The Cheetah served India well in mountain wars before its time ran out
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The Indian Army plans to replace its fleet of Cheetah and Chetak light utility helicopters after several fatal crashes. It’s an urgent problem for India’s mountain troops in need of regular supply — made worse by the Indian Army and Air Force grounding more than 280 of the helicopters in December 2016.
The bulbous, insect-like helicopters are old, as the Cheetah was introduced into Indian service in 1971. The airframe’s basic design dates even further back to the 1950s. But until the past few years, the Cheetah served the Indian Army well by taxiing supplies to high-altitude flashpoints other helicopters could not reach.
India plans to replace the helicopters with a mix of Russian Kamov-226Ts and Indian-made choppers derived from the HAL Dhruv, according to the Hindustan Times, describing the Army’s move as “pushing the panic button.”
But replacing the choppers has been a rocky process marred by delays and corruption allegations.
The Kamov-226T — known by its NATO reporting name Hoodlum — will take several years to enter service, and India delayed replacing its Cheetahs with Dhruvs because the latter developed a reputation for unreliability and poor performance, prohibiting them from flying above 5,000 meters.
The Cheetah can fly higher than 5,000 meters, and that is absolutely crucial to holding the Siachen Glacier. India and Pakistan fought a low-boil, 19-year-long border war over the glacier until a ceasefire in 2003, although the conflict never officially ended.
Siachen is the highest battlefield on earth and soldiers live there at altitudes higher than 6,000 meters. The glacier’s extremely cold, low-oxygen conditions can be lethal, and hundreds of Indian and Pakistani troops have lost their lives on Siachen largely from the environment and avalanches, few from hostile fire.
The Indian Army even has a dedicated Siachen Battle School for conditioning soldiers to survive on the glacier. Without helicopter-delivered supplies, remaining on Siachen would be a death sentence.
During the 1970s, India and Pakistan sponsored mountaineering expeditions to Siachen, which escalated into a military conflict in 1984. To keep supplies flowing, Indian soldiers on the glacier built small helipads for their spindly, high-flying resupply helicopters.
Pakistani snipers crept toward the Indian outposts and fired on the helicopters as they approached with supplies slung underneath their fuselages. These attacks provoked the Indians into launching Operation Rajiv in 1987 which knocked out the “Qaid Post,” Pakistan’s key base on the glacier.
For decades, the helicopters were well suited to this kind of resupply work.
The Cheetah is the Indian license-manufactured version of the French SA 315B Lama, which — amazingly — continues to hold the all-time helicopter altitude record set in 1972 by French pilot Jean Boulet, who reached a height of 12,442 meters, or 40,820 feet. It’s for this reason Lamas/Cheetahs can still be occasionally spotted flying commercial jobs in mountainous environments elsewhere in the world.
What’s also interesting about the Cheetah is that it’s a mashup of two other helicopters, the French Alouette II and III. From the Alouette II, the Cheetah takes a lightweight and durable frame. From the Alouette III, it takes a hefty powerplant. (The Chetak is an Alouette III produced in India under license.)
This hybrid design is important at high altitudes where the air is thinner and where flight requires more power to generate sufficient lift. The Cheetah can generate a lot of power for such an old design, but it can’t carry much weight or travel very fast.
What it can do is fly high, something heavier helicopters with low power margins could not do without tumbling out of the sky — at least until better, more modern designs came along and rendered the Cheetah obsolete.
The Indian Army isn’t getting any more Cheetahs … or Chetaks.
Manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics has stopped production, and India has reportedly carved up some of its unserviceable Cheetahs for spare parts while the helicopters pulled extra duty to make up for the delayed Hoodlums and Dhruvs.
The situation isn’t good.
India has a limited number of Dhruvs with upgraded engines that will take over for the grounded Cheetahs and Chetaks. India can also call on a small number of Cheetals — an upgraded Cheetah with modern avionics and a more powerful Turbomeca TM 333–2M2 engine.
The Indian Navy has 30 Chetaks and another eight Dhruvs which were not grounded. The 280 Army and Air Force helicopters which were grounded should gradually return to service, but they’re not getting any younger, and will need to be replaced sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, there’s not nearly enough rotorcraft to meet India’s defense needs — a shortcoming which underscores New Delhi’s vulnerable supply lines to Siachen and to other mountainous outposts along its borders.