The world's military helicopter makers are about to get another shot at a major Indian aircraft program: a requirement for 56 light utility rotorcraft, courtesy of the Indian navy. Value: up to $1 billion.

The naval utility helicopter (NUH) competition seeks to replace aging, license-built Alouette III/Chetak helicopters. The new contest also signals an amalgamation of roles, since the anti-submarine-warfare (ASW) and light-attack missions have so far been tasked to the heavier Westland Sea King fleet, while the Chetaks are assigned logistics and search-and-rescue (SAR) activities.

The navy's request for proposals (RFP) has been sent to all major rotorcraft vendors, including Bell Helicopter Textron, EADS's Eurocopter, Finmeccanica's AgustaWestland, Russian Helicopters and Sikorsky. The navy requires vendors to field twin-engine helicopters that can operate in adverse weather day/night conditions for SAR and conduct casualty evacuation and logistics and communication duties with underslung cargo. Other tasks include limited electronic-intelligence gathering, ASW with a light torpedo or depth charge, dynamic response during aid to civil authorities, and anti-piracy missions with small arms. The navy wants to operate the rotorcraft from small-deck frigates and offshore patrol vehicles, as well as from aircraft carriers.

A procurement manager with the Indian navy indicates that the NUH has to meld several roles into one modern new platform, after the indigenous naval ALH Dhruv failed to deliver a light, multirole shipborne platform with an ASW capability. Indeed, with the navy's growing anti-piracy responsibilities in the Indian Ocean region, the NUH is the latest in a raft of acquisitions pointed at asymmetric engagement at sea.

Contenders include Eurocopter's AS565 Panther, Sikorsky's S-76B, and a maritime version of AgustaWestland's AW109 Koala. Bell and Russian Helicopters could also field bids. The navy stipulates that it wants a wheeled helicopter with an all-up weight that does not exceed 4.5 metric tons, powered by twin turboshaft engines with an electronic engine-control mechanism. The service wants the NUH, planned for induction in 2016, to be capable of deploying at least one lightweight ASW torpedo or two depth charges, with the ability to mount 12.7-mm machine guns or rocket launchers on either side.

Eurocopter—which is still awaiting a decision on the long-delayed Indian army and air force's 197-aircraft reconnaissance and surveillance helicopter (RSH) contest in which its AS550 C3 Fennec is vying with the Kamov Ka-226T Sergei—will be watching the navy competition closely. After a string of disappointments in the Indian market, EADS will be looking to win anything new that comes up.

This has been a busy time for rotorcraft contracting within the Indian navy. The service is expected to choose a winner soon in the $1 billion competition for 16 multirole helicopters (MRHs). The finalists are NHIndustries' NH90 and the S-70B. The thorny competition has sparked multiple complaints to the Indian defense ministry from NHIndustries, although the government has rejected all claims of unfair play.

The navy is also finalizing an RFP for a follow-on N-MRH to acquire 75 more helicopters as part of a fresh bid. The N-MRH will progressively replace the navy's Westland Sea King Mk. 42B fleet. Apart from the NH90, contenders for the N-MRH contract include the Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky MH-60R (which was dropped from the original MRH competition since the Indian navy did not want a single-vendor foreign military sale on which the Pentagon had insisted) and Eurocopter's EC 725 Caracal. The navy is also set to solicit bids for a long-delayed upgrade of its Sea King fleet, with original manufacturer AgustaWestland expected to compete against Israel Aerospace Industries' Lahav Div. In addition, the navy will shortly begin an effort to upgrade its fleet of Ka-28 Helix ASW helicopters.

Other major Indian rotorcraft developments include a recent decision by the air force and border security force to purchase 71 more Mi-17 V5 medium utility helos from Russia; 80 were acquired last year. The government is also expected to soon announce the winners of a two-part air force contest for 22 attack and 12 heavy-lift helicopters. While Boeing expects to win the first element with its AH-64D Block III Longbow, the latter is still a close call between the CH-47 Chinook and Mi-26T2 Halo.