Reports project that New Delhi will likely sell at least seven Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) designed and developed Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) and eight Dornier 228 aircraft to Manila. The potential military sale is likely a part of India’s line of credit to the Philippines, which has been in desperate need of airpower and is modernising its air assets.
Senior Defence Journalist and former Indian Army Officer Ajay Shukla reported in the Business Standard that a maritime variant of the ALH Dhruv is under evaluation by Manila. The Dhruv Mark III is likely to be rigged with marine policing capabilities to meet Manila’s operational requirements from the platform; this means that the existing platform will be repurposed into the Dhruv Maritime Role variant, Defense & International Affairs journalist Ashish Dangwal reported in the EurAsian Times.
Who is HAL Dhruv Mark III’s Contender?
Defense industry watchers and market forecasts indicate that the most viable contenders for the Filipino-helicopter contract are the HAL Dhruv MR and the Panther AS565 Airbus. The platforms are likely to duke it in a bid to bag the Rs 3,000 Crore contract. India’s state-owned HAL has been proactive in pitching its platform. Both the Dhruv and AS565 come with similar price tags.
Shukla Tweeted, “India closes in on a contract to export Dhruv maritime helicopters, developed and built by Hindustan Aeronautics to the Philippines. It is a straight contest between two helicopters – the Dhruv Maritime Role (MR) and the Airbus Panther AS565.”
HAL claims that its maintenance options combined with the easy ability of spares and assistance make it a more lucrative choice. Furthermore, the Indian state-owned aerospace and defense firm would have the opportunity to do its Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO).
HAL first indicated Manila’s interest in processing two ‘Made-in-India’ platforms in its annual report for 2020-2021. The company’s Chairman, R Madhavan, was quoted in the Business Standard as saying, “Our chances in the Philippines appear bright.” Dhruv MR was manufactured as the “original equipment manufacturer” (OEM) without being bogged down by restrictions made by the end-users.
Airbus has not made any public comments about the deal.
Dhruv MK III: A Tale Of The Tape
Shukla noted that the Dhruv ALH has been growing in sophistication, as well as in cost. The initial ALH version – the plain vanilla Dhruv Mark I – was sold to the military for Rs 45-50 crore. The price rose to Rs 70 crore for each Dhruv Mark III, with its glass cockpit and anti-vibration dampers. With the maritime role fitments on the Dhruv MR adding another Rs 40 crore, the cost of each Dhruv MR will be about Rs 110 crore.
Going by data presented by Shukla in his article for Business Standard, the specialized maritime equipment in the Dhruv MR includes:
- An onboard weather radar (6-7 crore).
- An electro-optical pod (5-6 crore).
- A searchlight (one crore).
- A tracker beam, emergency flotation gear.
- A VHF homing device.
- A traffic collision avoidance device.
- A rescue hoist anchored below the main rotors and a slithering device for marine commandos (MARCOS).
The Dhruv Mark III, the base platform from which the MR variant will be modified, is designed for utility roles of the defense services suited for high altitude operations.
The Shakti engine powers the helicopter, and the chopper sports an IADS with a digital moving map, electronic warfare (EW) suite, electro-optical pod, countermeasure dispensing system, infra-red (IR) suppressor, health and usage monitoring system, solid-state digital video recorder (SSDVR) and engine particle separator.
According to technical specifications made available by Army Technology, the Dhruv Mark III has an overall length with rotors running of 15.87meters while its height with rotors turning is 4.98m. The height to the top of the rotor head is 3.93m, its primary rotor diameter is 13.2m.
The fuselage length is 13.43m, while its width is 2m.
The helicopter’s cabin volume, excluding the flight deck, is 7.33m, its width is 1.97m, and its height is 1.42m. The ALH Dhruv Mark III’s take-off weight is 4,500kg, its empty weight is 2,550kg, and its fuel weight is 1,075kg. The helicopter’s underslung load is 1,000kg.
The helicopter is touted to have a 700-kilometer range with an endurance of 4 hours 20 minutes and a cruise speed of 265km/h, while its economical cruise speed is 225km/h. The Dhruv Mark III can reach an altitude of 6,500m at a 780m/min rate of climb. The helicopter’s hover ceiling in the ground effect is 4,400m, while its hover ceiling out of the ground effect is 3,800m.
Precedent With Indian Navy
Naval News reported that the Indian Navy Inducted three ALH Dhruv MK III’s on 7 June 2021. These Maritime Reconnaissance and Coastal Security (MRCS) helicopters. The induction ceremony of ‘322 Dega Flight’ was held in presence of Vice Admiral Ajendra Bahadur Singh, AVSM, VSM Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Naval Command (ENC) at the Naval Air Station, INS Dega.
Dangwal reported that the contract for the Indian Navy entails the integration of 19 major systems with the existing ALH MK III, including IFF MKXII & ATC Xpdr with ADS-B Out, V/UHF communication system, traffic alert and collision avoidance (TCAS-I), SAR Homer system, automatic deployable emergency locator transmitter (ADELT), loud hailer, radio altimeter, rescue basket, medical intensive care unit (MICU), IADS system, AFCS, digital video recording system (SSDVR), automatic identification system (AIS), high-intensity searchlight (HISL), pressure refueling system, control grip, EO POD Rev III, surveillance radar system and 12.7 mm gun system.
Six of the 16 naval Mk-III ALHs will be outfitted with a low-frequency dipping sonar (LFDS) developed by the Kochi-based Naval Physical and Oceanographic Laboratory. Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), a state-owned company, manufactures the sonar’s units with a slew of sub-vendors downstream.
What Do Industry Watchers Predict?
Philippines based military author, and South Asian defense industry analyst, Miguel Miranda shared his assessment with Global Defense Insight: The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), as well as other government agencies, are in the middle of a critical years-long modernization program with an emphasis on airspace and maritime security.
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), in particular, has carefully rebuilt its fleet for the past eight years. Japan and France had significant roles in upgrading the PCG’s assets, but these aren’t enough considering the nearby seas the institution must secure, not to mention the marine resources it’s responsible for.
The Philippine Navy (PN) has also shed its aging ships and cobbled together a new fleet exemplified by two Jose Rizal-class frigates and an assortment of fast attack craft. However, the budget–as always–is tight, and there aren’t many options available in this pandemic era.
To bolster the airpower of the AFP, the Department of National Defense (DND) has cast a wide net to find suitable aircraft for the armed forces’ needs. This has brought Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and India to orbit. However, the process of selecting new aircraft and related technology is a laborious one and depends on at least a year of prior planning and slow implementation.
The Philippine Air Force (PAF) has acquired 16 new S-60i transport helicopters from Poland and a small batch of attack helicopters from Turkey. The branch has begun shedding its older UH-1 multirole helicopters in a welcome break from its obsolescent inventory.
Of course, additional rotary aircraft will be needed this decade. Large transports are badly needed as well. This year saw one of the worst air disasters in AFP history when a C-130 crashed after a botched landing.
Having enough transports, whether fixed wing or not, twin-engine or not, is essential for the AFP with nearly 100 bases spread over the Philippines.
India can now boast a maturing “defense industry” with genuine achievements. The HAL Dhruv has become a genuine success with the Indian armed forces, translating to exports abroad. However, keep in mind that American and European helicopters have a distinct reputational advantage over HAL, not to mention experience in customer support and maintenance regimes for various end-users.
If HAL wins a contract with the PCG, this minor success should pave the way for more business in the ASEAN region rather than the Philippines alone. Never forget that the Philippine government is obsessed with its territorial integrity but doesn’t spend enough on resources to protect it.
To be honest, the Philippine military doesn’t need any equipment supplied by India unless India goes out of its way to win AFP/DND contracts. If this is the case, then a long-term presence in the Philippines must be established, and bilateral ties between Delhi and Manila need strengthening with commitments set on paper and many details agreed upon.
Given the right conditions, India, with the full backing of its diplomatic and financial clout, can then move to supply a lot of “defense” articles to the Philippines, especially logistics and engineering equipment, missiles, radars, ships, and various aircraft.
The HAL Dhruv is a wonderful replacement for the UH-1’s about to be retired and will operate superbly alongside the S-60i. The same goes for its maritime variant, but the decision is ultimately the PCG’s to make.
Military author & Indian defense industry analyst Joseph P Chacko shared his take with GDI:
The Philippines is looking to procure Light to Medium Weight, multipurpose, twin-engine ‘Search and Rescue’ Helicopters for its coast guard. Two Airbus H-145 have been already inducted under the program, and the country requires about seven more helicopters.
The country is currently evaluating ALH Dhruv Mk III MR, which has displayed deck-operations, folding of blades, and helicopter storage inside the onboard hangar of the Indian Coast guard Offshore Patrol Vessel ICGS Sujay.
The OPV is similar to what the Philippines’ coast guard possesses. Other missions Dhruv Mk III has demonstrated include surveillance, search, and rescue, antipollution to address oil spillage, etc. Dhruv Mk III MR is equipped with a 270-degree surveillance radar capable of detecting and identifying ships and boats up to a range of 120 nautical miles. Dhruv III’s electro-optical sensor can monitor even the smallest vessels at distances as far as 30 nautical miles.
The Dhruv Mk II MR competitor, Eurocopter AS565 Panther, is operated by just one country in Asia due to the competition by Chinese-built Harbin Z-9, which like the Panther, is derived from license-built Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin. Now it faces competition from the Indian helicopter.
For its fixed-wing aircraft acquisition program to replace its aging fleet of six Britten-Norman BN-2A Islanders, Philippines CG has acquired Cessna Grand Caravan EX multirole aircraft and requires more. HAL recently received certification for the Hindustan-228, an upgrade of the Dornier DO-228 similar to RUAG’s latest plane version.
Like RUAG’s latest model DO-228 NG, Hindustan-228 features a five-blade propeller, modern cockpit, and other enhancements. A Philippines private airline operates the DO-228NG, and it is a familiar aircraft for the country. DO-228 is operated by the Indian Coast Guard and the Navy and is a proven aircraft.
But one needs to be realistic about this deal. The Philippines has so far not commented on firming up the options. In 2018, there was news that the Philippines Air Force was evaluating ALH RUDRA. As the Indian media news articles understood, HAL reasoned that Rudra had an advantage as it was pitched against general utility helicopters adapted for armed roles. Rudra was meant as an armed variant. Subsequently, the orders went to Turkey. I am not sure how an MRO for just seven helicopters is viable for the Philippines.
Other Teething Issues
It may be poignant to note that a few countries are already operating the Dhruv ALH. These include the Maldives, Mauritius, and Nepal. Furthermore, Myanmar has been reported to show interest in acquiring these platforms. However, despite India’s considerable potential as a helicopter exporter, “end-user” difficulties continue to limit the HAL’s maneuverability.
Dangwal reported that HAL’s choppers still have 50-55 percent indigenous content, but essential systems are still sourced from the UK, Israel, and France; exporting these helicopters necessitates relevant permissions from these countries. This frequently implies political agreement over which nations these helicopters may be sold to. Supplier countries are sometimes hesitant to provide weapons to countries like Myanmar.
While it is a significant indigenous effort, simple economics prevents indigenous content from exceeding 50-55%. The composite material used to make the helicopter fuselage is imported. No Indian companies produce the aluminum alloys used in the chopper since they aren’t required in large enough quantities to provide economies of scale.
For instance, ejection seats are a complex product that sees a virtual monopoly by British manufacturer Martin-Baker, according to HAL’s engineers. Similarly, another British firm, Cobham, manufactures mid-air refueling equipment for nearly the entire western aerospace market. Exports of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter engines will continue to account for 25-30% of the cost of aircraft until Indian firms begin manufacturing them.
About The Author
Aritra Banerjee is a Correspondent at Indian Aerospace & Defence Magazine, and Contributing Editor at Frontier India. He has worked extensively as a Defence Journalist in print and online media with stints at Fauji India and EurAsian Times.