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Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Eurowatch

Giovanni de Briganti

Third World Meets Export Market

India's Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) has failed to make good on its promise to announce, before the end of 2004, the first large export order for the Dhruv, the twin-engined Advanced Light Helicopter it has been developing for the past two decades.

Nonetheless, HAL continues to market the Dhruv to a number of developing countries, with both Chile and Malaysia appearing more than superficially interested. HAL is producing the Dhruv for the domestic market and for the Indian armed forces, but needs a sizeable export order to gain international credibility.

The Dhruv has already acquired a great significance--for the first time a developing country is exporting a competitive helicopter of its own.

Admittedly, the Dhruv was developed with considerable assistance from the German side of Eurocopter and it is powered by two Turbomeca TM 333-2B2 twin turboshafts while its integrated avionics are now supplied by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI).

But this does not detract from the fact that it was designed in India, that it is built in India and that it will be exported from India, albeit with the considerable assistance of IAI. In fact, the two firms have established a joint venture company to market and support the Dhruv on the world market. On paper, the Dhruv appears highly competitive, and has already been exported, albeit in symbolic numbers.

Two Dhruvs have been supplied to Nepal, while in late November HAL said it had signed a contract to supply an unspecified numberof civil variants--possibly four to six-- to Israel, which will use them for VIP transport missions. However, according to an IAI spokesman, this deal is still being negotiated.

The Dhruv is also being marketed in Chile, where IAI is well established. In mid-2004, four helicopters were subjected to extensive evaluation by the Chilean armed forces, which are looking for new helicopters, primarily able to fly "hot-and-high" missions but also capable of naval and battlefield roles.

Finally, IAI is committed to winning export contracts for the Dhruv as these will count towards the offset obligations it assumed when it sold its Phalcon airborne early warning aircraft to the Indian Air Force. This deal is valued at $1.1 billion, so there is considerable motivation for IAI to perform.

But will all these aces up HAL's sleeve be enough to establish the Dhruv in a highly competitive world market? The Dhruv situation is in some respects similar to that of Russian helicopters when, in the early 1990s, they first hit the world market. Robust, simple to maintain, relatively inexpensive to operate despite their size and capable of competitive performance, Russian helicopters nonetheless failed to find as many buyers as Western manufacturers had feared.

Why? Mainly because of prospective customers' fears about the ability of Russian manufacturers' to provide long-term product support. This is true of military customers, of course, but even more of civil operators for whom AOG is the surest way to bankruptcy. That is why Russian helicopters failed to achieve any significant breakthroughs in the world market, except in those countries where there was so little money that even a Russian helicopter of doubtful serviceability was better than none at all.

With its choice of French engines (Turbomeca currently has 14 facilities, three subsidiaries, 22 support centers, 32 repair centers and 90 Field representatives and technicians), the Dhruv can benefit from an established and extensive support network that should reassure many prospective customers, as will IAI's established reputation as an aircraft manufacturer.

Dhruv also has other advantages, as its passenger capacity (up to 14) and large cabin should make it suitable for a wide range of civil and military missions. Another winning combination is its mix of European pedigree (it is, after all, a scaled-up BK-117) and Indian production costs, which will go a long way toward making it an attractive competitor for countries or operators--and there are a lot of them around--that do not want to spend a fortune to buy a 5.5-ton light utility helicopter.

But success will not come by itself. If the first competitive helicopter produced in the developing world is to have any serious chance of achieving a breakthrough, it must be credible in the field of maintenance and customer support. HAL has virtually no record in this field, and although IAI's presence will reassure some prospective customers, the two firms nonetheless must undertake a long-term campaign to explain and document their capabilities. This will be expensive and time-consuming, but there is no way to avoid it.

The first step is to improve communications, an area where HAL has very considerable scope for improvement. Get out to customers, raise the product's visibility, be open and honest, and explain, explain, explain--this is where HAL and IAI must concentrate their marketing efforts on behalf of the Dhruv. Anything less will lead to failure.

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