Procurement: Such An Embarrassment


November 2, 2009: Recently, an Indian made Dhruv helicopter encountered problems while doing a flyby over a Ecuadoran military parade. It made a hard landing in front of the president of Ecuador. The other six Dhruvs Ecuador owned were promptly grounded until the source of the problem could be found. Last year, Ecuador bought seven Dhruvs, for $7.2 million each. The big attraction of the Dhruv was their low price.

Earlier, 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.) 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 was in development for two decades before the first one was delivered seven years ago. Since then, over 80 have been delivered, mostly to the Indian Army. But some foreign customers (Ecuador, Nepal and Myanmar) have also taken a few. A series of crashes indicated some basic design flaws, which the manufacturer insists do not exist. The navy disagrees, even though the fleet is 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.)

In the normal course of events, a hard landing by a new helicopter is no big deal. But with the Dhruv's history, and the failure occurring in front of cameras, and top government officials, hurts the prospects of further Dhruv sales.



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