Murphy's Law: Bad Bargains

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December 23, 2019: In Ecuador the air force has ordered six European H145M helicopters, to replace seven Indian Dhruv helicopters received a decade but found to be unreliable. The Dhruvs was cheap at $7.2 million each. That’s about 15 percent less than what a similarly equipped H145M cost, but a lot less useful. In contrast, the Dhruv has been a disappointment even before it entered service. In late 2009, soon after Ecuador received its Dhruvs, one encountered problems while doing a flyby over an Ecuadoran military parade. It made a hard landing in front of the president of Ecuador. The other six Ecuadorian Dhruvs were promptly grounded until the source of the problem could be found. Ecuador ordered seven Dhruvs in 2008 and soon found their new helicopters had several problems, like inability to operate at high altitudes and after a few years the Dhruvs became more difficult to maintain and keep flying. Currently none of them are flyable.

Even before Ecuador received its Dhruvs, the Indian Navy had bought six 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 Indian Army bought 40 Dhruvs without thoroughly testing them. This was mainly because of 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 and Ecuador noted) was underpowered and could not handle high altitudes. So the army had 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 in 2002. 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 disagreed, even though the fleet was desperate to replace over three dozen of its elderly Sea King helicopters. These were 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. The Indian military ended up buying various Russian and American military helicopters to replace the Dhruvs.

The H145M Ecuador just ordered is a different story. Back in 2006, the U.S. Army ordered the first of 400 H145Ms (as the UH-145) at about $8 million each. More recently, the German army paid about $20 million each for 15 H145Ms equipped for KSK (special operations commandos) work. Since 2992 0ver 1,500 H145s have been delivered or ordered, with a growing number of them being the H145M military version. This is a helicopter that performs as specified, is very reliable, with over 1,500 in use and plenty of customers.

In 2017 the Germans received the last of the fifteen H145M special operations helicopters it had ordered in 2013 from European firm EADS. These light helicopters are similar to the American UH-145 but, like American helicopters equipped for special operations work, carry a lot of specialized and expensive accessories.

The twin-engine UH-145M is a militarized version of the H145, a helicopter very popular with law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. The UH-145 was obtained mainly to replace the few remaining UH-1 helicopters, which were all retired by 2016 because of old age. The UH-145 has about the same capacity as the UH-1 despite its smaller size. The 3.6 ton UH-145 has a top speed of 260 kilometers an hour and a max range of 660 kilometers. The average endurance per sortie is about two hours. The helicopter has a crew of two and can carry up to eight passengers or about three-quarters of a ton of cargo or weapons. The H-145 has been very popular with its users because of its reliability. This, and price stability, was one of the reasons the H145M quickly gained a lot of customers. The H145M is a 3.7 ton helicopter that can, in the case of the KSK versions, be equipped for all-weather operation, some armor and carry weapons that work with its extensive sensor equipment. But mainly it is designed to carry commandos on assault missions in all weather and at night. The KSK version came with some lightweight armor, a fast roping system, an auto-pilot designed for commando operations, and some electronic countermeasures.

The UH-145 has been popular with its users and has had a readiness (for flying) rate of 90 percent. The H145M is expected to be similarly reliable. Germany was particularly attracted by the H145M being compact enough to be easily transported in the new A400M transports (similar to the C-130). This allows KSK commandos to be quickly moved, along with their assault helicopters, to regional trouble spots.

 


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