Tuesday, July 6, 2010

US, Russia vie to sell choppers to IAF

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Another “fight” is set to begin in the Indian defence sector in the next couple of weeks. On one side is India’s long standing defence partner Russia and on the other is its new-found strategic friend the USA, which is vying to further chip away at the largely Russian hold over the sector.

Within next three weeks, the Indian Air Force will commence field trials to select a heavy lift helicopter for its operations. The trials will be conducted in hot conditions of deserts and on Himalayan heights. US company Boeing with its “Chinook”, which operates for NATO forces in Afghanistan, will compete with Russian Mi-26 for the deal.

The IAF is looking to replace the ageing lot of the previous generation Mi-26 inducted in the mid 1980’s. Russia’s Rosoboronexport, the makers of the chopper, have offered the latest version.

A heavy lift chopper is of immense strategic value as it can lift up to 70 armed troops and even lift artillery guns like the ultra light howitzers which the Indian Army is buying for deployment in mountainous areas bordering China and Pakistan. Among its several other usages is the rapid deployment of missile launchers for Agni or Prithvi from one place to other.

Mi-26 with 20-tonne carrying capacity, which is the biggest among choppers, have even lifted Bofors guns to higher reaches, placed bulldozers at a height of 16,500 feet and landed critical equipment for the IAF at places like Ladakh.

US-made Chinook, which has contra-rotating twin-rotors to withstand rough weather, is being used extensively in Afghanistan to maintain steady supplies to the troops. It can also carry artillery guns slung under its belly to be dropped off at inaccessible locations. Both choppers have twin-engined operations.

The same US and Russian companies will also be in race for attack choppers the IAF is buying. Trials for them are slated to start in two months. The Boeing is offering its “AH 64D” Apache fighting machine, which is on duty in Afghanistan, while Russian Rosoboronexport has offered newer versions of its latest Mi 28 ‘Havoc’ helicopter, which was inducted by its armed forces in 2006.

The US “challenge” to the Russians is the new face of India’s evolving defence needs wherein it has ordered C-130 J medium transport aircraft from another US company, Lockheed Martin, delivery of which starts at the end of this year. This even as the IAF operates some 100 AN 32 medium transport planes of the Soviet-era which are presently undergoing phased refit at Ukraine.

C-17 Globemaster, a big transport aircraft, has been okayed by the US Congress for sale to India through the foreign military sales (FMS) route. India is looking to replace IL-76, another Russian origin plane. The cost may be hindrance, the US plane costs somewhere around $580 million a piece, while the Russian one is for one-tenth the price.

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