Retired Army officers, many from the Army Aviation Corps (AAC), have demanded that the Ministry of Defence come clean on the schedule of delivery of Light Utility Helicopters (LUH) to replace the ageing fleet of Cheetahs, Cheetals and Chetaks. This demand was raised after Thursday’s crash of a Cheetah near Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh.
The pilot Lt Col V.V.B. Reddy and co-pilot Maj Jayanth. A lost their lives in the disaster. In October 2022, Lt Col Saurabh Yadav, who was piloting an AAC Cheetah, died in a similar crash near Tawang.
“Replacement of these single-engine relics is long awaited. The Army started using these helicopters nearly 60 years ago. Many of their airframes are weak and their avionics are outdated. These helicopters were supposed to be replaced in a phased manner by the LUH developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). There needs to be a proper time schedule as these helicopters are crucial for reconnaissance and surveillance as well as to keep forward posts supplied. They also play a major role in medical evacuation from forward bases. Weather is a major issue in the northeastern states where these helicopters operate and that is why the AAC requires sturdier machines with superior avionics,” a retired AAC officer said.
In February this year, Indian Army Chief Gen Manoj Pande had said that nearly 250 Cheetahs, Cheetals and Chetaks in the Force’s inventory would be replaced by advanced helicopters. The single-engine LUH in the 3-ton Class is the first choice. The first two LUHs are expected to be inducted soon. According to sources, the Ministry of Defence has already issued a Letter of Intent to HAL for procurement of 12 LUHs.
HAL has set up a new unit for assembly of these helicopters after the development of three prototypes at its Bengaluru plant. Four helicopters are now being readied at the new set-up in Tumakuru, Karnataka. These will be known as the Low-Rate Initial Production 1 (LRIP1) series. While two of these will go to the AAC, the remaining will be commissioned into the Indian Air Force (IAF). The eight helicopters of the LRIP2 series will be completed in 2024. Four of these will go to the Army and the remaining to the IAF.
“At this rate, it will take two decades for the entire fleet of ageing helicopters to be replaced. While this happens, we will be putting the lives of more pilots at risk. The Ministry needs to ensure faster production and delivery, even if this involves the setting up of more assembly lines,” another retired officer said.