The article first published in Indian Defence Review (Vol 32.4 – Oct-Dec 2017)
The Army’s long pending demand for requirement of state-of-art American Apache Attack Helicopters for its Strike Corps for operations across the western borders is finally likely to see the light of day. It has taken a long time to change a debilitating mind-set that any machine traversing through the medium of air must belong to the Air Force.
In a major development the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by the then Defence Minister Arun Jaitley gave the approval for acquisition of six Apache Attack Helicopters (AH) by the Army in August last year though earlier in May 2017 the DAC had cleared 11 Apache’s. Though not an ideal situation from the tactical employment point of view, a beginning has been made and Army no doubt will subsequently pursue its case for greater numbers, based on its operational requirements. This case is being processed as a ‘follow on contract’ of the earlier deal inked for 22 Apaches for the Air Force, which is likely to commence induction from 2019 0nwards. While the Army’s projected requirement as per its perspective plans has been for 39 Apaches for its three Strike Corps in the plains (the same was approved in principal by the previous UPA Government), in the present circumstances going for the option of repeat order was the most viable option.
As per reports the Army is moving full speed ahead to ensure that the required process is finished in time and the most technologically advanced and lethal AH in the world forms part of its inventory in the near future. Other than the Apaches this will also include weapons, radars and electronic warfare suites which constitutes the most important components of an AH.
The case for inclusion of AH to be part and parcel of army dates back to 1963 when Gen JN Chaudhary, the then COAS, stressed the requirement for a separate air wing for the Army. He emphasized that efforts at increasing the fire power 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 12thOct 2012 that the previous UPA Government took the call on the crucial issue of the ownership and operations of AH.
The Government order clearly stipulated that the entire AH fleet will be owned, operated and maintained by the Army. Though late in coming, the decision was a welcome step as it was expected to have a major impact on war fighting in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA), for a start with the mechanised forces. 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.
As a consequence of this decision it was assumed that the 22 Apache AH-64D Longbow AH being procured from the US by the Air Force, were to be part of Army Aviation Corps inventory. This assumption was based on the basic premise that the two units of MI-25/MI-35 AH presently held with the Air Force and being replaced with Apaches, are army assets and are also operationally controlled by the Army- infact a few Army Aviation Coprs pilots are also posted to these units. It therefore came as a complete surprise to the Army when the previous Government reneged on its earlier order defying operational logic and stated that the 22 Apaches being acquired would remain with the Air Force due to the acquisition process having been already set into motion– the Army’s suggestion and recommendation to the Government to share these assets 50:50 did not make any headway due to objections by Air Force.
However, to the credit of the then Government, keeping in mind the operational requirements of the Army, it gave an in principle approval for 39 Apaches for its Strike Corps. It is with this background that the current approval for the army to acquire Apache helicopters needs to be viewed. As brought out earlier DAC has initially cleared the acquisition of 11 Apache AH under the repeat order option clause, which was subsequently reduced to six numbers probably due to financial constraints. This indeed is a very positive development as neither trials nor any new contract negotiations are required to be done in this case,thereby ensuring a smooth induction process hopefully.
Why Attack Helicopters for 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 fire power that is unprecedented in land warfare. 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, in the form of direct fire from aviation maneuver units (attack/armed helicopters) or insertion of overwhelming ground forces at the point of decision (utility/lift helicopters) facilitating ‘Effects Based Operations’.
The assets required for the above maneuver, 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 utilization of the battle winning resource.This has been the basic rationale on which the Army’s case for ownership of these assets rests.
Unlike the Air Force, the Army Aviation units and helicopters are located closer to their operational areas and along with the formations they are 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 organizations 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 Holding/Pivot Corps as ‘first responder’ to enable quick and immediate action within 48-72 hours by using the integral assets at the Corps level. For this the resources required (including attack helicopters) must be at the beck and call of the field force commander- the present arrangement of these assets ownership with the Air Force and operational control with Army is not satisfactory operationally sound.
In fact both our adversaries China and Pakistan have a very potent AH inventory in the air arm of their respective armies. The Pakistan Army Aviation has the MI-25/MI-35 and Huey Cobras attack helicopters – as per reports Pakistan has also acquired the Chinese Z 10 state of art AH which has only recently been inducted into the Chinese army aviation.
Army AH Inventory Present & Future
The Army is already in the process of inducting the armed version of the ALH called ‘Rudra’ developed by the HAL with a unit already operational and another 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. Further the LCH developed by the HAL is expected to be a mile stone achievement. The LCH aims to gate crash the exclusive club of the state of art light attack helicopters, which includes Eurocopters Tiger, Bells 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 (16000 feet), a distinct advantage over other attack helicopters-the helicopter is expected to enter service by 2017/18. The LCH units will be the main punch of the maneuver force commander and will be inducted into the Army Aviation Corps and operate in support of ground forces both in the plains and mountains – during the Kargil war the only AH held (MI-25/MI-35) could not operate at high altitudes, where most of the conflict was concentrated. As per reports initial clearance for five LCH for the Army has already been given by the Government while the overall requirement is much larger.
The primary role of the AH world over is to support and fight the land battle in the tactical domain. For this the AH has to operate as part of combined arms team and not in isolation, for the outcome of such a man- oeuvre can be disastrous, as was demonstrated in the First Gulf War.The employment of AH fully integrated with Army Aviation units and fighting alongside and above the infantry also gives a new meaning to close air support in the TBA and brings into focus the role of attack and armed helicopters. In Afghanistan the troops on the ground have been more comfortable with the intimate support provided by attack / armed helicopters in their operations, due to the visibility, proximity and response time factors.
In the near future the Army’s air arm, the Army Aviation Corps, will boast of formidable AH inventory from the Rudra armed helicopter to the state of art AH like the Apache and the LCH. The LCH with its high Altitude capability will be force multiplier and a weapon of decision in any future conflict in the mountains. The Apache AH is a game changer and will be a powerful and decisive tool with the Strike Corp Commander – there is no doubt that in case of a future conflict the 22 Apaches with the Air Force would also be available to support the land forces operations, for this is the primary role of these AH. With the induction of such modern and technology driven weapon systems the Army will need to plan and work out appropriate employment philosophies, training and maintenance procedures suitable to the Indian environment to exploit the full potential of these battle winning machines in the future.