PARIS --- The crash of a fourth Ecuadorian air force Dhruv helicopter on Jan 27 is likely to have serious consequences for their Indian manufacturer, state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), and raise further questions about its ability to play a major role in India’s defense modernization.
The Jan 27 crash is the fourth since the type was introduced into the Ecuadorian air force in 2009, as part of a 7-aircraft purchase worth $45 million. The four crashes have killed three military personnel and injured several more, and have prompted Ecuador to restrict operations of the remaining three, Security Minister Cesar Navas said in an interview published Jan 28.
In an attempt to stave off these consequences, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said Jan 31 that “Dhruv is a good platform. If there is any issue about maintenance…I have already discussed. I have asked HAL to create a depot wherever it is required so that spares are available,” the Press Trust of India reported Jan 31 from New Delhi
The subject is a sensitive one in India, where successive governments have tried to involve their industry in the production of military equipment they buy overseas, and where HAL -- the largest state-owned industrial firm – is intended to be a major beneficiary of the “Make in India” procurement policy.
HAL’s performance is also under close scrutiny because the company’s credibility as an aerospace manufacturer is a major factor in the continuing contractual stand-off in India’s $20 billion purchase of 128 Dassault Rafale fighters.
While most of the contract details have been ironed out in the three years since India selected the Rafale in January 2012, contract signature is being held up by India’s insistence that Dassault assume legal responsibility -- and provide a legal warranty -- for the aircraft assembled in India by HAL, a state-owned company over which it would have no operational control.
However, HAL has not demonstrated the qualities needed to assume such a key role. Even in India, it is considered as virtually unmanageable because of its size and overly bureaucratic culture; its quality is considered unsatisfactory and is often questioned, and its two forays outside its traditional role of license assembly have been spectacularly unsuccessful.
HAL took 32 years to deliver an operational Tejas Light Combat Aircraft to the Indian Air Force, and has still not fully completed its development, while Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter, whose program is almost as old, has found few export buyers to date, despite attractive prices. Furthermore, Dhruv’s performance has so far proven very underwhelming.
The Dhruv accidents in Ecuador are being investigated by a joint investigation board with technical assistance from France and Brazil, while a team from HAL has inspected the aircraft damaged in a previous accident on Jan 14 and said it had found no mechanical anomaly.
Ecuadorian Defense Minister Fernando Cordero attempted to reassure public opinion by declaring that Ecuador has ordered “nine French helicopters for the air force, eight of which are already in service.” These are lighter than the Dhruv, and will be used for rescue missions and to transport medical equipment.
Contrary to some reports, these helicopters were ordered in 2010, and are part of a contract for Airbus (then Eurocopter) seven AS550 C3 Fennec and two AS350 B2 Ecureuil. The first two were delivered in October 2012, and the final delivery is due this year. Similar helicopters are also operated by Ecuador’s national police in Quito, the capital, and elsewhere.