Societe Nationale Industrielle Aerospatiale or SNIAS (later also Airbus Defence) to locally produce the five-seat, two-ton SA-315B Lama helicopters. HAL delivered the first licence-built platform, designated as Cheetah,
to the IAF in 1976-77 which used it for logistics support, rescue operations and high-altitude missions. Much like the Chetaks, a large number of Cheetahs – which HAL claims holds the world record in high altitude operations amongst all helicopter categories – too transferred to the AAC in 1986 which initially, as part of its founding doctrine, was disallowed from operating any rotary-wing platform weighing over five tons.

Subsequently, when Chetak and Cheetah crashes proliferated with disturbing regularity, HAL resorted to jugaad 2002 onwards and developed the ‘stop-gap’ Cheetal LUH, which was principally a retrofitted Cheetah powered by the more powerful turbo-shaft 1,110 hp Turbomeca TM3332M2 engine, fitted with a full authority digital engine control (FADEC) system. But soon after, this too proved operationally inadequate.

Under pressure from the MoD, eager to push its Make in India initiative, the IAF took delivery of nine of 10 Cheetals it had ordered in 2006, but in 2018 it reportedly informed the MoD that 12 HAL-built 85-series rotor blades for the retrofitted helicopter were ‘unsuitable’ due to their ‘unusually high’ vibration levels, resulting thereby in the platforms being grounded. HAL had only recently built these seemingly unsuitable rotor blades following a technology transfer from Airbus Helicopters that had stopped making them in 2012.

The IAF is also believed to have expressed concern to the MoD over HAL being down to its last few 85-series rotor blades it had earlier imported from Airbus before 2012, and warned that the enduring paucity of ‘suitable components’ could ‘adversely’ impinge on the operational efficiency of the few Cheetals it operated. It also stated that the rotor blade shortage would ‘jeopardise’ its 2015 order for 10 additional Cheetals, besides impacting 20 similar platforms ordered by the AAC in early 2013 for Rs 4.18 billion, which remained undelivered. The Cheetal programme is presently believed to be at a standstill.

Alongside, half-hearted efforts since 2014-15 to acquire LUH alternatives like the Russian Kamov Ka-226T ‘Hoodlum’ helicopter, following numerous other similar attempts earlier which were scrapped due to allegations of wrongdoing, came to nought .

In the meantime, HAL’s development of the indigenous LUH programme, launched in 2008, hastened slowly and it was only 12 years later, in February 2020 that the single-engine, 3.15-tonne helicopter received its initial operational clearance from the Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification in Bangalore. HAL anticipates orders for at least 187 LUHs-126 for the AAC and 61 for the IAF as eventual replacements for Chetaks and Cheetahs, an endeavour likely to take over a decade, if not longer, to fructify.

The flying coffins, it seems, will continue operating till then, periodically leaving behind youthful widows, and in some instances, even posthumously born children, Bhosale declared.

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