The defence ministry has given initial approvals to the Rs 21,738-crore naval project for 111 armed light utility helicopters as well as a Rs 450-crore proposal for nine active towed array sonar systems for frontline warships.
The Nirmala Sitharaman-led defence acquisitions council accorded the “acceptance of necessity (AoN)” for the helicopter project to be executed under the “strategic partnership (SP)” policy of the overall “Make in India” thrust.
The new SP policy is basically aimed at boosting the indigenous defence production sector, with Indian private sector companies producing cutting-edge weapon systems in collaboration with global armament majors through joint ventures and technology transfers, as earlier reported by TOI.
The defence ministry-Navy combine will now issue the formal tender or RFP (request for proposal) to original equipment manufacturers for the light helicopter project, under which the first 16 choppers will be imported, with the rest 95 being manufactured in India later.
But it will take at least two years for the actual contract to be inked for the twin-engine helicopters, which the Navy desperately needs to replace its ageing fleet of single-engine Chetak helicopters.
As reported by TOI on Tuesday, at least half-a-dozen mega Make in India defence projects, collectively worth over Rs 3.5 lakh crore, are currently stuck at different stages without the final contracts being inked.
One of them is the joint venture between India and Russia to manufacture around 200 light helicopters for the Army and IAF, at a cost of around Rs 6,500 crore, for which an inter-governmental agreement was inked in December 2015.
The naval choppers, which will also be armed for anti-submarine warfare, are different from the Army or IAF light choppers since they need wheeled landing gears, sea optimization, foldable blades and smaller dimensions to ensure they can fit into warship hangars.
The Navy is also desperate to induct 123 heavy-duty multi-role helicopters, which can detect, track and hunt enemy submarines at a time when Chinese nuclear and diesel-electric submarines are making regular forays into the Indian Ocean Region. This proposed Make in India project will also cost upwards of Rs 20,000 crore.
“The AoN for this case will also be accorded soon,” said an official. The Navy is currently grappling with just 11 old Kamov-28 and 17 Sea King ASW (anti-submarine warfare) helicopters, most of them in a moth-balled condition, to defend its existing fleet of 140 warships.
ASW helicopters typically fly ahead of warships to “dunk” their sonars into the deep waters, “listen” for enemy submarines and fire torpedoes against them to clear the path for the fleet. In the 9 to 12.5-tonne class, these helicopters also have missiles to take on other warships as well as electronic warfare and early-warning suites.
The nine active towed array sonar systems, in turn, are meant for the Kolkata-class destroyers as well as Shivalik and Teg-class stealth frigates. “The new sonar systems will be in addition to the indigenous Humsa sonars to boost the ASW capabilities of the warships,” said an official.