NEW DELHI – The Indian Army is facing a transport crisis in supplying and maintaining troops at the Siachen Glacier – the world’s highest battlefield – due to two crashes in the last nine months that have raised serious safety questions on the available fleet, the Indian Express newspaper reported on Monday.
The paper also reported that such was the crisis that the emergency alternative Cheetal choppers, orders for which were placed by both the army and the Indian Air Force, have been tested by manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautical Limited in the previous month but have failed high-altitude tests in Leh due to a lack of high-performance rotor blades.
A number of top army, air force and industry officials acknowledged the seriousness of the situation and expressed helplessness. The former Congress-led government not cleared the army’s five-year-old proposal to purchase 197 light helicopters at the final stage of procurement due to a CBI inquiry into competitor Agusta Westland, the paper reported.
The last nine months have seen at least two category one crashes at the glacier that have gone unreported and have raised serious concerns. Both the crashes involved the indigenous Advanced Light Helicopters that had been inducted by the Army Aviation to work well beyond their design capacity to supply troops at high altitudes.
In August, a chopper crashed while landing close to the Amar helipad on the Siachen Glacier and went down a crevasse. Similarly in March this year, another Advanced Light Helicopter went down on the northern glacier while landing at a narrow helipad. “The two accidents occurred at a time when the choppers were taking off or landing at extremely narrow airfields where even a freak wind can cause havoc,” an army official said on condition of anonymity.
In both cases, the pilots managed to jump out in time and only got injured. Both aircraft are damaged beyond repair and one cannot even be recovered, the official said. The reason that the army has been forced to deploy heavier Advanced Light Helicopter to supply the brigade-plus deployment of troops on Siachen is that the workhorse Cheetah fleet is on its last legs, having served for over two decades.
The entire Cheetah fleet of the army and the air force has almost reached the end of its service life, with replacements hard to be found given that the original equipment manufacturer has ceased to manufacture new parts. With the 197 light chopper deal being held up, the air force and the army sought to procure 30 light Cheetal choppers from Hindustan Aeronautical Limited as an emergency alternative.
Besides dropping food and ammunition to troops posted at altitudes of over 20,000 feet, the Indian Army considered choppers the only lifeline during extreme weather when land routes shut down.