By Vinay Shukla
Moscow. Completion of delivery of 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters by US defence major Boeing to Indian Air Force (IAF) amid acrimonious standoff at Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China have been hogging the limelight, but at the same time the absence of its failed Russian rival Mi-26 is equally pinching.
Back in 2011, Russian upgraded Mi-26T2 Halo and the Boeing Chinook CH-47F had qualified in the technical trials and their financial bids, covering the initial acquisition cost. However, the lifecycle costs, tilted the scales in favour of the US rotorcraft, a top Russian expert told Raksha Anirveda.
-Dr Konstantin Makiyenko, Deputy Director, Centre for Analyses of Strategies and Technology, Moscow
“Lifecycle cost was the buzzword at that time and a decisive factor in favour of Chinook. Frankly speaking, at that time the Russian military producers were not even well-versed in the art of costing, leave aside the lifecycle cost, a totally new concept,” Dr Konstantin Makiyenko, Deputy Director of Moscow-based independent think tank ‘Centre for Analyses of Strategies and Technology’ (CAST).
In a report tabled in Indian Parliament in February 2019, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had pulled up the Indian Air Force for framing its service specifications in the tenders for heavy lift and attack helicopters to suit “products of a particular vendor.”
Audit noted that in case of acquisition of Apache Attack Helicopters and Chinook Heavy Lift Helicopters, the Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQR) was aligned to products of a particular vendor. The report noted that IAF drafted the ASQR by copying the technical specifications of products available in the market and also based on inputs provided by vendors in response to Request for Information (RFI) issued to them.
It may be recalled that Chinook had emerged L-1, or the lowest in acquisition and maintenance costs in the official jargon to the IAF issued tenders, officially called Request for Proposals (RFPs), after evaluating globally available machines for 22 combat and 15 heavy lift helicopters. Later, the Field Evaluation Trials for Chinook helicopters conducted by the Indian Air Force found them to be compliant with all the stated ASQR.
At the time of tendering process, Russian State Company Rosoboronexport had maintained that the updated version of the Mi-26 transport helicopter fully met India’s technological requirements.
Dr Makiyenko, however, added that Boeing’s CH-47F Chinook is an excellent machine but for a nation like India with troubled borders along challenging Himalayan terrain, having a mix of cheaper, modernised chopper like Mi-26T2 with higher capability to quickly move more troops and heavier equipment like Bofors guns is a must.
He reminded that IAF was offered the modernised Mi-26T2 with glass cockpit and latest avionics and sensors for all weather flying. However, the machines developed for Indian tender were later in 2013 exported to Algeria, where they are being successfully used in areas where construction of airports is not viable. In 2016, China also bought the variant of Mi-26TS for forest fire management.
Notably, IAF has been using the Mi-26 for a quarter century now, and there appeared to be a leaning towards this machine because of familiarity and the fact that it can carry more weight than the Chinook. But Russia does not make this helicopter any more, and even with refurbished machines perhaps, its projected costs are higher.
The Chinook is a much more versatile machine, and the only helicopter in the world that can also float on water for launching and recovering inflatable boats with commandoes. In terms of operational capability, while the Mi-26 can carry more weight, it is nowhere near the American machine.
Meanwhile, Russia is waiting for India’s decision to upgrade IAF’s three Mi-26 helicopters, which currently are grounded. After servicing and upgrade, the service life of the world’s largest helicopters will be extended by another 10-15 years.
– The author is a Moscow-based independent analyst. Views are personal.