|By Lt Gen BS Pawar (Retd)||Published: June 2017|
New Delhi. The Indian Army is finally set to get its first lot of combat helicopters, and the beginning is being made with the Boeing Apache AH-64E.
The Army Aviation Corps has been sanctioned 11 of these latest combat helicopters. These machines in fact are from the 50 per cent option clause in the Boeing contract for 22 helicopters for the Indian Air Force (IAF). As the validity of the offer at the same old IAF price and terms and conditions is only till September, the Army, Ministry of Defence and Boeing are working full time to ensure that the order is placed well on time, sources told India Strategic.
Notably, the Army had demanded 39 Apache attack helicopters for its three Strike Corps in the plains. Initially, the Government approved 22 machines for the IAF, but later, as a policy decision, it was decided to give further supplies to the Army. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by Defence Minister Arun Jaitley gave the approval for acquisition of these 11 helicopters on May 20 this year.
It is not known if and when the Army will get the 28 more Apaches it desires, but the previous Government had accorded it this approval in principle in 2012. Due to budget constraints, IAF has been made reluctantly to give up its hope on its follow-on requirement. There will have to be fresh negotiations for any new lot.
Nonetheless, the Army and IAF will not only both operate the formidable Apaches, they will also get the indigenous Light Combat Helicopters (LCH) being developed by HAL in numbers. IAF has already ordered 64 of these machines, made mostly from composite materials to facilitate their flights up to 5,000 meters, that is, mountainous terrains like the Kargil heights. As no country makes helicopters specifically for such heights and the rough corrosive Himalayan weather, HAL has been trying to do the needful and several development flights of the LCH have already taken place.
As for the Apaches for the Army and IAF, they will have commonality in capabilities and onboard weapons and warfare suites, including the Lockheed Martin’s Longbow radar and Raytheon’s air-to-air Stinger missiles. The 64E variant is the latest and also being given to the US Army nearly at the same time.
The Longbow is a powerful radar and helps detect targets hidden in foliage and dense environment.
The case for inclusion of Combat, or Attack, Helicopters to be part and parcel of the Army dates back to 1963 when Gen JN Chaudhary, the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS), stressed the requirement for a separate air wing for the Army.
He had emphasised that efforts at increasing the firepower and mobility of the Army would not be complete without an integral aviation element comprising light, medium, heavy as well as armed/attack helicopters. Finally, after vacillating for decades, it was on October 12, 2012 that the Government took the call on the crucial issue of the ownership and operations of Attack Helicopters in favour of the Army.
Although the first 22 Apaches are to stay with IAF, the new acquisitions will be owned, operated and maintained by the Army. Though late in coming, the decision was a welcome step for the Army and would have a major impact on war fighting in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA).This lethal weapon system as part of Army’s inventory is expected to greatly enhance its capability, making it a battle winning factor in any future conflict.
The Army had also demanded that the 22 Apaches for the IAF should also be transferred to it but IAF has held that it has to have them as part of its control over the Indian skies and also to complement its various aerial assets, particularly for Combat Search and rescue (CSAR). The Ministry of Defence agreed with this view.
The Army has a few aviation pilots posted to existing IAF combat helicopter squadrons – or units as the Army calls them – which operate the Russian Mi-25 and Mi-35 machines. These helicopters are owned and operationally controlled by the Army but flown by IAF. Because of this factor, the Army also suggested 50:50 share of the Apaches but this was not accepted. Instead the Government accorded approval for a fresh lot of 39 Apaches for the Army.
It is with this background that the current approval for the Army to acquire Apache helicopters needs to be viewed. As this is a repeat order under the options clause, there will be no fresh tendering or trials but a smooth continuation of the supplies on the same terms.
India had purchased 22 Apaches and 15 CH-47 Chinooks for about $3 billion under the US Government’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme.
Why Attack Helicopters for the Army
The primary mission of army aviation is to fight the land battle and support ground operations, operating in the TBA as a combined arms team expanding the ground commander’s battlefield in space and time.
Its battlefield leverage is achieved through a combination of reconnaissance, mobility and intense fire power. The combat helicopter’s greatest contribution to battlefield success is the ability it gives a Commander to apply decisive combat power at critical times virtually anywhere on the battlefield in the form of direct fire from aviation manoeuvre units (attack/armed helicopters) or insertion of overwhelming ground forces at the point of decision (utility/lift helicopters).
The assets required for the above manoeuvre, that is, the attack and assault helicopters must be at the beck and call of the field force commander and also piloted by men in olive green who fully understand the ground situation. This will ensure the optimum utilisation of the battle winning resource. This has been the basic rationale on which the army’s case for ownership of these assets rests.
Significantly, unlike the Air Force assets, the Army Aviation units and helicopters are located closer to their operational areas and along with the formations affiliated to, especially at the Corps level. During war, these units will require to operate from forward composite aviation bases, catering for security, maintenance, fueling and arming facilities. The employment philosophy dictates the need to develop organisations that enhance aviation capabilities to support the concept of operations of field commanders and be tailored to meet the evolving operational requirements; hence the concept of Aviation Brigade with each Corps and not bases as in the case of Air Force.
With the Indian Army’s Doctrine of ‘Cold Start’ or the ‘proactive strategy’ as the Government would like to call it, which is Pak-centric, restructuring has been done of the Pivot Corps to enable quick and immediate action within 48-72 hours by using the integral assets at the Corps level. This also calls for induction of combat and other helicopters within the Army itself.
In fact both our adversaries, China and Pakistan, have very potent AH inventories in the air arms of their respective armies. The Pakistani army has the Russian Mi-25/Mi-35 and US Huey Cobras attack helicopters while reports indicate that it has also acquired the Chinese Z-10 recently.
Indian Army’s Helicopter Inventory
The Army is already in the process of inducting the armed version of the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Rudra developed by the HAL with a unit currently under raising. Though not a typical attack helicopter, it has an array of comparable weapon systems to include gun, rockets, air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles (ATGM). The Rudra units are to form part of the Holding/Pivot Corps constituting a formidable offensive punch to the field force commander.
On the other hand, the LCH developed by HAL is expected to be a milestone achievement. The LCH aims to gatecrash the exclusive club of the state-of-the-art light attack helicopters, which includes Eurocopter’s Tiger, Bell’s AH-1Z Super Cobra and China’s Zhisheng 10 (Z-10).
The LCH is a derivative of the ALH and the Rudra and is being designed to fit into an anti-infantry and anti-armour role with capability to operate at high altitudes (16,000 feet), a distinct advantage over other attack helicopters.
Its induction is just about on the anvil. The Government has cleared induction of five LCHs in the Army although their number eventually would be much more.
It may be recalled that during the 1999 Kargil War, neither the Indian Air Force nor the Army had required helicopter assets to support the Indian troops fighting to evict the intruding Pakistanis from the rough mountain heights where the battles were concentrated.
The primary role of the Attack Helicopters the world over is to support and fight the land battle in the tactical domain. It has to operate as part of the combined arms team and not in isolation. This has been the experience in the Gulf War as also in Afghanistan.
The visibility of an attack helicopter, which is literally a flying tank, can boost the morale of own troops and its firepower would be lethal for an enemy.
With the increasing induction of a range of helicopters, the Indian Army will need to plan and work out appropriate employment philosophies as well as rugged training and maintenance procedures to exploit the full potential of these battle winning machines in the future.