Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 20


Both China and India have long held ambitions to establish local helicopter manufacturing bases for reasons of industrial strategy, national security and international prestige. Rotorcraft development was addressed in September at an Indian defense conference. From November 4 through 10 China will host its 4th International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai–the government’s preferred venue to showcase many of its recent aeronautical achievements. China Aviation Industry (Group) Corporation II [AVIC II], a co-sponsor of the biennial event, is likely to display some of its rotary-wing aircraft products as well. Considering the increasing importance of this exhibition, it is therefore useful to review their latest programs:

  • AVIC II’s 5/6-ton helicopter series in China and
  • HAL’s Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) program in India, now known as the Dhruv.

Both governments have invested substantial resources in developing their present capabilities, to which their latest rotorcraft programs bear witness. Attaining a truly independent technological capability, however, remains elusive. Although the Chinese and Indian programs represent significant milestones in their continuing efforts, they have been or are being developed with considerable foreign expertise, with each characterized by key differences.


China’s 5/6-ton helicopter series is AVIC II’s first next-generation program aimed at satisfying a range of military and civil missions. Officially launched in 1995, it is the result of a carefully crafted strategy, designed in part to become more independent in rotary-wing aircraft development. Because of a widely held misperception that Chinese progress in this sector is linked to the 1989 U.S. Tiananmen sanctions–which is patently false–it is important to place these aircraft in the proper context. While some of the sanctions have been waived and others modified, those suspending all government-to-government and commercial arms sales and military exchanges under Sections 38 and 42 of the Arms Export Control Act [P.L. 90-629; 22 USC 2778, 2791]; 22 CFR 126.7 remain effective, and have been codified in P.L. 101-246.

Specifically, the sanctions deny issuing licenses to the PRC of any defense article governed by the Munitions List (USML), which is administered by the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the Office of Defense Trade Controls (BPMA/ODTC) of the U.S. Department of State. Their relevancy therefore has been and continues to be in the denial of product support to Sikorsky’s S-70C-2 helicopter to Chinese Army Aviation of those items governed by the USML. It should also be noted that the S-70C-2 is a commercial version of the company’s widely sold Black Hawk, and its airframe thus does not constitute a military product by definition. U.S. sanctions have not, however, prevented China from further developing its helicopter capabilities.

AVIC II’s latest helicopter series is unique, because it exploits the identical rotor and transmission systems in the development of at least three models, to significantly reduce the cost of new product development. At least one of these is likely to be designated the Z-10:

  • — a 5.5-ton tactical transport (TTH) for the Army Aviation Bureau (AAB), informally known as the Chinese Medium Helicopter (CMH);
  • — a 6.0-ton third-generation attack helicopter (ATH), also for the AAB; and
  • — a 5/6-ton civil transport derivative.

To that end, AVIC II concluded a cooperative arrangement with Eurocopter France (ECF) to develop an appropriate rotor system in May 1997, and another with Agusta SpA to develop the transmission system in the spring of 1999.


In contrast, development of the 5.5-ton ALH by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was nearly completed during the late 1990s, with the aircraft currently in an advanced stage of certification. Although India does not possess a dedicated helicopter industry like China, Bangalore-based HAL has invested significant resources in establishing a core rotorcraft design and engineering capability. It also retains licenses to manufacture the Aerospatiale SA.315B Lama and SA.319B Alouette III locally as the Cheetah and Chetak, respectively. Both of these machines are in service with the Indian military in substantial numbers, and are scheduled for eventual replacement with the more modern ALH into the future.

In July 1984 Hindustan signed a contract with Germany’s MBB–now Eurocopter Deutschland (ECD)–providing technical assistance to the ALH program:

  • — design and development of the rotor system, along with other major dynamic components;
  • — gearbox development was undertaken by renowned German engineering specialist, Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen (ZF); and
  • — design and construction of the airframe also benefited substantially from Eurocopter’s BK117 helicopter program.

Engineering development of the ALH was challenging and accompanied by substantial differences in program management between German and Indian teams and in the effective transfer of Western expertise to HAL while trying to institute appropriate quality assurance (QA) levels.

At the conclusion of MBB’s contract, a number of technical issues remained unresolved. Specifically, Hindustan’s original plans called for the LHTEC CTS800 series turboshaft to power the ALH, a commercial derivative of the military T800 engine. To that end, it entered into a consulting relationship with Global Helicopter Technology International (GHTI) Incorporated in 1995, which had developed a T800 engine integration package for retrofit into appropriate helicopters. With flight testing and certification nearly complete, however, unexpected problems surfaced. As a result of the government’s May 11, 1998 nuclear tests, the United States imposed sanctions on India under Section 102(b)(2) of the Arms Export Control Act [22 USC 2779aa-1], effectively revoking the license previously granted for export of the U.S.-sourced CTS800 engine.

Although the sanctions were eventually lifted, the supply disruption of a critical system by a foreign government effectively discontinued further interest in the CTS800. And while HAL secured an alternative power plant, it was forced to initiate a new engine certification program. It subsequently signed an agreement with Turbomeca/SNECMA, for the supply of its TM333-2B turboshaft to the ALH. Testing, however, underscored that the aircraft was still underpowered–particularly in the heavier naval configuration. As a result, the Indian Ministry of Defense (MoD) paid for the development of the uprated TM333-2B2 model, making it the exclusive power plant of the Dhruv when it ordered 84 engines in 2001. Most recently, the Indian MoD seems to have discarded its plans for the TM333 series in favor of Turbomeca’s new Ardiden 1H turboshaft for future production Dhruvs. This power plant is to be developed in partnership and built locally under license as the Shakti.


China has had a unified helicopter development strategy at least since 1985, though its precise scope and direction remain largely unknown. Having studied carefully the development experiences of both Western and Russian manufacturers and the unique structure of the global rotary-wing aircraft market, AVIC II may seek to follow a similar–but accelerated–path as that of the West. Such a decision would entail exploiting the military applications of its rotorcraft products first, if China is to be successful internationally at a later stage.

Because military sales have traditionally outpaced commercial sales by a wide margin, any desire by AVIC II to be active in the civil sector must therefore follow the lead of the military. The historical record strongly suggests that a reversal of this order is not possible, which can be traced mainly to the unique capabilities of helicopters and their associated high acquisition and operational costs. This is fundamentally different vis-à-vis the fixed-wing aircraft industry, where military and commercial sales constitute near-even shares. Therefore, making the certification of the military CMH and ATH a priority would be consistent with past development experiences.

India does not appear to have a development strategy similar to China’s in place. Hindustan has chosen to focus its efforts on a single, intermediate size aircraft to meet military and civil missions, with a view to ramping up production to support possible export sales into the future, as well as developing the planned Light Observation Helicopter (LOH) and the Advanced Medium Helicopter (AMH) over the longer term. While the ALH represents a considerable achievement, the aforementioned discussion indicates that HAL may face additional barriers to market entry, particularly if it fails to meet the sizeable Indian military demand first, prior to its anticipated marketing/export drive, which is supported by a recent accord with IAI.

In conclusion, both the Chinese 5/6-ton helicopters program and the Indian ALH incorporate significant advanced technologies to meet ambitious performance specifications. Yet these products are designed principally to meet long-standing domestic military requirements, with their potential for future export sales yet to be clearly defined. While AVIC II has a more extensive history in rotorcraft development, it remains handicapped in key areas. Hindustan, in contrast, has had less exposure but has looked to integrate mature technologies into one program. While neither helicopter system could have been or could be developed without foreign expertise, the real challenge remains in the independent innovation of new products. Attaining this highest level of development, however, seems much less certain. Although AVIC II and HAL may achieve some success as helicopter entities, they are likely to remain distant competitors to established manufacturers well into the future.

Luke Colton is an independent defense consultant.