The Indian army has decided to buy 20 Cheetal helicopters and associated equipment from state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) to fill a serious need for the multirole aircraft.

 “We have signed a contract worth [$77 million] with the defense ministry to supply 20 Cheetals to the army over the next four years, besides providing training to its pilots and technical crew,” a HAL spokesman said.

This is the first contract to supply Cheetal helicopters to the Indian army, the official adds. The first helo is likely to be delivered within the next two years, a defense ministry official says.

Negotiations began in December 2010, and the deal was cleared last December by the Defense Acquisition Council, headed by Defense Minister A.K. Antony.

The Indian air force signed a deal with HAL in 2006 for 10 Cheetals. Nine have been delivered so far.

Cheetal is the re-engined variant of the Cheetah helicopter manufactured by HAL for more than four decades. It is equipped with a Turbomeca TM 333-2M2 free turbine turboshaft engine.

The Cheetal can operate at up to 7 km (23,000 ft.) altitude and has a range of 640 km, with an endurance of 3.5 hr.

India recently delayed plans to buy 197 reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters, in the wake of the bribery scandal concerning a separate purchase of Indian VIP helicopters from AgustaWestland. The army is likely to get 133 of the helos and the air force 64 aircraft. Eurocopter’s AS550 C3 Fennec and Russia’s Kamov 226 Sergei are vying for the estimated $2 billion deal.

Since that proposal is still under review, the army decided to buy the Cheetals because of its dire need for light utility helicopters, a defense official said.