Indian Army chopper order could be scrapped


New Delhi : The Indian Army’s hopes of purchasing 197 Eurocopter Fennec modern light choppers valued at $550 million have suffered a setback as irregularities were detected in the manner in which the machine was evaluated, and the deal is now likely to be scrapped.

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“The deal has not been scrapped but it would be right to assume that it could be,” an official said Monday.

At issue is the machine Eurocopter sent for the trials. It was a civilian variant that the company said was similar in capabilities to the military version.

The official, however, denied a media report that National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan’s objection to the irregularity had put the deal in doubt.

“That is absolutely incorrect. The NSA is not in the loop as far as defence deals are concerned,” he pointed out.

Asked whether the Indian Army would now float a fresh global tender for the helicopters, the official answered in the affirmative.

Asked whether the Fennec, manufactured by a four-nation European consortium, would be permitted to bid again, the official replied: “Yes, but what would be kept in mind is what has happened (during the current evaluation trials).”

Five contenders were initially in the fray: Eurocopter, Bell, Italy’s Agusta, and Russia’s Kamov and Kazan. The list was then narrowed down to the Eurocopter AS 550 C3 Fennec and the Bell-407.

The Bell-407 dropped out last year after the machine it sent for evaluation could not perform a three-axis vector, an essential requirement for flying in areas like the Siachen Glacier in Jammu and Kashmir.

The three-axis vector enables the helicopter perform a ‘U’ like manoeuvre to navigate adverse weather conditions in mountainous areas.

When this deficiency was pointed out to the manufacturers, the official said, the company offered to either show a video of the helicopter performing a similar manoeuvre in Canada or to fly out Indian officials to witness it in person.

The defence ministry shot this down, saying this was not the way it conducted its business.

Now, it emerges, special consideration was shown to Eurocopter as what it fielded was not the AS550 C3 Fennec military version but the AS350 B3 Ecureil civilian variant.

The evaluation trials had concluded about a year ago and the price negotiation process had been underway since then. In fact, this was extended by a few months in July “to ensure proper procedures were adhered to”, the official.

Queried how the issue of the helicopter’s variant had emerged only now, the official said: “The process goes through various stages. Perhaps it is now at a stage where the officials are senior enough to not only study the evaluation report but also examine which machine had been evaluated.”

The Indian Army needs new helicopters to replace the ageing 1970s-vintage Chetak and Cheetah helicopters as it modernises and expands its Army Aviation Corps (AAC) to meet current and future rapid mobility battlefield requirements.

The Indian Army had floated its requirement for the new helicopters in 2004 but revised this to incorporate an offset clause under which 30 percent of the contracted amount would have to be reinvested in the country.

Sixty of the helicopters were to be purchased in a flyaway condition while the remaining 137 were to be manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) at its Bangalore facility under a transfer of technology (ToT) agreement.