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.
“These choppers are essential as they are the last lifeline for troops there. A chopper being able to land at a high-altitude helipad is often the difference between life and death for a soldier suffering from even a very basic illness that gets aggravated by the extreme altitude,” said an Army aviator.
While the Army has been unsuccessfully trying to procure replacement choppers for over five years, an emergency alternative being planned has also not worked out. With the 197 light chopper deal being held up, the Air Force and Army sought to procure 30 light Cheetal choppers from HAL — essentially the same as Cheetahs but with a stronger Shakti engine — as an emergency alternative.
However, HAL has not been able to satisfy the Air Force with the Cheetal due to a very fundamental problem. The European OEMs (original equipement manufacturer) that used to manufacture special “series 85” blades for high-altitude versions of the Cheetal have ceased manufacturing due to lack of demand and more modern choppers coming into the market.
Sources said the OEM has given HAL only 60 rotor blades from its last inventory, adequate only to manufacture 20 choppers and leaving no spares at all for the fleet. While these shall be sent to the Army Aviation, the remaining 10 choppers for the Air Force cannot be manufactured. “It is simply an issue of being obsolete. The type 85 blades are not being manufactured as the world has moved on to new choppers. These blades were developed over three decades ago and are no longer needed anywhere in the world,” an industry official said.
HAL tried to test the Cheetal with a different set of “type 30” rotor blades in Leh last month, but the tests failed as the chopper did not get adequate lift and did not even satisfy HAL’s own test pilots. The main problem being faced by the Air Force on using these blades at high altitudes was excessive vibration beyond permissible limits as well as a reduced right rudder margin.
“There is no way that the Air Force can accept these choppers in the current state as they do not meet our high altitude requirements. As the HAL’s own tests have failed, we do not even need to go and conduct the tests,” an IAF official said.
It is also learnt that HAL proposed to the IAF that its older Cheetah choppers be cannabilised to obtain blades for the Cheetal, a proposal that was shot down as ill-thought and foolish by the Air Force.
The Army is already believed to have raised this particular issue with the new government in place, given that the choppers are critical to troops posted on the glacier. Besides dropping food and ammunition to troops posted at altitudes of over 20,000 feet, the choppers are the only lifeline during extreme weather when land routes shut down. These light choppers are also the only mode of emergency evacuation from high altitude, a role that was at display during last year’s floods in Uttarakhand that saw the choppers undertake the most precarious of missions.
The siachen lifeline
THE PROBLEM: The brigade-plus troops at Siachen depend on ultra light choppers to supply food, ammunition and also for emergency evacuations. This is the only option during winter months when land routes close.
THE WORKHORSE: Cheetah choppers, bare minimum light helicopters being pushed to their limit to land at helipads at altitudes of over 20,000 feet, have been in use for almost
three decades. These choppers have finished their service life and are flying hazards now.
THE REPLACEMENT: The Army has been trying for almost a decade to purchase new choppers. Most recent contract stalled for over two years as one of the losing competitors — AgustaWestland — is under investigation on corruption charges.
THE CRISIS: With Cheetahs on last leg, Cheetal’s performance not adequate and dubious record of ALH, troops posted at highest battlefield in the world vulnerable.
THE EMERGENCY REPLACEMENTS
Cheetal choppers (above): Essentially higher-powered Cheetah choppers made by HAL. But OEMs have stopped manufacturing high altitude blades, so these cannot perform on the Siachen Glacier. Test with normal blades failed.
ALH choppers: These heavier choppers manufactured by HAL are being tried out, but at least two category one crashes (complete loss of aircraft) in the past nine months have thrown up serious safety issues.