Aritra Banerjee & Vaibhav Agrawal
In a major development that took place recently, the entire Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter fleet of the United States Army was grounded following engine “fires.” The move was reportedly taken as an extreme precautionary measure. The US military claimed it was aware of a few engine fires in the helicopters, and highlighted that the incidents did not result in injuries or fatalities. The fires were chalked up to fuel leaks.
The US Army Materiel Command grounded the fleet of hundreds of [CH-47 Chinook] helicopters “out of an abundance of caution.” Officials examined over 70 devices that contained a part suspected to be linked to the problem.
Grounding the heavy-lift helicopters could pose logistical challenges for US soldiers as the Chinooks have been a mainstay in the US military aviation inventory since the 1960s. They have been involved in significant air operations carried out by the US military worldwide. The US military has about 400 such helicopters in its fleet.
US Army spokesperson Cynthia Smith attributed the issue to fuel leaks. According to Smith, the US Army has “identified the root cause” of the leaks and “is implementing corrective measures to resolve this issue.”
Engine manufacturer Honeywell International claimed that the leaks were due to faulty aftermarket O-rings which were not made by their company. The company issued a statement stating that “in full coordination with the US Army, Honeywell helped discover that O-rings not meeting Honeywell design specifications had been installed in some T55 engines during routine and scheduled maintenance at an Army Depot. It is believed these suspect O-Rings have been identified and isolated.”
What Are The Implications For IAF’s Chinooks?
India has about 15 CH-47 Chinook helicopters. In recent years, they have established themselves as one of the primary military tools for airlift operations in high-altitude areas like Ladakh and the Siachen Glacier (the latter being the world’s highest battlefield) to assist Indian forces deployed in those locations. The Indian Air Force (IAF) received the first batch of Chinook helicopters in February 2019. Boeing completed the delivery of 15 Chinook helicopters to the service in 2020.
There have been no reports of any incidents of engine fires in IAF’s Chinook helicopter fleet yet, with the issue being specific to the US Army’s fleet, which could be speedily resolved and remedied if the problem is generic.
IAF officials have conveyed that “IAF Chinooks are flying as before” and that “they have not faced any issues. From what we know, the US grounded its Chinook fleet after a few instances of engine fires due to fuel leaks [that] took place in some choppers that had undergone engine overhauls and maintenance.”
“The US choppers that underwent the engine overhauls were apparently fitted with some new components or parts,” another official revealed.
It has been reported that the IAF has sought details from their American counterparts to address any safety concerns within their fleet.
What Do IAF Experts Have To Say?
IA&D spoke to subject matter experts from the IAF about the potential effects of this development on India’s Chinook fleet. A former IAF Chief who did not wish to be named reassured that it is a temporary issue and precautionary action and pointed out that it is mostly a seal issue. The veteran opined that quick replacements would be done to clear the [US] fleet. “Our fleet may not have the same origin. If the same suspect part is fitted on our fleet, then similar action will be required,” the former air chief said.
Air Vice Marshal Pranay Sinha (r), a noted strategic affairs analyst, shared a similar take. “Yes, it may be true. With the Russian fleet, if any such defects or abnormalities are observed during operation, if it is of serious nature that impacts flight safety, then the fleet is grounded temporarily till the Bulletins- a Russian modification scheme- is implemented on the affected part, aggregate or system. Post implementation of Bulletin, the fleet is cleared for flying,” he said.
“The [IAF] chief has categorically stated that the machines for IAF are absolutely new – and the vendor team is stationed here,” clarified a source.
Future Deals With Indian Army?
IA&D also talked to those in the know to understand if these recent safety developments might have any impact on future orders for the Indian Army, which had shown interest in procuring Chinooks for the Army Aviation Corps (AAC).
“All evidence so far indicates that the root cause was a small batch of defective O-rings installed during routine engine overhauls from a third-party supplier. There does not appear to be a long-term, systemic safety issue. In terms of implications for the Indian Army, I strongly doubt it’s an issue,” opined Aviation Week’s Defense Editor, Steve Trimble.
Renowned defence and strategic affairs analyst Lieutenant General Harsha Kakar (r) expressed that the “Aviation Corps does not need Chinook helicopters. The air force should hold them,” before going on to add that “with the creation of theatre commands, they will be more optimally utilised under one commander.”
Rajiv Chib, Founder and Partner at Insighteon Consulting LLP, agreed with Lt Gen. Kakar (r) that “the question [should the Indian Army procure Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters?] should have been answered in 2012 or so during the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) stage as to which service was more suitable to handle this acquisition. Now that a call has been taken that this asset will be with the IAF, we should stick with it. Either way, it would mainly be employed to support land operations.”
A serving AAC officer told IA&D that while a Theater Command system would be ideal as it would mitigate tri-service infighting for resources until it is rolled out, the ground realities remain, and if the army wants Chinooks, why should it not have it? The officer explained that both services have different channels and distinct ways of doing things. In a crisis situation, the other service may not comprehend the criticality of the problem and, as a result, may not share resources at a crucial juncture; the best way to negate that possibility is to have the same resource in-house.
Highly placed sources from within Boeing reassured that there has been and will be no impact on the order placed by New Delhi for the Chinook helicopters. They highlighted that the CH-47 helicopters are in service in the UK and nearly 20 other countries and that the German government had announced that it would order 60 Chinook helicopters this year.
Despite insistence that the US Army’s decision was taken out of ample amounts of caution and reassurances, the larger question- why should the Indian Army not exercise the same level of caution that the US Army took- still looms over the potential purchase plan.
Boeing has not issued an official release on the development; any formal statement made will be added as a rejoinder.