In Siachen, Dhruv proves a world-beater - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Sunday 6 March 2011

In Siachen, Dhruv proves a world-beater

Photo credits: No use without ascribing to "Ajai Shukla at"

A Dhruv lands at the Indian Army's Sonam post during "hot and high" trials in Siachen

By Ajai Shukla
HAL, Bangalore
Business Standard, 7th Mar 11

It was a brutal test of helicopter and pilot. As the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) shuddered towards the icy helipad on a 21,000-foot ledge overlooking the Siachen Glacier, the pilots could see wreckage from earlier helicopter crashes dotting the base of the vertical ice walls on either side. Ahead lay the Indian army’s infamous Sonam Post, the highest inhabited spot on earth, and an extreme example of why the military so urgently wants the Dhruv, which has been customised by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for high altitude operations.

Very quickly, the Dhruv demonstrated its superiority over the military’s tiny, single-engine Cheetah helicopters, which can barely lift 20 kilos of payload to Sonam. Touching down on a tiny H-shape formed on the snow with perforated iron sheets, the Dhruv’s pilots signalled to one of the soldiers on Sonam to climb aboard. Effortlessly, the Dhruv took off, circled the post and landed again. Another soldier clambered onto the helicopter and the process was repeated, then with a third, and then a fourth soldier. Even with all Sonam’s defenders on board, the twin-engine Dhruv --- painted incongruously in the peacock regalia of the IAF’s aerobatics team, Sarang --- lifted off and landed back safely.

“This helicopter is simply unmatched at high altitudes”, says Group Captain Unni Nair, HAL’s chief helicopter test pilot, who flew the Dhruv that August morning during “hot-and-high” trials at Sonam. That term means flying at extreme altitudes in summer, when the heat-swollen oxygen is even thinner than usual. “The army wanted the Dhruv to lift 200 kilos to Sonam; we managed to carry 600 kilos.”

Powering that world-beating performance is a new helicopter engine, called the Shakti, which HAL commissioned French engine-maker, Turbomeca, to design for operations along India’s high-altitude borders. It is this engine that makes the new Dhruv Mark III --- the first five of which were delivered to the army this month --- far superior to the Mark I and Mark II Dhruvs, which were built with a less versatile engine. The Shakti, which will start being built under licence at HAL soon, will now power an entire family of HAL-built helicopters: an armed version of the Dhruv; the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH); and the single-engine Light Utility Helicopter that is still on the drawing board.

The Shakti-powered Dhruv Mark III is changing the operational dynamics on India’s high-altitude Himalayan defences. The capability to airlift soldiers will allow far-flung posts to be manned with fewer soldiers. In a crisis, jawans can be airlifted quickly from lower altitudes to threatened areas, and casualties can be evacuated. And when they see a Dhruv flying in, the soldiers on isolated piquets like Sonam know that there is space on board for essential stores, and even occasional goodies from families and comrades.

HAL Bangalore has already begun handing over Dhruv Mark IIIs to the Leh-based 205 Aviation Squadron for operations in Siachen. With the military demanding 159 Dhruvs in quick time, HAL can hardly build these helicopters fast enough. This year’s production rate of 25 Dhruvs will be accelerated from 2012 to 36 helicopters annually. The current order includes 54 weaponised Dhruvs --- termed Advanced Light Helicopter --- Weapons Systems Integrated, or ALH-WSI --- armed with anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, rockets and a 20-millimetre turret gun. The ALH-WSI is scheduled to begin weapons trials in Orissa in April.

The success of the ALH programme, heralded by the Dhruv Mark III, comes after years of struggle and criticism. Last August, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) noted, “90% of the value of material used in each ALH is still imported from foreign suppliers.”

But HAL chief, Ashok Nayak, and his helicopter chief, Soundara Rajan, point out that indigenisation does not mean building every component of an aircraft. Citing the example of the Dhruv’s HAL-built mission computer, Soundara Rajan asks whether the imported microchips inside make the mission computer any less indigenous. He sums up HAL’s helicopter strategy as follows: “We will design our helicopters; develop the critical technologies of helicopter transmissions; manufacture composites; and integrate and assemble the helicopter. We will outsource the manufacture of sub-assemblies and components and structures to any vendor on the globe that offers us cost-effective solutions.”

Despite meeting important performance objectives, the ALH has one major hurdle to cross. Its Integrated Dynamic System (IDS), which carries power from the Shakti engine to the helicopter’s rotors, was found to suffer from excessive wear and tear, requiring replacement at frequent intervals. Although HAL claims to have fixed that by making 6 modifications, reputed Italian aerospace designer, Avio, has been hired to audit the Dhruv’s IDS, a painstaking process that could take a couple of years. With the same IDS slated for the LCH and the ALH-WSI, HAL is taking no chances.

This careful approach underpins HAL’s ambitious foray into the helicopter business, which Nayak says will generate 25% of HAL’s revenue in 12-15 years.

“In the last 40 years, we have built 700 helicopters”, says Soundara Rajan. “The next 700 will be built in 20 years. The ones built so far were second generation machines; now we are working in fourth generation technology.”


  1. Good reporting sir Ajay Shukla...

  2. Good article and very promissing helicopter. I would just say that comparing Dhruv and Cheetah is not very fair since both machines don't belong to the same category and don't have the same kind of missions. Cheetah and the forthcoming 197 are no trucks but light helicopters, decidated to reco and surveillance.

  3. Kudos to HAL. I feel that HAL is better off in designing and customising all aircraft for Indian Conditions. They should have a Public -Private Partnership for manufacturing these customised aircraft, as they only lack the ability of the Private Sector to ramp up production rates.

  4. The silver lining in Dhruv success and clearance for High Altitude operations is the incorporation of its successful SHAKTI engine. Now with this engine, Indian industries can develop a family of helicopters -Attack/Reconnaissance/Utility roles. The Lama/Cheetah helicopters shall now be relieved from supporting Indian Army posts and shall be dedicated only for Artillery Air Observation ( AOP ), rescue and liaison roles. Just like the SHAKTI engive, if KAVERI engine becomes successful in providing (110KN) dry thrust + 140kn (reheat thrust), then the LCA and MCA can be successful. All advanced technologies (super computing bus bars / modular design/ structural strength) are rendered useless unless the airframe is blended with a powerful engine for all altitudes and maneuverability.

  5. Grand... Grand... Grand...

  6. Hi Ajai,

    One dump question and dont mistake me for asking this as I am not a defence person.

    The CAG report says it has 60% imported compnents and how can we call it as Indian chapper..

  7. devindra sethi6 March 2011 at 20:28

    In a word'brilliant.'Now HAL must marinise the shakti engines for the IN /Coastguard requirements.Our sea going units need a tough,capable helicopter to meet increasing threats in the seas around us.

  8. Kudos to the HAL ALH team. From a tactical standpoint, how long before China and Pakistan catchup with or acquire better technology helicopter?

    And what are the plans of HAL about the improving ALH with next gen / new technologies?

  9. It was great reading this article. This would greatly enhance not only India's operational preparedness in extremely high altitude conditions like Siachen, but would also boost the morale of the soldiers stationed there. A great example of improvements in technology benefiting the forces on the ground. 3 Cheers to HAL & the Indian armed forces! Jai Hind!

  10. Hello !! All HAL bashers....CAG is ignorant about relevance of technology and it has no idea where India stands in the manufacture of semiconductors starting from simple diodes to Very large scale ICs? Do we have the process to manufacture these ICs? no!!!! Can anybody tell me what is the import content of your LCDs,Cameras and mobiles? It is almost 98%. since china bazaars are popping up in every nook and corner,,even chinese tooth picks are being imported and sold... items which are manufactured in small,medium industries of India are being now sourced from China and sold in china bazaars. imagine how many millions of Indians.. working in these factories are loosing their jobs and livelihood?
    Helos and aircrafts are not some 2 minutes maggie noodles!!! agreed ,there is lot to be done..w

  11. @Anon7 March 2011 09:45.What CAG was criticizing was non achievement 'indeginization' by target dates fixed by HAL.Modern helicopters/aircraft are very sophisticated with equally sophisticated weapons,avionics etc. There is virtually no helicopter in the world today that does not contain some inputs/components from foreign sources.The degree differs of local content differs,but it makes little economic sense to produce everything at home.There are thousands of components which are contracted,sub-contracted down many suppliers. Only a country with very large forces and export markets say a USA or Russia or France maintain capabilities to produce every component(which BTW they still do not do)of a helicopter.Indian Helo industry will evolve as per her needs and time.In fact most of the fabrication,material and engines to are now made in India and we are fairly advanced in Helos.But its time to shed the foolish quest that every thing has to have a made in India stamp.YES, what one must try to make Indian as far as possible the intellectual capabilities,design , development and key personnel.


  13. Terrific endorsement of the Dhruv. What was the maximum height that dhruv attained during its trials in Siachen?

    The photographs are stunning and put in perspective the diminutive nature of human endeavour as compared with nature.

  14. anon it's 90% by cost. doesnt mean that 90% of the chopper is imported. Do you reckon the engines alone might be costing more than half the price? and the ALH has two of them...

  15. Ajai Sir, are you sure about the name "Group captain Unni Nair"? I thought HAL test pilots Unni Pillai had retired as a WingCo and Hari Nair as a Group captain.

  16. Hello,
    Thanks for the information Ajai-jee. It is heartening to read the article.
    I wonder whether Cheetah was capable of carrying a load of 200 KGs instead of mentioned 20 KGs, since managing the Sonam post and its capable soldiers' requirements would need many more sorties and also wonder how was the post set up initially without a heavy lift helicopter or any other means.


  18. Good report Ajai! Looks like the IA is solidly behind ALH, while the IAF is still thinking about it.

    Regarding your photos, it would be better for you to watermark your photos, else others will just steal your photos and claim them as their own. This included a reputable recent defence forces magazine too, that finally acknowledged its mistake after a legal order :)

  19. My question:
    Does this means that shakti powered LCH's can operate at siachin, well if its true, I feel sorry for the enemy

  20. Col Saab, when Govt is going to announce the MMCRA winner...It was mentioned during Airshow that winners will be announced in 2 weeks, negotiations would be started by March and completed by Sept. So far no announcement of winners. Is this because of elections in some states ?

  21. Sir, nice but wish you could have managed a video or two!! I remember my days on the glacier ...they were tough and eventful,Dhruv will certainly be a world beater and God sent for the troops who brave fantastic odds. Please do cover more such articles and more often!

  22. Cool pictures, but the rider is the end was a dampener. Yet again proving how successful the dhruv is but still not yet there. Hope they overcome the technical glitches quickly. It is in everyones's interest, private/public sector/IA/IAF/IN for this to work. It just brings so many more options to the table.

  23. The Dhruv is a success story on the whole. However, the single most important component, the engine, its design and manufacture needs to be mastered within the country. That is an achilles heel for the nation. Which is why the Kaveri project is extremely crucial to India. Please exhort full support and encouragement to this project. Cheers!

  24. Ajai sir

    just 1 question

    will the Mark I and II Dhruvs will be upgraded to Mark III for better operational efficiency

    Joydeep Ghosh

  25. Ajai sir, Quick quetsion. You said that these choppers are being handed over to the 205 Aviation Sqdn but that the IDS still needs to be audited. Does this mean the two are happening in parrallel? Any idea what the induction rate is?


  26. Col, you got the name wrong. Unni Pillai and Hari Nair should be pissed at you for mangling their name!

    Perhaps we should start calling you Mishraji. ;)

  27. Is that a Pakistani post in the foreground? That seems to be their flag there.

    Can't imagine that the two posts will be so close together.

  28. Have we operationalised the Dhruv at High Altitiude? These tests were carried out in 2009 and still in 2011 we are carrying out tests..? It's surprising !! If these tests were not carried out then what about the ALH version presently in loc, on what basis were they placed there if they were not compatible to the operating conditions? If the Dhruv is such a superfine machine why have the IAF & Navy not ordered for them? What about the down time of the machine during its maint schedules? Can the HAL ensure quality control and interchangeability of components between two variants of the same aircraft?


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