Ageing rotors November 4, 2011 It was like flying into a hornet's nest. As Indian Air Force pilots took two Cheetah helicopters to the east Karakoram range in Ladakh on August 26, the sky was dotted with dark clouds and the soil with snow. The pilots were looking for Steven John, a stranded American mountaineer who was seriously ill. Once he was spotted, Wing Commander S. Srinivasan landed his helicopter on a glacier 23,000ft high. The other chopper hovered above, keeping vigil. Within minutes, Steven was rescued by the helicopter unit, aptly named Siachen Pioneers. From rescue and anti-terrorist operations to border surveillance and aerial assault, helicopters play a key role. But, shockingly, even as the IAF's ageing fleet of helicopters is nearing the end of their service lives, the defence ministry has not decided whether to upgrade or replace it. Within the ministry, all admit that the shortage of helicopters is not only hampering operations but also putting lives at risk. An incident early this year in Jharkhand's Lohardaga district shows how shortage of helicopters in anti-Maoist operations is proving fatal. On May 3, the Maoists ambushed a 150-member team of police and paramilitary personnel, killing four on the spot. Seven others succumbed to injuries later since there was no helicopter available to rescue them. Nearly 70 per cent of the IAF's 300 helicopters have already completed their prescribed life. There is a deficit of 26 per cent in the number of helicopters required for operational responsibilities. The shortfall in the case of attack helicopters is worseâ€”the fleet is 46 per cent below its required number. Despite availability of funds, the IAF, as pointed out by a Comptroller and Auditor General report in 2010, was unable to induct even a single helicopter between 2002 and 2010. The shortage of helicopters is felt all the more because they have to undergo regular maintenance to remain airworthy. Delay in purchasing new helicopters has compounded the matter. Many in the IAF headquarters are ruing a decision taken two years ago to cancel a purchase order. Former Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major, the first helicopter pilot in the service to become IAF chief, agrees that there is a severe shortage of helicopters. â€œThe replacement process [of helicopters] is very slow,â€ Major told THE WEEK. â€œThe shortage often undermines our operational capacity.â€ Despite the shortage of helicopters at home, the defence ministry has been deploying helicopters abroad for participation in UN missions. Earlier, India had 17 helicopters in Congo and Sudan. In July, India withdrew its four remaining Mi-35 attack helicopters from these missions. It has now deployed six light-utility Chetak and Cheetah helicopters in Congo. â€œThe military leadership is aware of the effect the lack of helicopters could have on the current operations,â€ said Major. â€œThat is perhaps why we have brought back most of our helicopters from the UN missions.â€ The IAF helicopter fleet consists of Cheetah, Chetak, Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) and the Russian-developed Mi series, which constitute 60 per cent of the IAF inventory and are used for airlift and attack operations. The attack helicopter fleet, currently made up of Mi-25s and Mi-35s, support Army operations. â€œHelicopters are one of the most important assets of any Air Force,â€ said Air Commodore (retd) Jasjit Singh, director of Centre for Air Power Studies. He said India needed helicopters in hand to deal with border surveillance and asymmetrical conflicts. The anti-Maoist operations, for example, have already seen the deployment of two Mi-17 helicopters in Jharkhand to help airlift troops and in evacuation. The Union home ministry, which deployed a fleet of seven choppers for troop deployment, casualty evacuation and sending reinforcements in Maoist-affected areas last year, has hired six Mi-17 helicopters. In Chhattisgarh, the IAF has deployed four helicopters to assist Central and state police forces. â€œThere is a request for deploying two more helicopters at Ranchi. Thus we will have a total of six helicopters in these operations,â€ said Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne. To bridge the shortfall, the IAF is planning to acquire 230 choppers. The list includes 12 AW101 VVIP helicopters, 80 Mi-17 helicopters and 12 heavy-lift choppers. The IAF will also procure 22 attack helicopters. Boeing is leading the race for the order with its AH-64D Apache Longbow choppers. At IAF headquarters, however, the worry has not been limited to slow procurement. Shortage of spare parts, too, has been an issue. The IAF still sends engines abroad for overhaul, leaving choppers grounded. However, work to decrease India's dependence on the foreign arms companies has already started. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited is building three helicoptersâ€”Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter, Light Combat Helicopter and Light Utility Helicopterâ€”while at Bharat Electronics Ltd, scientists and engineers are working to provide sophisticated avionics products for the military choppers.