NEW DELHI — The Indian government is signaling that Boeing soon will be awarded a contract for 22 AH-64D Apache Longbow Block IIIs for the Indian air force (IAF).

The U.S. Army rotorcraft, which is said to have outperformed the rival Russian Mi-28N Night Hunter in tests, was strongly recommended by the IAF earlier this year as its choice following trials in 2010.

Defense ministry sources reveal that differences in performance between the two helicopters was so great that the IAF’s case was difficult to question. The final contract, a direct commercial sale, could be worth $1.5 billion.

An IAF trial team member, who asked not to be named, says, “The Apache scored consistently over Mi-28 in several key operational criteria. Broadly, these fell under the categories of electronic warfare, survivability, situational awareness in the cockpit, night-fighting capabilities, sensor efficacy and weapons. The helicopter was also found to be far more maneuverable. We worked directly with Boeing and the U.S. Army to test this helicopter.”

Another IAF source suggests that the Apache also had superior armor protection and performed well in both desert and high-altitude conditions.

Boeing said it would not comment on the outcome of the competition since nothing was known officially yet. A Rosoboronexport official says he had read local Russian media reports about the Mi-28N losing out in the contest, but was unaware of why. The Russian helicopter had proven itself in field trials, he declared, but would not say more.

The new helicopters will replace the IAF’s aging Mi-35s. The AH-64D and Mi-28 were put through field evaluation trials in mid-2010 at the Jaisalmer desert base in western India and Leh, the world’s highest operational air station, in the Himalayas. This was followed by weapons firing trials, targeting and maintenance trials in the contenders’ home countries.

Expected Order

In a December 2010 notification to the U.S. Congress, the Pentagon said it expected the Indian government to order 50 T700-GE-701D engines, 12 AN/APG-78 fire control radars, 812 AGM-114L-3 Hellfire Longbow missiles, 542 AGM-114R-3 Hellfire II missiles, 245 Stinger Block I-92H missiles and 23 modernized target acquisition designation sights. U.S. Embassy officials said the notification was to start due-process paperwork that would save time in the event of a contract award later.

After the abrupt elimination of both U.S. contenders — the Lockheed Martin F-16 and Boeing F/A-18 — from the IAF’s $12 billion MMRCA fighter competition last April, U.S. companies have moved quickly to mop up other Indian deals. In June, Boeing was awarded a $4.1 billion prize for 10 C-17 heavy-lift transports, and Lockheed is close to securing a follow-on, $1 billion contract for six more C-130J special-mission airlifters. There have been indications that Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook has also emerged on top against the Russian Mi-26T2 in a competition for 12 heavy-lift rotorcraft for the IAF.

The acquisition of attack helicopters comes at a particularly delicate time for relations between the IAF and Indian army. Locked in a spat for years over who should operate battlefield assault helicopters, the army has asked the government to allow it full command-and-control over all tactical battlefield air assets.

The IAF remains unmoved, and has argued that while attack helicopter flights will be controlled by the army, sorties will be flown only by IAF pilots. To boot, the IAF is a primary customer for the indigenous Light Combat Helicopter and weaponized Dhruv helicopter.