Today’s Army Aviation forces the world over are a powerful force multiplier, which enable the land force commanders to exploit the vertical dimension, thereby contributing immensely to the control and influence over the 21st century battlefield. Aviation assets, especially in terms of helicopters, provide vital capability and have the potential to give the field force commander tremendous flexibility across the full spectrum of military operations. The integral force can focus on the integration and synchronisation of the aviation effort within the framework of the commander’s operational concept.
Army Aviation is a third dimension centrepiece which provides the force commander with exponential leverage to harness its components and achieve decisive victory by providing operational, tactical and logistic mobility. In fact, the US Army Aviation has flown over four million combat hours since 2001, the highest sustained operational tempo since the Vietnam era. It has around 5,000 plus helicopters of all types in its inventory.
Nearer home, our adversaries China and Pakistan have a very potent and effective air arm in their respective armies. Pakistan Army Aviation has in its inventory, the likes of Mi-17 and Chinook helicopters in the medium/ heavy-lift category and the Mi-25/Mi-35, Huey Cobras and the Chinese state-of-the-art Z-10 in the armed/attack helicopters category. The Z-10 has only recently been inducted into the Chinese Army Aviation. It is, therefore, a sad reflection that the 1.3 million-strong Indian Army, the third largest in the world, is still fighting turf battles and justifying its requirements to suitably equip and arm its air arm in order to exploit its full potential in future conflicts.
It was in 1963 when the Army for the first time put across its requirement for a separate air arm, comprising all types and categories of helicopters including the attack variant as well as limited fixed-wing aircraft for communication. It took 23 years before the Army finally got its own air arm in the form of the Army Aviation Corps on November 01, 1986. The modalities for the same were based on a document called ‘The Army-Air Force Joint Implementation Instruction 1986’. This document primarily laid down the transfer of all Air Observation Post (AOP) Squadrons and Flights with their existing assets of Chetak/Cheetah helicopters to the newly formed Aviation Corps. These instructions also laid down that the attack helicopters units will remain with the Air Force. However, their operational control would remain with the Army – an arrangement that has not worked to anyone’s satisfaction. The document did not address the larger issue of ownership of attack and medium/heavy-lift helicopters which, to date, remains a bone of contention between the Army and the Air Force.
With the Army’s relentless pressure in putting across its case for having attack helicopters under its command, due to operational imperatives, the Government through the Ministry of Defence (MOD), finally issued instructions in this regard in February 2012, which specifically stated that henceforth, all attack helicopters will be part of the Army. While the Army welcomed this long awaited decision with lots of hope for the future of its air arm, its implementation on the ground has been far from satisfactory. Hence, it is no wonder that at the end of 32 years of its birth, the so-called ELITE air arm of the Army continues to fly the outdated, vintage and unsafe fleet of Cheetah/Chetak helicopters, is confronted with a confused Government policy on ownership of Attack Helicopters (AH), has been denied its legitimate requirements of Medium and Heavy-lift helicopters to enhance its tactical airlift capability and of course, to even think of acquiring fixed-wing aircraft for its communication requirements, seems a distant dream. A reality check clearly shows that the growth of this ‘arm of the future’ is nowhere near what was envisioned in 1963. Presently, it lacks the requisite firepower, manoeuvre and assault capability in terms of attack and medium/heavy-lift helicopters.
While there has been some forward movement on the modernisation and transformation of the Army Aviation Corps in the last couple of years, it is nowhere near what has been envisioned as per perspective plans. Government clearance for acquisition of six state-of-the-art Apache Longbow AH for the Army, though initially eleven, was approved and the finalisation of the much-awaited Ka-226T light observation helicopters project to replace the ‘flying coffins’, the Chetak and Cheetah helicopters are positive developments, but their fructification on the ground still seems a long way off. The delivery of the six Apaches for the Army will only commence after Boeing completes the delivery of 22 Apaches to the Air Force. It was heartening to learn though that first Apache AH was handed over to the Air force team at the Boeing facility in Arizona a few days ago – the Army could expect to get these in another three to four years. The contract for 200 Ka-226T helicopters was signed last year and hopefully, we should see some developments this year.
Role and Employment Philosophy
The operational diversity of the Indian military coupled with variety of terrain underline the need for state-of-the-art, modern technology helicopters capable of operating both by day and night in a complex battlefield environment of the future. As the battlefield becomes larger and more lethal, the mobility and firepower of helicopters provides a decisive advantage, hence the primacy of the AH. The AH, being an offensive weapon system and a part of aerial manoeuvre units, is an ideal weapon system for such a conflict scenario. Due to its speed, agility and firepower, it can operate with stealth and impunity to destroy enemy forces, while facilitating the operations of assault helicopters in the tactical battle area. Precise and incisive fire power, speed and manoeuvrability in the third dimension and close integration with assault and reconnaissance helicopters, make the AH a force multiplier and a critical resource of the field force commander. AH are ideally suited for operations in close coordination and conjunction with Mechanised Forces. However, there is a cardinal principle in their employment – they must generally operate as part of All Arms Teams and not in Isolation. The fate of the 30 Apaches in a stand-alone attack on Iraq’s Medina Division in the First Gulf War bears testimony to this fact.
The primary mission of Army Aviation is to fight the land battle and support ground operations. Army Aviation operates in the TBA as a combined arms team, expanding the ground commander’s battlefield in space and time. Its greatest contribution to battlefield success is the ability it gives the commander to apply decisive combat power at critical times virtually anywhere on the battlefield. This may be direct fire from aviation manoeuvre units (attack/armed helicopters) or insertion of overwhelming ground forces at the point of decision – this versatility is the very essence of Army Aviation. Army Aviation with its versatility can be effectively employed right from the commencement of operations till conflict termination.
This force is also ideally suited for the Indian Army’s cold start doctrine, as its assets such as the reconnaissance, assault and attack helicopters would be available for employment from the initial stages itself and pay rich dividends. The assets required for the above manoeuvre, 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 optimum utilisation of this battle winning resource.
A combination of attack/armed and assault helicopters is ideally suited for employment in counter Insurgency and special operations as they reduce reaction time, bypass terrain barriers/IED threats and above all, provide tactical mobility. Employment of this resource by the US in Afghanistan, Russians in Chechnya and Pakistan in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), in counter-insurgency operations clearly illustrates this. While in India, we have used assault helicopters and to a limited extent armed helicopters in Counter Insurgency Operations, the use of AH has been avoided as a policy, due to the concerns of collateral damage. In Special Operations, Operation Neptune Spear/Geronimo launched by the US to get Osama Bin Laden, exemplifies the close and precise integration of all elements of Army Aviation with Special Forces as well as other elements like the UAV’s to achieve success. There is a need to relook at our policy of using AH for operations away from populated areas, but in areas close to Line of Control/Jungles.
Present Aviation Assets
Presently, the Army has in its inventory the largest number of helicopters amongst the three services (300 plus), majority of these being the light observation class (Cheetah and Chetak). These helicopters are obsolete and have been in service for more than 40 years. Keeping this fleet operational itself is becoming well-nigh impossible due to its vintage and spares non availability/criticality, a fact accepted and corroborated by both HAL and the Army. The ‘Cheetal’ helicopter (upgraded Cheetah) fielded by HAL, is an interim measure and not a satisfactory solution for the long term.
In the light utility category, the induction of the indigenously developed Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) is making steady progress, but there are serious serviceability and maintenance issues which need to be addressed by HAL on priority to ensure optimal utilisation of this fleet, especially in high altitudes. This is an area of prime concern for the army. Meanwhile, the heavy (Mi-26 & Chinooks) and medium-lift helicopters (Mi-17V5) which form the core of the Army’s tactical lift capability and bulk of the limited inventory of attack helicopters remain with the Indian Air Force – their optimum operational employment is not possible in the present set up.
The Army’s requirement of small fixed-wing aircraft (Dornier Class) in limited numbers for roles like command and control, aerial communication hubs, logistics including casualty evacuation and communication flights, has also not fructified due to turf wars. One unit per operational command has been planned.
Future Growth Perspective
The Government’s decision to go in for the induction of 200 Russian Ka-226T helicopters through a Government-to-Government deal is a move in the right direction with the contract having been signed last year. Out of the 200 helicopters, 60 will be delivered in fly-away condition and the balance 140 will be manufactured in India. While HAL is the nodal agency along with Russian Helicopters for this project, not much progress is visible since signing of the contract, especially since 60 helicopters are to be delivered in fly-away condition. Sanctions on Russia may be playing a role especially related to engines and avionics.
Simultaneously, the HAL project for the development and manufacture of a three-tonne class Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) is nearing completion. This is to cater to the light reconnaissance and observation class of helicopters for all three services. As per HAL, the LUH is expected to complete flight certification this year and go into production thereafter. The plans are to manufacture 184 LUH in the new helicopter complex in Tumakuru, Karnataka. Overall, there is a requirement of around 500 helicopters of the light observation class, with the Army’s requirement amounting to approximately 280 to 300, which includes the replacement of the fleet of Chetak/Cheetah helicopters.
The induction of indigenously manufactured ALH in the utility and lift category commenced in 2002. Since then, 80 helicopters have been inducted and operationalised and another 60 to 70 are planned for induction in the coming decade. These helicopters can carry ten fully armed soldiers and will provide tactical lift capability at the Corps level. A decade ago, with the active involvement of HAL, the Army had even processed a case for acquisition of a 10 to 12 tonne class of helicopter with special features such as stealth for its Special Operations Aviation Units. It was heartening to see HAL display a mock-up of the 10 to 12 tonne class ‘Multi-role Helicopter’ during the Aero India Show in February 2017, but there has been no further progress on this project so far. With regard to the medium and heavy-lift capability, the Army continues to depend on the Air Force with assets like the Mi-17V5 helicopters and Chinooks (being acquired from US) being held in their inventory.
Another variant of the ALH is the armed version called the ‘Rudra’. Four units consisting of ten helicopters each have already been raised and have been operationally deployed. Rudra is a typical armed helicopter with an array of weapon systems including gun, rockets, air-to-air missiles and air-to-ground missiles along with a modern sighting system and integrated electronic warfare self-protection suite. However, in its present configuration, it has not been integrated with a suitable ATGM, as the air version of Nag ATGM ’Helina’, being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is not yet ready. It is pertinent to note that non-availability of a suitable airborne ATGM will not only impact the operational capability of the Rudra, but also the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) project of HAL. The ATGM is the main weapon system of an armed/attack helicopter, without which it merely remains a gunship, inhibiting the exploitation of its full potential. This is an area of grave concern and needs to be addressed on priority by all stakeholders concerned. All previous efforts to import a suitable ATGM have come to naught, with DRDO grappling with this project for last two decades without success. Some reports indicate that a breakthrough may have been achieved in the ‘Helina’ project.
The most important issue on the ownership of attack helicopters remains in a limbo despite the Government’s earlier decision in 2012 in the Army’s favour. With regards to the Apache AH, the army had initially projected the requirement of 39 Apache Mk III AH for its Strike Corps, but only 11 were cleared by the Government. 22 Apaches are already in the process of being inducted into the Air Force. However, for reasons best known to the MOD, finally, only six Apaches have been approved for the Army, making a mockery of their employment philosophy. Last year, the US Congress had approved the direct commercial sale of six AH-64E Apache Helicopters, including support equipment in terms of engines, fire control radars, sensor suites, missiles and rockets for an estimated cost of $930 million.
Additionally, the development of the LCH by HAL, hailed as a state-of-the-art Attack Helicopter with the capability to operate at high altitudes (16,000 feet), is indeed a landmark achievement and will be a force multiplier for operations in mountainous regions, especially after the Kargil experience. The LCH uses the technology of the existing ALH and its configurations except that the fuselage is suitably modified and streamlined for tandem seating; HAL hopes to achieve initial operational clearance this year. Both the Army and the Air Force are the potential customers with the Government approving the initial acquisition of five LCH for the Army and ten for the Air force.
Air Space Management
Possibly, one of the most undervalued and neglected areas of concern, is the need for Air Space Management in the TBA without which it would not be possible to employ aviation resources successfully. It is understood that an ad hoc organisation and arrangement exists between the Army and the Air Force at the Corps level. This entails that the air space over the TBA up to 100 metres will be the responsibility of the Land Force Commander (Corps Commander) with a buffer zone of 50 metres and beyond 150 metres will be managed by the Air Force. The management of air space in the TBA is a complex issue with a plethora of weapon systems operating in a confined space and would need special attention to ensure optimum utilisation of all assets including tactical/mini UAVs. The result of ill-coordinated activation of air space control measures will be disastrous with aviation assets not being able to operate when needed. This is a very critical area and needs to be addressed by the two services realistically and holistically, for failure to do so would have severe consequences during war.
In order to dominate the tactical battle space of the future in the 21st century, the Army Aviation has to go beyond fielding light observation and Light Utility Helicopters. The roles that Army Aviation needs to perform in support of land battle require equipment, personnel and organisations that enhance the overall goal and capability of the land forces commander. The need is for dedicated aircrew who are proficient in flying and have extensive field experience associated with regular army manoeuvres, operational thinking and ground tactics.
In terms of equipment, most of the projects impacting its modernisation and transformation such as the Apache, Ka-226T, LUH and LCH are still to fructify and may take another three to four years before we can see their effect on the ground. The control and ownership of AH and medium/heavy-lift helicopters by the Army is an operational imperative due to the need for integration of all elements of Army Aviation (combat and combat support) into a cohesive combat organisation. To make this battle-winning arm a potent force capable of supporting the Indian Army operations across the entire spectrum of conflict, it must be made more capable, lethal and sustainable. New dimensions in tactical night operations as a direct result of sensor and avionics capabilities, with the ability to operate at low levels at night will yield great dividends.
All the helicopters mentioned above are state-of-the-art technologically advanced aircraft, capable of fulfilling various missions and providing commanders with an array of options far beyond what they have today. The issues concerning the serviceability and maintainability of ALH need to be addressed on priority by HAL, for this could be the future workhorse of Army Aviation in the light-lift category, with the capability to operate at high altitudes – a distinct advantage for any future conflict in the mountains. Lastly, and most importantly, any Army Aviation transformation and restructuring must form part the overall transformation and restructuring plans of the Indian Army, in order to develop it into a deployable and sustainable force that is tailor-made and inter-operable. It is equally important for the land forces commanders to fully comprehend the role and employment philosophy of this battle-winning arm, to fully exploit its full spectrum capability – these must be suitably validated in test bed exercises. Only then will the Army Aviation evolve as a potent arm of the Indian Army whereby its combat efficiency is enhanced to the maximum extent and it can be truly called the ‘arm of the future’.