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Copter deal: Conspiracy theorists fail to convince

This has reference to the on-going ‘controversy’ regarding Mindef’s selection of the Eads/ Eurocopter-built EC-725 Cougar Mk2+ medium-lift air-mobility helicopter as the eventual replacement for the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s (RMAF) existing Sikorsky S-61A-4 helicopters.

While allegations are abounding regarding Mindef’s competitive selection process, the following issues - especially those not yet raised by some of the bidders that have lost out to the EC-725 – have to be looked upon objectively:

1. The Mi-17V-5 was first brought to Malaysia by Russia’s Rosoboronexport State Corp during the Lima 2001 exhibition and was extensively flight-tested after the exhibition by the RMAF. The HH-92 Superhawk’s prototype from Sikorsky was demonstrated to a visiting RMAF team in the US more than a year ago, and this included flight-testing as well.

The EC-725, too, was flight-tested and evaluated by the RMAF when the helicopter was brought to Malaysia during the Lima 2007 exhibition in Langkawi early last December. Therefore, for some to claim that the RMAF and the Mindef tender evaluation board did away with the practice of flight-testing the principal contenders of the contract is fallacious and wrong.

2. The Mi-17 will begin being phased out of service over the next five years by the Russian military end-users. That is why a competition is now underway within Russia between Kamov OKB (offering the Ka-92) and Mil Design Bureau (offering the Mi-38) for supplying the next-generation medium-lift helicopter to fulfill domestic Russian requirements.

If the RMAF were to select either the Mi-17V-5 or Mi-172KF, while its initial procurement costs would be much lower, their through-life product support costs would be three times more than the figures quoted for helicopters like the EC-725, AgustaWestland’s AW101 and Sikorsky's HH-92 Superhawk.

This is because the RMAF will find it cost-prohibitive to maintain the airworthiness and serviceability of the Mi-17 once Russia stops producing spares for this helicopter over the next 10 years.

3. For the RMAF tender competition, there were two offers of the Mi-17: the Mi-17V-5 from Russia’s Rosoboronexport State Corp, and the Mi-172KF being offered by Mentari Services Sdn Bhd.

Interestingly, if either of the two parties were to win the contract, then they both would be sourcing the Mi-17s from the same OEM, ie, Kazan Helicopter Plant, based in Russia’s Tatarstan republic.

And when it comes to military procurement from abroad, the customer (Mindef, in this case) universally requires guaranteed through-life product support from the OEM. Consequently, if Mindef were to select the Mi-17 then the following questions would have required convincing answers:

a. While the Russian government would have given product support guarantees through its official weapons import/export agency Rosoboronexport for the Mi-17V-5, would the same guarantees be extended for the offer for the Mi-172KF?

b. If not, then who would guarantee through-life product support for the Mi-172KF? Mentari? Or its principal - the Canada-based Kelowna Flightcraft Ltd - or the helicopter manufacturer - Kazan Helicopter Plant - from whom Kelowna was offering to source the Mi-172KF airframes?

Who would assume product liabilities in the event of a Mi-172KF accident-related board of inquiry establishing that the accident/crash was due to technical error? What if Rosoboronexport State Corp prevented Kazan Helicopter Plant from cooperating with the RMAF during such accident/crash investigations?

c. Did the Russian government, through Rosoboronexport, authorise either Kazan Helicopter Plant or Kelowna Flightcraft Ltd to supply the fully militarised (ie, weapons-equipped) Mi-172KF to Malaysia?

This question needs to be answered in detail because as per present Russian government guidelines, only Rosoboronexport State Corp is authorised to export Russian-origin weapon systems directly to foreign military customers after inking government-to-government contracts.

d. How many Mi-172KFs have been sold to date by the joint industrial venture between Kazan Helicopter Plant and Kelowna Flightcraft Ltd to military customers (not for VIP transportation, but for undertaking air-mobility operations under combat conditions) worldwide?

Which authority has issued the Milspec-compliant certificate of airworthiness of the Mi-172KF’s military variant? Will the Mi-172KF have additional built-in performance growth features, such as the incorporation of fly-by-wire flight control systems and in-flight refuelling systems, which will most likely have to be mandatory on-board systems especially since the helicopter would be required by the RMAF to remain operationally viable for the next 40 years?

Regrettably, the ‘naysayers’ and conspiracy theorists alleging irregularities in the EC-725’s selection process have yet to give rational and convincing clarifications regarding the four above-mentioned points.

4) Today, it only makes sense for countries like China and India to continue buying Mi-17s in large numbers because only these two countries have had more than 30 years of experience operating the Mi-8Ts and Mi-17s and have therefore established the huge domestic MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) infrastructure required to maintain and operate such helicopters.

This is not the case with Malaysia, which requires either the helicopter OEM to set up extensive, brand-new MRO infrastructure to support a new helicopter-type, or upgrade existing MRO infrastructure at tremendous cost to service the new helicopter acquisitions.

5. As a consequence of the above, only Eurocopter (an Eads subsidiary) can be said to have comprehensively complied with the RMAF's helicopter-related MRO demands (which played a pivotal role in tilting the balance in favour of the EC-725’s competitive bid) since only Eurocopter has to date made unilateral and substantial investments in its own sprawling helicopter MRO facility in Subang (which Sikorsky, AgustaWestland and the Russians are not known to have done thus far) since 1998.

Such facilities, which will undoubtedly expand their capabilities as the EC-725s are inducted progressively, will enable the RMAF to fully localise the EC-725’s serviceability requirements, and ensure high availability and levels for its initial EC-725 fleet, which will undoubtedly be subject to intensive usage in the early years due to the demands of both operational conversion flying training as well as operational flying.

One must also bear in mind that such MRO facilities will be fully authorised and certified by the OEM (Eurocopter) and as such will not be exposed to the third-party MRO liabilities of the type that has plagued the RMAF's dwindling S-61A-4 'Nuri' helicopter fleet.

No one thus far, including Mentari or AgustaWestland or Sikorsky, has officially bothered to explain how much the through-life product support costs of the Mi-172KF or AW101 or HH-92 Superhawk would be if these entities were to establish in-country dedicated MRO facilities.

Only if such expenditure figures are forthcoming from them would one be able to make accurate cost comparisons with the Eurocopter/EC-725 tender bid. Until then it remains a case of simplistic comparison of apples with oranges.

6. As a result of the above, when viewed from a techno-economic matrix, it was Eurocopter that ‘almost fully’ complied with the ASQRs of the RMAF while at the same time offering guaranteed through-life product support for the EC-725. The EC-725 of the type selected for the RMAF is presently operational with the armed forces of France and Saudi Arabia and has already been combat-proven in Afghanistan.

The AW101 comes in a close second as a combat-proven helicopter (which was recently selected by India for VVIP transportation), but the problem here was that the RMAF would have had to allocate substantial scare financial resources for setting up dedicated MRO facilities from scratch to support the AW101 fleet.

Sikorsky’s HH-92 Superhawk is estimated to have come in with the third-best offer but militarily this helicopter is still an untested product since it has yet to be ordered in bulk by any armed forces worldwide.

In conclusion, it would do well to the ‘naysayers’ to view the entire issue through the prism of objectivity prior to making ill-informed conclusions based merely on speculative accusations of some ‘sore losers’.