Indian Defense Ministry Issues Invites to Foreign Manufacturers for Naval Utility Helicopter Project

The Indian Ministry of Defence issued an Expression of Interest (EOI) for the procurement of 111 Naval Utility Helicopters (NUHs) for the Indian Navy on February 12.

This large-scale initiative represents one of two major programs intended to recapitalize the Indian Navy’s helicopter fleet; the other covers 123 Naval Multirole Helicopters (NMHRs) with advanced anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities.

Both of these major procurements are being pursued under the Modi government’s “Strategic Partnership” (SP) model.

The Strategic Partnership model falls under the government’s “Make in India” indigenization push and is meant to benefit the local Indian defense industry through tying up private sector companies with global defense primes under an arrangement that would see New Delhi purchasing foreign-sourced equipment that is made in India via localized workshare and technology transfer from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

The Indian Navy issued global Requests for Information (RFIs) regarding these two requirements to Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky division, Bell Helicopter, Airbus Helicopters, and Russian Helicopters back on August 22, 2017.

Approval for the Naval Utility Helicopter project from the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) was then granted a year later, on August 25, 2018.

The 111 NUHs are intended for a variety of mission types, including logistical support, search-and-rescue (SAR), medical evacuation (MEDEVAC), light transport, anti-piracy, observation, and electronic intelligence operations.  Once brought into service, they will replace the Indian Navy’s 1970s-legacy Chetaks, a license-produced version of the old Aerospatiale Alouette II.

The price tag for the NUH project amounts to around $3 billion, which represents a costly mega-project under the limited Capital Head portion of India’s defense budget.  The Capital Head allocation is used by the Defense Ministry to fund major equipment procurement projects and upkeep existing military hardware.

Requirements for the NUH project include ensuring that up to 60 percent of the content in the new helicopters is of Indian origin and that 95 out of the total 111 units are manufactured in India by the selected Indian Strategic Partner.  Likely local bidders include Tata Advanced Systems, Mahindra Defense, Adani Defence, Bharat Forge, Reliance Infrastructure and Larsen & Toubro (L&T).

As with all Indian defense projects, achieving the required outcome means traveling down a long and winding road, sometimes without arriving at the desired destination.  The Expression of Interest is just the first of several steps, with the Defense Ministry likely to issue Requests for Proposals (RFPs) around August-September of this year.  That will kick-start the tendering process, with final bids then put forth by interested manufacturers.

The tendering and evaluation of bidding process will then take years, meaning the Indian Navy had best hope its Chetaks hold up under operational usage until the mid-2020s.  Judging by past large-scale Indian defense projects, even that timeline is likely to prove overly optimistic – particularly when factoring in the concerns of global defense manufacturers regarding the Indian government’s ambitious Strategic Partnership model.

Sikorsky S-76D photo via Robert Sullivan

About Daniel Darling

Dan Darling is a senior analyst covering both the Europe and Asia-Pacific regions for Forecast International's International Military Markets group.

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