Wg Cdr Bhupinder S. Nijjar (R)
On July 10, 2020, Boeing announced the completion of the delivery of 22 AH64E Apache and 15 CH-47(I) Chinook military helicopters to the Indian Air Force (IAF). These deliveries were made as per a contract signed on September 28, 2015. Of the total contract value of Rupees 21,999.42 crores, the Chinook contract was worth Rs 8047.85 crores.
The deliveries of the 15 Chinook helicopters had been completed in March 2020 as per schedule. This was the culmination of a procurement process which was initiated as far back as 2006. For the United States (US), the effort to sell the Chinook in its previous versions had commenced as early as January 1969 when India expressed an "official interest" as a part of its plans to expand its helicopter fleet.
The following is an often-quoted text from a Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) report (Capital Acquisition in Indian Air Force) released on February 13, last year. Notably, this report after having been published online has now been withdrawn from the public domain.
The report said, “Audit noted that though the existing Mi-26 helicopters were to be replaced with new HLH, the parameters formulated for procurement were much lower. The max payload capacity was reduced to 11000 kgs as against the 20000 kgs of Mi 26 helicopters. Seating capacity was also reduced to 45 troops as against the 82 troops of Mi-26 helicopters. The max underslung load was reduced to 10,000 kgs as against the underslung load capacity of 20,000 kgs of Mi-26 helicopter.”
As a part of the same report, the CAG had also highlighted the requirements for the procurement in the Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQR) to be defined in terms of minimum functional parameters.
The IAF case had been built upon the need to replace the Mi-26 ‘Bheem’ as a possible effort to reduce the procurement cycle. The procurement of an additional aircraft and completely new system could have entailed an additional cost in terms of moving a separate case for enhancing manpower requirements. The more plausible IAF aim could have been to bridge the capability divide existing between the load-carrying capacities of the Mi-17 and the much larger Mi-26.
However, as the case progressed and the procurement oversight processes took effect, any type of expenditures on the maintenance of Mi-26 started to be under increased scrutiny with an extremely valid question being asked by the auditors. This pertained to the need for justifying the expenditure required on the maintenance of Mi-26 when a case had already been progressed for its replacement.
Most notably, according to a data set available with The United Service Institution of India (USI), Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research (CAFHR), the Mi-26 fleet achieved 100 per cent fleet serviceability on February 9, 2001.
As per the same data set, the helicopter in its cargo hold of dimension measuring approximately 11 X 3 X 3 (in m), had demonstrated a capability of carrying 155 mm Bofors Artillery Gun along with its Saab Scania towing vehicle as early as April 1986.
In the subsequent years, it has been used to carry odd-sized loads to various destinations in multiple missions all over the country. These included hospital containers to THOISE (Transit Halt Of Induction into Siachen), the airlift of the Agni Booster to Balasore and Shaktimaan trucks to Mechuka (Advanced Landing Ground- Arunachal Pradesh).
It has even carried a Chetak aircraft aboard besides being deployed to undertake operational and Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) tasks. Its most notable operational contribution was to carry ammunition load to Srinagar and Awantipur by Night during Operation Vijay (Kargil) in May 1999.
Over the years, as the case for the Chinook procurement was progressed and faced various delays in the complex Defence Procurement Procedures (DPP) as highlighted in the CAG audit report, the Mi-26 continued with its tasks.
These included the recovery of a Mi-17 force-landed on a riverbed, to Chandigarh on February 22, 2006, and airlifting of a Mi-17 1V from Bandipore to Awantipur in September 2007. In 2010, the helicopter was used to lift odd-sized and heavy equipment for the Katra-Quazigund railway project which was to provide rail connectivity to the Srinagar Valley. During the execution of this commitment, on December 14, 2010, the IAF suffered its first and as on date the only flying accident in which the Mi-26 aircraft was a complete write-off.
The next time that the it was called upon to operate under public scrutiny was during the HADR effort (Operation Rahat) after the 2013 Uttarakhand floods, in which over 5,000 lives were lost. It was used to transport a refueller to Pithoragarh ALG.
This enabled unhindered operations by the relief helicopter. Further, in January 2015 the Mi-26 was tasked to transport five trucks, two earthmovers, one "Hydralift" crane and two snow blowers to a new Kedarnath helipad built at an altitude of 11,660 feet above sea level. The max load which could be airlifted by the Mi-26 at that altitude was stated to be 8 to 10 tonnes depending upon the temperature and prevailing weather conditions.
It was only after this effort by the heavy lifter, which may well be its last, that the contract for the 15 Chinooks was inked on September 28, 2015.
Decades earlier, in July 1985, the US had undertaken a study on global military exports of military helicopters. The document was declassified by the CIA, Directorate of Intelligence on October 7, 2010.
According to this document, in 1985, the cost of CH-47/Chinook or CH-53/Super Stallion varied between $14 million and $25 million per piece while the Soviet Mi-26 was being offered for approximately $12 million per piece.
In its estimation, these helicopters would be required by some third world countries to deploy a large number of troops or heavy equipment and besides the People's Republic of China (PRC) which was operating three Mi-10 "Hook" helicopters at the time. It further added that IAF has already expressed an interest in purchasing Soviet Mi-26 helicopters. The documents details important operational differences between the three different types of heavy-lift category helicopters.
At that time in its estimation, while the CH 47D/ Chinook could carry 33 troops (Speed 260 KMPH, Radius 190 KM) and CH-53/Super Sea Stallion could carry 35 (Speed 280 KMPH/Radius 460KM), the Mi-26/Halo could carry over 85 tons (Speed 300 KMPH/ Radius 370 KM).
Therefore, the Soviet helicopters were cheaper and the CIA assessment, probably quoting the inputs provided by the users, assessed them to be reliable. This was attributed to the simple production technologies used and the long production runs required for fulfilling the domestic consumption requirements.
In the context of maintenance issues, the intelligence commentary noted that the helicopters invariably require extensive follow-on support in terms of spare parts as well as equipment. Due to a large number of rotating parts and consequent vibrations, there is a consequent demand which gets established for gears, engines, and electronic equipment.
This even with a conservative assessment would mean that within five years, the operator has to spend an amount equal to the initial purchase cost on spares and repairs. For 20 years of the operational life of the helicopter, this maybe four to six times the original cost.
In a current context, as the experience set of IAF would increase with the induction of the Chinooks and a realistic assessment of its operational capabilities is truly revealed, especially in the desired high-altitude regions all along the Northern borders, the efficacy of these helicopters needs to be assessed in various operational configurations.
The claimed max load-carrying capability of the CH-47D(I) is 10.8 tons while that of a Mi-26 is 20 tons. This reduces for both, depending upon the fuel requirements as well as temperature and altitude considerations.
Even after giving substantial leeway to the highly efficient engines and the modern design, the difference would remain. As the key operating altitude requirements for these helicopters would be between the operating altitudes of 10,000 feet and 16,000 feet the respective load-carrying capacities would also be significantly impacted.
The ability to induct troops/loadsat a point would require repeated trips by Chinook thus increasing the exposure time at key areas under enemy observation. The lifting of single piece and voluminous loads would also impose additional restrictions.
There is an inescapable and a recognized need for developing a network of roads and railways in the difficult mountainous regions bordering China. This is to ensure rapid mobilization an induction of troops and equipment to defend these regions.
While infrastructure development accompanied by the construction of roads and railway links is desirable, there needs to be a careful cost-benefit analysis too of the costs involved, especially in terms of unfettered development resulting in damage to the environment resulting in a possible increase of landslides and associated calamities.
Such a type of infrastructure development has been supported by Mi-26 earlier also in the higher reaches of Uttarakhand. Even after the planned infrastructure development is completed, IAF needs to retain a capability of rapidly inducting a large number of troops in these mountainous regions link with which can easily be snapped due to landslides caused by vagaries of weather.
Recently, after a 50-metre span concrete bridge was completely washed out on July 27 in Jauljibi sector of Pithoragarh district, Uttarakhand it completely isolated 15,000 people in 20 villages. Even with best of efforts it took the Border Road Organisation (BRO) almost three weeks to construct the bridge. The construction of which was announced on August 17.
The biggest challenge stated was to transport parts to the site from Pithoragarh amidst frequent landslides and heavy rains. The bridge was successfully completed on August 16, 2020.
The absence of the “Bheem” has already been felt.
More importantly though, in modern military operations parlance,three weeks is simply too long a time. Much can change within this period. The enemy can establish well entrenched positions and be in a position to interdict key supply route.
Having been allowed to entrench it would be difficult to dislodge him as the force ratios required would be immense. There is another little known HADR aspect to the operational capability of the Mi-26 pertaining to its capability in evacuating 60 lying casualties along with medical attendants. In case of an even necessitating mass casualty evacuation this capability would also prove to be useful.
The Chinese with a general terrain elevation of around 14,500 ft along their entire land border with India have evaluated their requirements and have embarked on a path of developing the Advanced Heavy Lift (AHL) helicopter which is being co-developed by Russian Helicopters and Chinese corporation AVIC.
With a maximum takeoff weight of 38.2 tons and a service ceiling of 5,700 meters it will have a range of a range of 630 kilometers and a maximum speed of 300 kilometers per hour. It is being designed with a lifting capacity of 10 tons for internal cargo and 15 tons for underslung cargo. What is clearly being attempted at is getting a superior and a versatile performance while retaining the heavy lift capabilities at high altitudes. Both of these can be stated to be the limitations of the Mi-26.
With the available dataset, it is amply evident that both the Chinook and the Mi-26 are a distinct class of helicopters, with the lifting capability of the Mi-26 almost twice that of the Chinook, when evaluated head to head for a similar set of operating conditions. While the Chinook may score well on the versatility front, the Mi-26 capabilities for carrying voluminous and bulky cargoes and even critical ammunition loads safely ensconced inside its cargo compartment remains unmatched.
Hence, the Chinook instead of replacing the “Bheem” must be used to complement it and the experience set and the maintenance infrastructure for the Mi-26 built over a period of 34 years needs to be retained at the minimum and even expanded, especially in view of the clear intentions of the Chinese to threaten the critical road infrastructure in the high-altitude regions.
Here it would be prudent for India to identify its specific requirements for a heavy-lift helicopter for operating in the specific high-altitude and inaccessible regions and accordingly modify its plans for Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH) converting it into a heavy-lifter while meeting its requirements with a combination of the Chinooks and Mi-17V5s.
*Author an Indian Air Force veteran, former Research Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, and has authored a book on IAF Helicopters. Views expressed here are personal.