Sunday, June 7, 2009

HAL choppers going places but unable to meet domestic demand

The Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is eyeing international markets for its Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv but it is struggling to fulfil a surge in domestic demand following the Mumbai terror attack.

Currently the order book of the state-run HAL has swelled to 200 helicopters, the intended purchasers being the home ministry and police forces of various states.

"A lot has been made about exporting Dhruv but HAL is still to keep pace with the overwhelming demand for helicopters on the home front," a highly placed defence official said on condition of anonymity.

After the Mumbai terror attacks that left more than 170 people dead, the home ministry and state police forces, especially in the Maoist-hit areas, have felt the need to augment their airlift capability.

"The home ministry has placed orders for nearly a dozen of these multi-role helicopters and the police forces are also set to procure the machines," the official added.

The ALH is a multi-role, multi-mission helicopter in 5.5 tonne class, designed to meet the requirements of both the military and civil operators.

HAL has been hard-selling its flagship helicopter in the international market and has bagged orders to supply 16-18 of them in South America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It recently supplied seven helicopters to Ecuador.

The company plans to set up a maintenance base and marketing office in South America to serve its potential customers and pitch for more orders.

The official maintained that while export would give the Dhruv a badge of quality, the criticality of the domestic demand cannot be negated.

According to informed sources, demand on the home front has been more than what HAL is capable of supplying.

"The ALH production line can churn out only two-three machines per month. At this rate it will take years to supply its present order for 200 choppers," the official added.

Currently, only the armed forces in India have an airlift capability worth the name.

"The civil authorities have none. Every time there is a need to airlift something, like the electronic voting machines, the armed forces' choppers are summoned," the official added.

In the domestic market, about 80 utility variants of Dhruv are in operation with the three services, Coast Guard and a couple of corporate firms.

Defence ministry sources said that notwithstanding its thrust on export, the HAL will need to ramp up its production capacity. The government has asked it to take steps in this regard.

The officials assert that wherever the ALH has been deployed in forward areas, it has made a difference as it is tailor-made for Indian needs and is also cost competitive.

According to its website, HAL has 19 production units and nine Research and Design Centres in seven locations across India. It has manufactured over 3,500 aircraft and 3,600 engines and also overhauled more than 8,000 aircraft and 27,300 engines.

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