The Indian Air Force (IAF) has decided to buy 80 medium lift multi-role Mi-17 1V helicopters outright from Russia, making it perhaps the first of the five helicopter deals pending with the three services to be cleared.
Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal (ACM) SP Tyagi told "India Strategic" news magazine that he expected the procedural formalities to be over within a few months and the deliveries to commence in 2007 and be over within a year.
"The Russians can be very fast in manufacturing equipment and I expect them to supply the entire lot by 2008," Tyagi is quoted as saying in the October issue of the news magazine.
There was competition but the twin-engine Mi-17 1V met all the Air Staff Requirements (ASRs) - the parameters set by the air force - and has been its work horse for about 15 years now, not only in the Himalayas but also on UN missions. It was appropriate accordingly for the IAF to place what Tyagi called "a follow-on order".
The Indian Armed Forces have been considering acquisition of about 350 helicopters, the biggest of them being the order for 197 light multi-role helicopters for the army, the prime contenders for which are Bell Helicopter and Augusta Westland.
Sixty of them would be bought outright and the remaining 137 would be manufactured by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under a technology transfer agreement.
The army is reported to be finalising its choice and a decision is expected to be announced around the end of 2006.
The Indian Navy also has a tender out for 16 Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopters as replacement for the old Sea Kings that are being phased out, while it is reported to have finalised its choice for an additional six logistics/troop carrier helicopters that will be on board the Trenton, the amphibious equipment and personnel carrier the navy is acquiring from the US in 2007.
Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash told "India Strategic" recently that the navy actually required around 40 or 50 helicopters and that there could be an order for more later as and when the Naval Staff Requirements (NSRs) were defined.
The IAF last week floated another tender for 12 helicopters for the VVIP role that would be equipped with advanced communication, anti-missile and other equipment.
Tyagi did not mention the costs of the Mi-17 1V helicopters but according to market sources, these could be around Rs 30 billion ($662 million) depending on the configurations and the onboard equipment like avionics.
Mi-17 is a derivative of the good old Mi-8 that even VVIPs have safely used from the days of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Mi-17 1V is an upgrade to the original Mi-17 and there have been some other modifications too in the recent years.
Of course, the requirements for VVIP helicopters have tremendously changed over the last 15 years due with the rise of the terrorist threat.
IAF has both Mi-17 and Mi-17 1V in its inventory. The new Mi-17 IVs will be a replacement for the old Mi-8s that the IAF is gradually phasing out.
Both the Mi-8s and Mi-17s have played an important role in sustaining supplies to the troops in high altitude areas like Siachen and elsewhere in the Himalayas as well as during the natural disasters within India and outside, particularly during the 2004 tsunami in the neighbouring countries.
With a service ceiling of six km, or about 20,000 feet, the Mi-17 1V has functioned well in hot, high and humid conditions. It can transport troops and cargo, undertake fire-fighting, medical evacuation and search and rescue missions, and can also be quickly armed for combat and special operations.
According to published reports, IAF has about 350 helicopters for various missions, but due to its growing strategic role and peacetime requirements within and outside India, it would need many more machines in the coming years.
At present, IAF has also deployed 20 of its helicopters on UN duty.
Tyagi said the air force expected the government to announce tenders also for the 126 multi-role combat aircraft very soon.
Meanwhile, a top Boeing official said that his company was offering to sell the upgraded Chinook twin-rotor Ch 47F heavy lift helicopters to India.
He pointed out however that while no requirement had yet been projected by any of the three Indian services, the US government had cleared the sale of this helicopter to India for potential requirements.
Chinook was born during the Vietnam war days and has played a highly successful role both in combat and peacetime operations.
The new Chinooks are "totally different and much better equipped than their Vietnam day fathers" and will serve even the US Army till the 2030s, he said.