The predominantly Soviet and Russian weaponry that India’s military fired, flew and sailed since the late 1970s has gradually made way for equipment from the United States, France, the UK and, now, even Israel. Yet, in the field of helicopters, Russia reigns supreme.
On Wednesday, Moscow announced delivery of its final batch of three Mi-17V-5 medium lift helicopters, completing delivery of a $3-billion contract for 151 Mi-17V-5 helicopters.
With these delivered, the Russian Helicopters plant in Kazan is gearing up for another impending $1.1-billion contract for supplying 48 more Mi-17V-5 helicopters to the Indian Air Force (IAF).
Meanwhile, in December 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin agreed that Russian Helicopters would build and supply at least 200 Kamov-226T light helicopters for India. That contract is currently being negotiated.
Russia dominates the global helicopter market with rotorcraft renowned for their ruggedness and low cost. According to Russian Helicopters, 8,500 of its choppers are in service worldwide, in over 100 countries. As on 2014, Russian Helicopters built 24 per cent of the world’s military helicopters; 35 per cent of all combat helicopters; and 50 per cent of the medium-heavy transport helicopters.
Last year, for the first time, India signed contracts worth $3-billion for American helicopters — including 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F Chinook multi-mission heavy lift helicopters. These would be delivered over the next three years.
Even so, in terms of sheer numbers, Russian Mi-series helicopters have always been the backbone of the IAF chopper fleet. Starting from the 1960s, the IAF bought 110 Mi-4 helicopters, then 128 Mi-8, and finally 160 Mi-17s, totalling up to almost 400 helicopters. In addition, the IAF will now operate almost 200 Mi-17V-5s.
India also bought one squadron of the heavy-lift Mi-26 helicopter, which will soon be replaced by the Chinook CH-47F. The IAF also operated two squadrons of Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters, which the Apache AH-64E will replace.
Besides the IAF, the Indian Navy has also been a big user of Russian helicopters. A range of naval warships, including the new aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, embarks the Kamov-28 and Kamov-31 helicopters, which carry out anti-submarine operations and airborne early warning respectively.
Encouragingly, the biggest competitor to Russian Helicopters for Indian military orders is Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. The Indian aerospace giant has built four successful light helicopters — the Dhruv Advanced Light helicopter; the Rudra, a Dhruv fitted with weaponry; the light combat helicopter; and the coming light utility helicopter. Once these are fully inducted, India’s military will fly more than 600 indigenous choppers.
The Mi-17V-5, is a more powerful version of the Mi-17 that entered service in the 1980s, with better avionics and night flying ability. The new helicopter is being used to transport troops; supply Indian army outposts on the remote Himalayan border that are unconnected by road, and even transport VIPs.
In 2008, India had signed a contract for 80 Mi-17V-5s; followed by three additional contracts in 2012-13 for 71 more helicopters.
Russian helicopters fly in the Mi-17V-5 in ready-to-assemble kits, and Indian technicians put them together at the IAF depot in Chandigarh.