Warplanes: Failure Is Not An Option


November 26, 2013: On November 12th the Indian Navy put its first squadron of locally made Dhruv light helicopters into service. These will be used for patrolling, search and rescue, and anything else the navy needs. It’s been a difficult journey for the Dhruv. In 2009 the Indian Navy bought six of the Dhruvs for evaluation and did not like what they saw. The main complaints were lack of engine power and poor reliability. These were considered fatal flaws for helicopters meant for SAR (search and rescue) and ASW (anti-submarine warfare).

Dhruv entered service in 2002, the Coast Guard and the other services got a few of them for evaluation. The army actually bought 40 Dhruvs without thoroughly testing them (but under intense pressure from the government to "buy Indian"). Then the army discovered that, although the purchase contract stipulated that the Dhruv be able to operate at high altitudes (5,000 meters/16,000 feet), its engine (as the navy noted) was underpowered and could not handle high altitudes. So the army has to keep its older helicopters in service until the Dhruvs were upgraded.

The 5.5 ton Dhruv has had a lot of problems. By 2009, a series of crashes indicated some basic design flaws, which the manufacturer insisted did not exist. The navy disagreed, even though the fleet was desperate to replace over three dozen of its elderly Sea King helicopters (a 1950s design and the Indian Navy models are 20-35 years old).

Nevertheless, work on the Dhruv continues. Early in 2013, the army received the first (of over 60) gunship version (the Rudra) of the Dhruv. The army already has 47 of the Dhruv and 65 more on order. The Rudra carries a 20mm autocannon and up to eight guided missiles or 70mm unguided rockets. An ASW (antisubmarine warfare) version can carry sonar gear and two torpedoes. The Rudra can also be equipped for electronic warfare. The Rudra has day and night vidcams, heat sensors, and a laser designator. The Rudra is basically a Dhruv with the additional sensors and stubby wings to hang weapons from. Without its weapons, Rudra can also be used as an all-weather transport or ambulance.

Although it is Indian made, until 2010, the Dhruv was assembled mostly (90 percent) with imported parts. The manufacturer had kept quiet about this because at least half the parts in "Indian made" weapons are supposed to be made in India. Since then the percentage of Indian made components has increased. As embarrassing as this revelation was, there were other problems that were more crucial.

For over three decades now India has been making a mighty effort to develop the ability to design and manufacture modern weapons. It isn't easy, as military manufacturers in neighboring China can attest. But unlike China, Indian manufacturers don't have the license to steal technology and manufacturing techniques. This means more weapons components have to be imported, even if quietly and without any publicity.

The 5.5 ton Dhruv was in development for two decades before the first one was delivered in 2002. Since then, over a hundred have entered service, mostly with the Indian Army, and nearly a hundred more are on order for several different customers. So far eight foreign customers have bought the military version and two the civilian version. A series of Dhruv crashes indicated some basic design flaws, which the manufacturer insisted did not exist. This delayed acceptance of the Dhruv by the Indian Navy and Air Force.

The Dhruv can carry up to 14 passengers or four stretchers. Max load is 2.5 tons and endurance is about two hours (depending on load and altitude). The Dhruv can also fly as high as 6,000 meters (nearly 20,000 feet). Northern India has a lot of mountains, so operating at high altitude was a key design requirement.



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