The Army is staring at a transport crisis in supplying and maintaining troops at the Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield, with the main lifeline of soldiers at the extreme heights — light, high-altitude choppers — facing a shortage crisis due to stalled procurement by the last government and two crashes in the last nine months that have raised serious safety questions on the available fleet.
Such is the crisis that the emergency alternative Cheetal choppers — orders for which were placed by both the Army and Air Force — have been tested by manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) in the past month but have failed high-altitude tests in Leh due to a lack of high-performance rotor blades.
The Indian Express spoke to a number of top Army, Air Force and industry officials who acknowledged the seriousness of the situation and expressed helplessness, given that successive crisis management plans were nixed over the past few years.
While the crisis was developing for a while, with the UPA-II government not clearing the Army’s five-year-old proposal to purchase 197 light helicopters at the final stage of procurement due to a CBI inquiry into competitor AgustaWestland that lost during the technical trials, the last nine months have seen at least two “category one” crashes at the glacier that have gone unreported and have raised serious concerns.
Both the crashes involved the indigenous Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) that had been inducted by Army Aviation to work well beyond their design capacity to supply troops at high altitudes. In August, a chopper crashed while landing close to the Amar helipad on the Siachen Glacier and went down a crevasse. Similarly in March this year, another ALH went down on the northern glacier while landing at a narrow helipad.
“The two accidents occurred at a time when the choppers were taking off or landing at extremely narrow airfields where even a freak wind can cause havoc. Thankfully, in both cases, the pilots managed to jump out in time and only got injured. Both aircraft are damaged beyond repair and one cannot even be recovered,” said an Army official on condition of anonymity.
The reason that the Army has been forced to deploy heavier ALH choppers to supply the brigade-plus deployment of troops on Siachen is that the workhorse Cheetah fleet is on its last legs, having served for over two decades. The entire Cheetah fleet of the Army and Air Force has almost reached the end of its service life, with replacements hard to be found given that the original equipment manufacturer has ceased to manufacture new parts.
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