Sunday, 28 September 2008

Broadsword will spend the next one year on the India-China border

Maps above: the Sino-Indian border. The disputed areas are shaded maroon. I will be living and working over the coming year near the border town of Tawang.

Above: a lake near Bum La, on the Line of Actual Control, from where Chinese forces outflanked the Tawang defences in 1962.

Right:  My wife, Sonia, and I during a recent visit to Khinzemane, at the spot where the Dalai Lama was officially received by India when he fled Tibet in 1959.

Bad news for followers of defence hardware, but good news for the strategists and historians. I am leaving on Tuesday, along with my wife and family, to live in Arunachal Pradesh, for the next one year. We will be studying India's border policy and how it is viewed by the people of the border... we hope there will be a book at the end of this year.

The maps posted above show the areas disputed between India and China... in red shading. The close up of Arunachal gives you an idea of where we will base ourselves: in the Western corner of Arunachal, near the border with Bhutan, is the town of Tawang. We will live in a village called Dirang, which is located in the valley between Se La and Bomdi La. You can see both on the map.

While defence hardware will continue to be discussed on this blog, I will not be visiting any defence R&D and production facilities; I plan to spend my time exclusively in Arunachal Pradesh.

I will post on issues that come up during our research... on life on the China border... on the wonderful Monpa people who inhabit that area... and on other matters that come up on the blog.

Any bloggers passing through Dirang... do drop in.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The Indian Navy’s Dhruv: falling between two stools

by Ajai Shukla

Prodded by questions from visitors to this blog, I have spoken in some depth to the Indian Navy as well as to the designers of the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) about why the Indian Navy remains reluctant to accept the Dhruv into service; and also about what HAL has done to address the issues that the Navy has raised.

So here are the findings of this quick enquiry.

Currently there are 8 Dhruvs on the Indian Navy’s inventory. They operate mainly on communications, training and administrative duties from shore-based airfields. The navy does not plan to order any more Dhruvs.

The Navy believes that its helicopters (hereafter helos) must all have the capability to land on the deck of ships. That is in contrast with some brown-water navies that find it perfectly acceptable to operate the bulk of their aircraft primarily from the shore. For a helo to operate from a ship, the navy is demanding three additional “specific-to-navy” criteria

1.   Strengthened Undercarraige.  The undercarriage must be specially adapted for deck landings. Unlike landing on terra firma, where the impact is primarily in one dimension (that of the weight of the helicopter impacting on hard ground) a ship is moving in three dimensions (roll, pitch and yaw) and the undercarriage must be capable of absorbing the impact of landing in all three dimensions. The navy says that the Dhruv’s undercarriage does not meet that requirement.

2.   Folding Main Rotor.  An on-board helo has to be accommodated into a very small hangar space, which means that the main rotors must have a system of hinges, which allow them to be quickly folded before putting the helo into the hangar (and then, equally quickly, unfolded when it is brought out for another flight). The navy’s initially stated requirement was for the rotors to be folded within a width of 3.5 metres.

Furthermore, the navy wants an automatic blade folding facility, of the kind that is installed in its Sea King helos. In this, onboard electrical or hydraulic actuators fold up the blades quickly, rather than having to go through the longer and more painstaking process of manually folding the blades. Remember, that in the smaller warships, the tips of the main rotor blades extend beyond the deck, overhanging the sea. So manually folding them --- by removing bolts and supporting the blades during folding/unfolding --- is an exercise that the navy would rather avoid.

HAL had a problem with foldable blades, as well as with installing an automatic system. A senior Dhruv designer told me, “the requirement of Blade Folding with a width of 3.5 metres was not feasible due to the inherent design characteristics of the ALH hingeless Main Rotor Blade with an Integrated Dynamic System”.

However, HAL worked on the problem and came up with the concept of “segmented blades”, which would be 5.1 metres wide instead of the navy’s requirement of 3.5 metres. HAL says the navy has agreed to the 5.1 metre width, and that the process of manually folding the “segmented blades” has been demonstrated to the navy.

However, HAL has not installed an automatic folding facility. HAL tells me, “Automatic blade folding was not pursued due to weight penalty of about 100 kgs”.

It may be useful here, for the readers’ understanding, to describe what HAL means by “segmented blades”.

“Segmented blades” comprise of two blade parts. The outer part is folded inwards to obtain the desired folded width. The other option is that of “Hingeless blades”, which have no physical hinges. These are made of composite materials, which ensures “virtual hinges”.

3.   More “Time on Task”.  The navy is demanding that the Dhruv must be able to spend 2 hours and 20 minutes on task (i.e. airborne with its task payload), and have an additional reserve of 20 minutes.

The Dhruv is simply not capable of meeting this requirement. HAL points out that, “this (requirement) is beyond the inherent payload capacity of any 5.5 tonne class helicopter in the world and can be met with difficulty by a 10-tonne class helicopter, given the Naval specification and weight requirement.”

If the Dhruv were flying empty, additional fuel tanks could have given it the ability to meet the Time on Task requirements. But the navy demands that the Dhruv must carry a heavy weapons and sensor payload, which rules out the fitment of extra fuel tanks. The need to carry such weapons and sensor payload put most naval helos, e.g. the Sea King, in a much higher weight class (10-14 tonnes).


Despite that, top HAL sources aver that torpedo/depth charge trials were carried out during 2001-02; and sonar, Electronic Support Measures (ESM) and High Frequency Communications Systems (HFCS) trials were carried out during 2004-05. Platform integration for an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) role has been successfully completed, which includes ESM, sonar/sonics, torpedo and HFCS.

There were some problems faced during the 2004-05 trials with the reliability of the sensors, but HAL points out that the reliability issue needs to be dealt with by the vendors of the sensors, all of whom were selected by the navy.

And finally, there is no truth to the belief that a vibration problem is the navy’s main issue with the Dhruv. HAL designers say that, “With fine tuning of the Anti-Resonance Vibration Isolation System (ARIS), structural reinforcements and the introduction of Frahm dampers, the vibration problem has been resolved satisfactorily”.

Monday, 15 September 2008

DRDO announces successful test firing of Astra Air-to-Air Missile

(Photograph courtesy DRDO)

The Astra air-to-air missile being test fired from a ground-based launch platform on 13th Sept 08.

The DRDO has announced a successful test of the Astra missile, which is being developed by the Defence R&D Laboratory (DRDL) in Hyderabad. A DRDO release says:

 "DRDO has successfully conducted two flight tests of Astra beyond Visual Range Air to Air missile on 13 and 14 Sept 2008 from Interim Test Range, Balasore as part of second phase of missile development flight trials. The missiles were launched from a Ground launcher. The main objective of these flight tests were to test mid course guidance of missiles towards manoeuvring target Aircraft using secured data link. Simulated aircraft flight parameters were used for these flight tests. All missile systems comprising of launcher, propulsion, Airframe, mission computer, navigation system, autopilot , flight control system, data link and telemetry system have worked satisfactory and as per design.

The team led by Shri Venugopalan, Director, DRDL, Hyderabad, Dr Gollakota, Project Director, Astra, Shri SP Dash, Director, ITR, Balasore, project team and representatives of participating Industry participated successful launch of Astra conducted at Chandipore test range."

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The naval version of the Dhruv ALH

Your many enquiries have been noted about the naval version of the Dhruv, the problems it is said to have experienced, and the Navy's apparent reluctance to accept it into service.

I am trying to get you the facts on the matter for a comprehensive post. Please don't hold your collective breaths. And please don't post irate messages complaining about delays... it'll come when it's here.

Just to let you know!

And yes, alert readers who already have some facts... hit the keyboard.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Chopping prices in the chopper market: Part 3 of a three-part series on India's thrust in helicopter building

(Photos: courtesy Ajai Shukla)

Right: An elevated view of HAL's Dhruv assembly area. The new ALH squadron being raised has its hangar alongside.

Left: HAL's helicopter test pilots, Wing Commanders CD Upadhyay and Unnikrishnan, after giving me a demonstration ride on the Dhruv behind us.

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 10th Sept 08
HAL, Bangalore

At the prestigious Farnborough Air Show in 2006, India’s Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) got a parking slot beside a US Army Apache Longbow, the world’s most feared attack helicopter. HAL’s chief helicopter test pilot, Wing Commander CD Upadhyaya, who was display-flying the Dhruv there, describes the respect between the Apache and the Dhruv pilots. On the final day, after a particularly exhilarating display by the Dhruv, the Apache pilots strolled up and, only half in jest, folded their hands and bowed before the Dhruv. “This guy can fly any manoeuvre that we can”, one said.

Upadhyay has a fund of stories about the splash the Dhruv always makes. At the Berlin Air Show, three months ago, he gave Airbus president, Thomas Enders, a ride in the Dhruv. On landing, Enders remarked that the Dhruv’s glass cockpit was as advanced as that of his flagship Airbus A-380.

This is hardly surprising, considering that the Indian military --- acknowledged as the world’s most discerning arms buyer --- has tested, okayed and bought more than 80 Dhruvs, and ordered another 159 from HAL. But the foreign accolades have not translated into the flood of international orders that HAL had hoped for, even though the Dhruv is a cost-effective buy. At about Rs 40 crores (US $9 million) per piece, it is about 15% cheaper than competitors from market-leader Eurocopter and 10% cheaper than US brands like Bell Helicopter Textron.

So far, besides two Dhruvs gifted to Nepal, Ecuador has bought 7, Turkey has bought 3; meanwhile Bolivia and Venezuela are negotiating for some 23 more. Chile seemed set to buy the Dhruv, but that fell through at the last moment, as Washington allegedly piled on the pressure on behalf of Bell helicopters.

The Dhruv’s only disadvantage is that --- being newly introduced into service --- it is a comparatively untested product. But HAL has a three-fold strategy to bring down the Dhruv’s price to what it calls “an irresistible level”.

The biggest savings are planned through import substitution; 70% of the Dhruv’s price consists of imported components. Savings are expected once the Turbomeca Shakti engine rolls out from a new plant in Bangalore by end-2009. HAL has committed Rs 1000 crores to French company, Turbomeca, to develop the Shakti engine, provide 60 engines fully built, and supply parts for 320 more to be built in Bangalore. HAL plans to rapidly develop local suppliers for Shakti engine parts, thereby bringing down the price.

Next, HAL is banking on economies of scale to bring down the unit price. Mr J Shankar, General Manager, Helicopters, points out that current orders for the Dhruv will almost certainly increase as non-military users discover its utility. He expects paramilitary and police forces to buy the Dhruv, companies that implement projects in far-flung areas, such as hydro-electric projects, and corporations that will use the Dhruv for flying senior executives.

Mr Shankar explains, “The Cheetah and the Chetak (previous generation utility helicopters) eventually sold more than 600 helicopters. The worldwide trend is that the military develops helicopters and then civilians find uses for them. For someone setting up a BPO unit, Mysore is far cheaper than Bangalore. It is four hours away by road, but only 20 minutes away by helicopter.”

And finally, HAL is cutting costs by using common parts across its entire range of helicopters. Orders are in hand for 159 Dhruvs, 76 weaponised Dhruvs, 187 Light Observation Helicopters (LOHs) and at least 65 Light Combat Helicopters (LCHs). All of these will use the same Shakti engine, the same communication and navigation equipment, and common cockpit equipment like pilots’ seats. HAL is also awaiting another order for building 350 Medium Lift Helicopters, possibly in collaboration with a foreign partner.

HAL is not revealing how much prices will fall through its three-point strategy --- import substitution, economy of scale, and commonality of parts. But experts say that if the Dhruv can be priced at around Rs 35 crores, it will become hard for any other helicopter maker to compete with HAL in the growing global market for utility helicopters.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Light Combat Helicopter to fly soon: Part 2 of a three-part series on India's new thrust in helicopter building

Left and Below: computer images of the final LCH design, produced by HAL's in-house integrated design centre.

Below: a mock-up of the LCH, which was displayed in Aero India 2007. As you can see, it is a lot more clunky and primitive than the final design

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 9th Sept 08
HAL, Bangalore

In the anarchy of the modern battlefield, the attack helicopter is the ultimate predator. Operating from a forward base --- usually a small square of synthetic material tacked down onto a clearing in the fields --- the attack helicopter flies missions against enemy tanks, which are spotted by friendly scout helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Flying barely 20 feet above the ground, the attack helicopters close in with the enemy, often with rifle and machine-gun bullets spattering against their armoured bodies. Then popping up from behind a tree line, they fire missiles and rockets to destroy their targets; meanwhile sophisticated onboard electronics confuse the enemy’s radars for the couple of minutes it takes to finish the job. Then it’s back to the base to refuel and rearm, patch up the bullet holes, and leave for another mission against another target.

This is the perilous, high-tech environment of the attack helicopter, where only the best armed, best protected and most high-tech survive. There are just a handful of successful attack helicopters in the world. That number could rise by early 2009, when Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) test flies the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), its first attempt at designing and building an attack helicopter.

Business Standard had an exclusive, and detailed, first look at the LCH project, which is coming off HAL’s design centre in Bangalore. And despite the long trail of failures marking worldwide attempts to design attack helicopters --- e.g. Boeing-Sikorsky spent US $6.9 billion on the Commanche attack helicopter before the programme was cancelled in 2004 --- HAL is remarkably confident that the LCH will be successful and on time.

The Chief Designer of the LCH programme, B Pandaji Nath Rao, spelt out the milestones: the LCH design was finalised and frozen this March; the first technology demonstrator (TD-1) will fly by March 2009, testing the LCH’s flying systems: by July 2009, the second technology demonstrator (TD-2) will fly, fitted with all the weapons and electronic sensors. By the end of 2009, the Indian Air Force (IAF), the primary users of the LCH, will be conducting flight tests on the TD-3.

HAL believes that it has overcome the biggest bugbear of new aircraft projects: long development times mean that technologies become obsolescent before the aircraft reaches the users. Mr Rao points out that most of the LCH technologies are already being validated in the new version of the successful Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH). Other technologies related to weaponry and sensors are being proven in the armed version of the Dhruv (called the Dhruv-Weapons Systems Integration, or WSI), a prototype of which is already flying. The military has 159 Dhruvs and 76 Dhruv-WSIs on order.

And so the LCH will benefit from the many commonalities between the Dhruv and the LCH. Both are about 5.5 tonnes, which means that the crucial dynamic components --- i.e. the main rotor, tail rotor, and the gearbox --- are similar. But the Dhruv’s greatest gift to the LCH is integration. The Chief Designer explains, “In the Dhruv, we added on systems one by one; but in the LCH, we knew all those systems would be needed, so we were able to integrate them from the beginning. So the LCH is a sleeker, faster, more integrated aircraft.”

But HAL Chairman, Ashok Baweja also points out the LCH’s many new features, which have made engineering a challenge. The two pilots in the LCH sit one behind the other, compared to side-by-side in the Dhruv. So all the flight controls, the hydraulics and the fuel system had to be redesigned for the sleeker, heavily armoured LCH. The LCH’s many stealth features also necessitated redesigning the fuselage. And the new crash-resistant landing gear allows pilots to survive even when the LCH smacks into the ground at more than 10 metres/second.

The performance of the LCH will have to match up with contemporary light attack helicopters like Eurocopter’s Tiger or China’s ultra-secret Zhisheng-10 (Z-10). But experts say the LCH’s flying performance will be hard to match, designed as it is for India’s high altitudes. It can take off from an altitude of 10,000 feet, operate weapons up to 16,300 feet, and engage targets like UAVs that are flying at altitudes of up to 21,300 feet.

Monday, 8 September 2008

The great helicopter challenge: (Part 1 of a three-part series on India's new thrust in helicopter building)

(Photos courtesy: Ajai Shukla)

The first prototype Weapon Systems Integrated (WSI) version of the Dhruv ALH. HAL will produce 60 ALH-WSIs for the army and 16 for the air force.

The 20 mm cannon, with both vertical and horizontal traverse is clearly visible here.

On the left, you can see the flare dispensors and, next to it, the housing which contains the radar, IR and missile warning receivers.

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th Sept 08
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Bangalore

Wikipaedia, the popular internet encyclopaedia, lists the Indian Army’s Sonam Post, on the Siachen Glacier, as the world’s highest point reachable by transport. Landing in a helicopter at Sonam is a hair-raising experience. As the shuddering helicopter bears down on the tiny helipad atop a needle of ice at 20,997 feet, the rotor blades struggle to extract lift from the rarefied air. This is the ultimate test for helicopters. But the army’s new Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) has proved that it can land at Sonam, bringing in much larger payloads than the Cheetah helicopters that have laboriously sustained the jawans in Sonam for the last two decades.

Now in hot weather trials in Siachen (yes, Siachen is cold even in summer, but trials conducted in summer are termed hot-weather trials!) another Dhruv will test-land in Sonam, powered by the new Shakti engine, which has been especially designed for India’s extreme altitudes by French company, Turbomeca. The Shakti gives the Dhruv enough power to carry to Sonam four times as much load as the TM333-2B2 engine, which has powered the Dhruv so far.

The successful Dhruv-Shakti partnership underpins an ambitious drive by defence public sector undertaking (DPSU), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), to build a range of helicopters to meet the diverse needs of India’s military. And the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has recognised HAL’s growing competence in helicopter design by nominating it to design and manufacture half of the 384 light observation helicopters (LOHs) required by India’s military. HAL has been given till 2017 to produce 187 LOHs. Meanwhile, the military’s immediate needs will be met by buying 197 LOHs from the international market.

Business Standard has learned that the MoD has imposed a strict timeline on HAL, including --- for the first time ever --- a penalty for delay. Top HAL sources say that if HAL overshoots the 2017 deadline, the MoD will procure more helicopters from the global manufacturer selected to supply LOHs; HAL’s order will correspondingly reduce.

HAL is confident it will produce the LOH two years ahead of the MoD’s deadline. HAL Chairman, Ashok Baweja explained to Business Standard his company’s plan for completing the LOH by 2015. HAL is already working on the conceptual design of the helicopter, which includes detailed specifications of key systems like the fuel system, the hydraulics system and the cockpit. HAL will design and manufacture the core components like the main rotor, tail rotor, gearbox and weaponry. Meanwhile, HAL will buy less critical sub-systems from specialist manufacturers in the international market.

Mr Baweja explains, “It is wasteful to duplicate the efforts of specialists who make individual systems. For example, there are specialist cockpit houses, which mainly design cockpits. You have Honeywell, you have Rockwell, and you have Thales. Our [HAL’s] role will be that of a top-end designer; we will identify systems and write the software that makes them function together.

“Take fuel systems. Those consist of fuel cells, pumps, cut-off valves, fire protection, etc. We can make all these things. But there are specialist companies that do only fuel systems. All we need to do is to identify them. We’ll control top-end design and we’ll do the certification tests.”

“There is air-conditioning in a helicopter; but should we start designing it? There are half a dozen companies in the world that do air-conditioning, heating, cooling.”

HAL is oozing confidence, coming off two successful designs: the Dhruv ALH which has started selling abroad; and the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), the design for which has just been completed. And they now have a clear concept of the LOH to work upon: a 3-ton helicopter, powered by a single Shakti engine (as compared to the dual-engine Dhruv).

HAL says that, with the LCH design complete, it’s in-house design centre, called the Rotary Wing R&D Centre (RWRDC), is going full steam ahead on the LOH design. A senior designer explains, “Designers work at peak activity until the prototype is designed; then they are free for the next project. So with the LCH prototype ready, the RWRDC is going ahead full steam on the LOH. The design, we estimate, will be ready in a year.”

(Tomorrow: Part II: Soon to fly: India’s Light Combat Helicopter)