Offensive rotary wing capability of the Indian Air Force (IAF) goes back to the 1960s when Chetak (Allouette III) helicopters were used with French AS 11 B1 Anti Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs), but the accuracy and efficacy of that wire guide missile left a lot to be desired. Mi 25, the first real attack helicopter of the IAF was introduced in 1983, while an upgraded version, the Mi 35, was inducted in 1990; both are Soviet/ Russian machines. As the fleet of Mi-25/Mi-35 attained senescence, a modern attack helicopter to replace the Mi-25/35 variants or at least to augment their waning numbers and technology was seen as a critical requirement. Action was initiated to get suitable replacements. In the final selection process, the AH-64D Apache met all Air Staff Requirements (ASRs) while the Russian Mi-28 failed some of the requirements during the field trials by the IAF.
A fledgling Indian Air Force (IAF) inducted its first rotary wing craft rather late. Starting 1954, it received three Sikorsky S-55s and two S-55Cs from the United States (US); one S-55C (IZ 1590) still lingers in the IAF museum as a reminder of the fact that the first IAF helicopter was an American one. After a long interregnum during which the rotary wing inventory of the IAF gradually ignored US helicopters while swelling to embrace French (including license built French machines), Soviet helicopters and Indian ones, the recent induction of two more helicopters from the US – the Apache and the Chinook, thus serves as a closing of a circle of sorts. In September 2015, just prior to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US, India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) finalised an order with Boeing for 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F(I) Chinook heavy-lift helicopters; a total of $1.9 billion for the Apaches and $1.1 billion for the Chinooks made up the deal. The delivery of all 22 Apaches and 15 Chinooks is complete and the two types of helicopters have filled important niches in the IAF inventory. This article delves into how these have helped in enhancing the IAF’s helicopter fleet as also some inescapably related aspects of their induction.
Offensive rotary wing capability of the IAF goes back to the 1960s when Chetak (Allouette III) helicopters were used with French AS 11 B1 Anti Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs) but the accuracy and efficacy of that wire guide missile left a lot to be desired. Mi 25, the first real attack helicopter of the IAF was introduced in 1983, while an upgraded version, the Mi 35, was inducted in 1990; both are Soviet/ Russian machines. As the fleet of Mi-25/Mi-35 attained senescence, a modern attack helicopter to replace the Mi-25/35 variants or at least to augment their waning numbers and technology was seen as a critical requirement. Action was initiated to get suitable replacements. In the final selection process, the AH-64D Apache met all Air Staff Requirements (ASRs) while the Russian Mi-28 failed some of the requirements during the field trials by the IAF.
The contract for the India-specific version – the Apache AH-64E (I), was a ‘hybrid’ case; the defence ministry signed the helicopter part of it with Boeing and for its weapons, radars and electronic warfare suites with the US government. The Apache is a twin-engine, tandem cockpit, two-man crew machine with a nose-mounted sensor suite for target acquisition and night vision systems. It is armed with a 30mm M230 chain gun and four hard points mounted on stub-wing pylons, typically carrying a mixture of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and Hydra 70 rocket pods. Apart from the 22 helicopters, the contract involves the acquisition of 812 AGM-114L-3 Hellfire Longbow missiles, 542 AGM-114R-3 Hellfire-II missiles, 245 Stinger Block I-92H air-to-air missiles and 12 AN/APG-78 fire-control radars.
The Apache is possibly one of the best attack helicopters in the world today. However, as the debate about ownership of offensive role helicopters had continued unabated even during the process of the IAF’s selection of a Mi-25/Mi-35 replacement, a climactic point was reached when the MoD issued a letter on October 12, 2012, announcing that “future inductions” of attack helicopters would be owned, operated and maintained by the Indian Army. This decision did not take away the 22 Apaches already sanctioned for the IAF, but applied only to subsequent acquisitions. The Indian Army had been seeking 39 Apaches initially, but the number was whittled down to 11 and subsequently six, an order for which has been placed already.
The IAF’s Mi-25s have been retired from service while there are around 15 Mi-35s and 223 Mi-17V5s (source: https://www.flightglobal.com/download?ac=75345). The Mi-35 is an assault and anti-armour helicopter capable of carrying eight armed men and has a four barrel 12.7 mm front gun. It can also carry 1500kg external load including Scorpion anti-tank missiles. Only one squadron is operational with the helicopters of the other awaiting major overhaul; all Mi-35s would be out of service by the end of the next decade or so after which the IAF would have only 22 Apaches for attack helicopter role.
In the offensive role, the IAF also has the Mi-17V5 armed with Shturm-V missiles, S-8 rockets, a 23mm machine gun, PKT machine guns and AKM sub-machine guns. It features eight firing posts for weapon carriage and its onboard armament allows it to engage enemy personnel, armoured vehicles, land-based targets, fortified posts, and other fixed and moving targets. The cockpit and vital components of the helicopter are protected by armoured plates while the aft machine gun position is also fitted with armoured plates to protect the gunner. The helicopter incorporates engine-exhaust Infra-red (IR) suppressors, a flare dispenser and a jammer and is thus a veritable machine for offensive roles.
Indigenous options for offensive roles are the Rudra and the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) – both developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The Rudra is the Weapon System Integrated (WSI) Mark IV version of the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter produced by HAL. It joined service in 2013, and the Indian Army has around 50 of these with the IAF holding 12 (total 16 on order). The HAL official site projects a final product with a turret gun, rockets, Air-to-Air Missiles, Air-to-Ground Missiles, a Helmet Pointing System, a Data Link, an Infra Red Jammer and an Obstacle Avoidance System, but the weaponisation process by HAL is yet to achieve maturity.
The LCH is also behind schedule in the weaponisation process although an Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) has been given to it on August 17, 2020. Described as the world’s lightest multi-role attack helicopter with the highest flight ceiling (landing and take-off possible at 4.7km elevation, service ceiling 6.5km), two were deployed at Leh during the recent India-China face-off in Ladakh. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) has approved the induction of 15 Limited Series Production (LSP) versions of the LCH – ten for the IAF and five for the Indian Army. The IAF is expected to order a total-to-air missiles on Rudra and LCH, has carried out trials for the Mistral missile with French missile Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) MBDA, but the contract is yet to be signed. Both these types would add firepower to the IAF’s helicopter fleet but, in terms of payload and performance, will remain far short of the Apache which is inarguably the most lethal attack helicopter in the world today. In the future, the Apache would be complemented by numbers of Rudra and LCH as far as the IAF is concerned.
The Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) is on record as having stated, “The Apache readily fits into our concept of operations and its timely induction has bolstered our overall combat capability substantially.” The decision to curtail the IAF Apache inventory to 22 is, however, a rather disappointing one inasmuch as that number is self-evidently too small for meaningful deployment over the huge terrain stretch the IAF supports the Army in. However, these virile and potent machines would certainly enhance the effectiveness of the IAF’s rotary wing offensive role.
The Apache for Army
The IAF had all helicopters under it initially but, like in other parts of the world where armies become substantially matured in size, roles and tasks, the Indian Army also felt the need for integral air resources. The demand for attack helicopters to be part of the Indian Army dates back to 1963, when General JN Chaudhary, the then COAS, asked for a separate air wing for the Army; the request was not met. The Cold War thought processes envisaged massive and mobile mechanised formations sweeping across large swathes of territory in Europe against the enemy. Land force commanders influenced doctrine on both sides (NATO and Warsaw Pact) for attack helicopters to be placed under command so that they could move along with the moving formations and not have to be demanded from an Air Force.
Although the Cold War remained cold and these ideas could not be validated or refuted, many land commanders were convinced of the merit of having attack helicopters under command. In India also, where the IAF was the primary owner of all helicopters, attack or otherwise, this debate embroiled the IAF and the Indian Army. While the Indian Army wanted to have dedicated helicopters in offensive roles under command of formations with strike roles, the IAF countered that the small numbers of these helicopters ordained that they be controlled centrally and utilised on as required basis, thus exploiting the flexibility of air power while tendering concentration of offensive force at selected times and places critical to land operations. Eventually, a compromise document called the Joint Army Air Force Implementation Instruction 1986 was promulgated by the two services jointly. It bifurcated the responsibilities of the two services in relation to the attack and anti-tank helicopters of the IAF. While operations and training were to be overseen by the Army, administration remained under the purview of the IAF. This mutually unsatisfactory arrangement failed to meet single service demands and has kept the attack helicopter ownership debate smouldering.
The arrangement of the IAF owning the Air OP flights/squadrons continued until the formation of the Army Aviation Corps (AAC) in November 1986 as an arm of the Indian Army. The Corps currently has 12 squadrons/38 flights (some of these being independent flights) of Chetaks and Cheetahs in addition to six squadrons of Dhruv ALH (each squadron with three flights). Given each flight a holding of five helicopters, the total strength of the Corps can be estimated to be about 280 helicopters. Rudra and LCH are being added as mentioned earlier while the six Apaches will be the latest and most potent one.
The figure of 39 Apaches mentioned earlier surfaced again during the Aero India Show 2021 when, interestingly, Michael Koch, VP, Boeing Defence, Space and Security, India, reportedly said, “Our analysis is that there is a requirement of 39 attack helicopters to support that specific requirement. If you have three strike brigades and if you typically have a squadron of 13 helicopters for strike brigade, then you are looking at operational requirements.” Aside from that, in 2013, the formation of a Mountain Strike Corps was announced and a squadron of Apaches was conjectured to be an integral part of it. However, that decision appears to be on the backburner for now. It is not clear how the Indian Army intends to approach future acquisition of more Apaches once the approval of six has opened the door for that to happen. The Indian Army has also been clamouring for “tactical” medium and heavy lift capability helicopters to be placed under it. For the time being though, medium and heavy lift capability is being retained with the IAF and the latest addition to the IAF inventory is the Chinook heavy lift helicopter.
There is no universally acknowledged weight classification for military helicopters, but generally, heavy lift relates to Maximum All Up Weight (MAUW) of above 20,400kg. The Mi-26 was procured to meet the heavy lift requirements of the IAF in the 1980s. A requirement of six helicopters was projected; the first two helicopters were procured in May 1986, and another two helicopters in February 1989. However, due to low utilisation, the plan to procure two more helicopters was dropped. Moreover, the serviceability was poor during the 1990s; at one time three of the four were grounded during 1995 – 1996. Serviceability gradually fell in the mid 1990s from a high of about 60 percent down to 40 percent. The helicopters also remained underutilised; against a projected utilisation rate of 50 hours per month per helicopter, the average utilisation remained around 10 to 20 hours per month. In December 2010, the fleet strength reduced to three after one met with an accident at Jammu. By December 2015, the IAF realised that there was only one serviceable Mi-26 left and that too had only 100 hours left before a major servicing which would take around six months’ time. Immediately flying was restricted to only urgent operational tasks and discussion initiated with Russian Helicopters for overhauling three Mi-26 helicopters.
Meanwhile, in 2009, the MoD had invited bids for a new heavy lift helicopter and, in October 2012, the Chinook CH-47F emerged the winner although the Mi-26T2 was also a contender. The MoD decided to order 15 Chinook CH-47F helicopters. Both types had earlier passed the extensive field trials, but the Chinook price tag turned out to be lower in terms of its acquisition and life-cycle costs. Perhaps the poor serviceability record of the Mi 26 played against it too. The Chinook has a unique design incorporating powerful contra-rotating tandem rotors and is being operated by around 20 countries for heavy-lift assault, troop movement, logistics support, aerial battlefield recovery and special operations. Capable of being flight refuelled for extended range, a Chinook can carry 55 combat-ready troops or over 11,100kg of cargo. The Mi-26 was larger – with an MAUW of 56,000kg and a carriage capacity 20,000kg almost double that of a Chinook whose MAUW is 22,668kg. An interesting tid-bit in some aviation sites (e.g.https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/131914/c-17-carries-chinook/) notes that the Chinook can be transported in the hold of the C-17 Globemaster III which India has, but there has been no report of that having been tried out in India. The advantage of being able to transport the Chinook over large distances is obvious.
The first four India-specific versions of the Chinook were delivered ahead of schedule and the final five within the agreed time frame of March 2020. Value addition achieved by induction of Chinooks into the IAF is immense as these can carry armed troops, howitzers, missile launchers for Agni/Prithvi missiles, bulldozers, Bofors guns amongst other useful loads to high altitude areas of interest. The Chinook is a modern leading edge helicopter – a truly multi-mission helicopter with a fully integrated, digital cockpit management system, and advanced cargo handling capabilities. The 11-tonne payload and high altitude performance makes it a valuable operational asset and with increasing Chinese belligerence in Ladakh and elsewhere, it will prove to be a useful handmaiden to our military actions, especially, but not only at high altitudes.
In the 16th edition of Exercise Yudh Abhyas, a US Army sponsored joint Indo-US exercise at Mahajan Field Firing Ranges, Rajasthan, the IAF deployed Chinooks in a bid to understand better the nuances of its utilisation from the military of its parent nation. The Uttarakhand glacier burst and flash flood in February this year also saw the deployment of Chinooks in support of the National and State Disaster Relief Forces, especially in support of the multi-agency mission at the Tapovan tunnel in the Chamoli area.
Some analysts have argued that the Chinook and the Mi-26 are quite different platforms with the lifting capability of the Mi-26 being nearly twice that of the Chinook, when evaluated under similar operating temperatures and elevations. The Mi-26 has a more voluminous cargo space thus permitting bulky and awkward payloads to be carried while the Chinook is more versatile and flexible in use. The argument goes on further to declare that the Chinook should not be seen as a replacement for the Mi-26 but as complementing it in the heavy lift category. As far as operational considerations go, that argument makes sense and, once the three Mi-26s are overhauled, they could be utilised as in the past. Payloads falling within the Chinook’s capability could be handled by the Chinook fleet and heavier loads could be transported by Mi-26s. This will also ensure that the IAF’s huge investment over the years in Mi-26 maintenance infrastructure does not go waste.
It is unlikely that the IAF will get any more Apaches; if any more Apaches do come into India, they will be for the Indian Army. So if that is the case, does it make sense to have the two services operate same type of an extremely expensive and sophisticated helicopter in small numbers with the attendant duplicated costs of training, maintenance and equipment? Or is some amalgamation possible wherein all current Apaches and any future acquisitions can be fused into a single, more practical dispensation? These questions need to be addressed at a national level, rising above single service wants, and meeting joint service needs. One hopes that the urgency of consolidating attack helicopters for their optimum utilisation is seen as a priority by the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).
Following on from that, the AAC has ambitions of growing at the rate of two squadrons of ALH every year in addition to Rudras and LCHs joining its fleet. The IAF is also getting Rudras and LCHs and that raises the issue of duplicating costs, training and infrastructure for these two types in both the services. The Indian Army sees the helicopter’s tactical significance best exploited when under command of the land force commander so that it becomes an elevated battlefield platform giving the commander an additional advantage in surveillance, manoeuvre and application of force. The IAF quotes basic principles of air power – flexibility, indivisibility, concentration – to stake a claim to all helicopters. Despite the MoD directive of 2012 about all future attack helicopter acquisitions going to the Indian Army, the debate has not subsided. Perhaps the time has come when the bifurcation (or trifurcation, if Naval Aviation is also taken into account) of roles and tasks for helicopter assets needs to be revisited from a national point of view. With a CDS in place, it ought to be easier to bring about a change in single service cultures so that national interest becomes the definitive criteria and overrides parochial and long-held single service standpoints.