Nod for altering a key provision in service requirement for light utility helicopters

The Army's long wait to buy light utility helicopters and ultra-light field guns appears to end as the government has cleared a move to alter a key provision in the requirement and referred the issue of field guns to the Defence Research and Development Organisation.

While guns have not been bought for the artillery since the procurement of Bofors units, the field trials of 197 light utility helicopters — a majority for the Army to replace the ageing Cheetah/Chetak — were completed recently, but with a glitch that was amended at a recent meeting of the Defence Acquisition Council.

Sources in the Defence Ministry said one of the clauses of the service requirement was the ‘cold soak test,' which required the contenders to park the machines at a height of more than 5,000 metres overnight and start them up the next morning. This test could not be carried through. One of the reasons is that hardly is there any helipad at those icy heights. There were a couple of other issues which the contenders had to sort out. Now that the amended requirement has been given the nod, the stage is set for opening the commercial bids, leading to the start of negotiations.

A few years ago, the project suffered a setback when a U.S. contender pulled out of a field of six. The government decided to re-issue the tender. Now, Eurocopter and Kamov of Russia are in the fray.

Of the 197 helicopters, the Army will get more than 130 and the rest will go to the Air Force. The Army Aviation is now using Cheetah/Chetak for air maintenance in forward bases, including those in the Siachen glacier and the northeast.

Meanwhile, the Ministry has asked DRDO Chief V.K. Saraswat to prepare a report on ultra-light howitzers, which are being procured from the U.S. through the Foreign Military Sales (government-to-government) route. In January last, the U.S. Department of Defense sent a notification to Congress on the possible sale of 145 M777 Howitzer, a towed 155-mm artillery piece, with Laser Inertial Artillery Pointing Systems, costing roughly $647 million. These guns are being made by BAE Systems.

The government opted for the direct route after the initial plan for a competitive bidding ran aground following allegations of corruption against one of the contenders. The Defence Ministry put procurement from the firm on hold. However, another note reached the Ministry later, raising questions about need for such a gun that could be transported across mountains by being slung under a helicopter.

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