Military & Aerospace

Attack Helicopters: Should India Have Them?
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Issue Vol. 28.3 Jul-Sep 2013 | Date : 19 Sep , 2015

AH-64D Apache Attack Helicopter

The Attack Helicopter has value for money in a relatively benign environment for short, swift Special Operations where the opposition has restricted ability to interdict the AH. Other countries have huge air arms for each Service, some of which are now closing down. There is no justification for India to mimic defunct, untried and indeed failed strategies developed for European and Middle East scenarios. This approach may mislead us into a weapons procurement minefield. Thereafter, wasteful expenditure will hamper us from getting what we really need for India’s safety and security.

Attack Helicopters in support of huge mechanised attacking or defending armies have never been tested against any enemy…

It is with much trepidation that one reads about acquisition of Attack Helicopters (AH) for the Armed Forces. Ground Force commanders have always demanded dedicated air borne offensive fire power placed directly under their command as they are convinced these are indispensible for victory. The commander equates airborne firepower with armour, artillery, combat engineers that are under command and integral to the Division or Corps. He believes, incorrectly, that under-command airborne fire, he will win the land battle. He ignores the inherent flexibility of airborne weapons which precludes limiting that firepower within restricted areas. Why squeeze that flexible and swiftly re-locatable capability?

The Indian Air Force (IAF), on the other hand, appears to be averse to let airborne weapons systems be with anyone except themselves. Their fear is that when one such weapon system goes outside their command and control, there will be an exodus of other similar airborne weapons. Precedents are awful to deal with.

Foreign Doctrines

Over the last few decades as Indian Army strategists were exposed to American doctrines of warfare in Europe, the desire to acquire ‘under-command’ air power became paramount. The Indian Army’s battle theories against Pakistan became copies of NATO hypotheses to thwart the ‘Soviet Steamroller’ overwhelming Western Europe. Strike formations with terrific mobility became the bedrock of fighting concepts in India’s Western theatre. Many actually believed that such bold plans would succeed and they conducted exercises and rehearsals culminating in Operations such as Operation BRASSTACKS and Operation PARAKRAM.

Deducing that a mobile and fluid battlefield would emerge with mechanised and armoured forces covering great distances, concepts for airborne firepower to support these forces emerged in the form of the AH. Regrettably, the concept is intrinsically flawed and the question arises whether it will fructify in India.

The Indian Air Force appears to be averse to let airborne weapons systems be with anyone except themselves…

Without bias and rancour, one can deduce the true utility of Attack Helicopters in India – these expensive flying machines have limited value and poor effectiveness and acquisition of the AH may be a seriously flawed concept.

Where Has the Attack Helicopter Been Decisive?

The appropriate answer would be – no where. AHs in support of huge mechanised attacking or defending armies have never been tested against any enemy. Exercises in Europe with Red & Blue forces could not give a correct picture of how the helicopters would perform. What attrition would they suffer? How would the mechanised formations changing directions, out-maneuvering each other keep their helicopters with them? How will the ground forces, who need to be within about 500 metres to recognise enemy tanks, identify own AHs from those of the enemy?

More pertinently, how will the AH pilots differentiate friend from foe? What happens with sudden reversals and retreats to re-group for counter-offensive? What is the impact on own forces when own AHs are destroyed among maneuvering tanks and infantry combat vehicles? The infamous fog of war becomes foggier with helicopters raising dust and howling jet engines. None of this can be ignored and wished away.

The Middle East and Afghanistan

This is where Americans and Soviets utilised their AHs – with no advantage, and that too, against a poorly endowed enemy with weak doctrine and training. Our adversary on the other hand, is well trained and has soldiers who have been known to fight courageously. With the latest technology at their command, American AHs caused many Blue-on-Blue engagements during both the First and Second Gulf Wars, but with negligible destruction of enemy forces.


The Israelis found nothing great about AHs during the Lebanese and Gaza skirmishes. Even today Israelis use only fixed-wing aircraft, not AHs inside Gaza and Lebanon.

Lesson for India?

Soviet AHs lost heavily in Afghanistan. There are true stories of Afghans knocking out AHs using wire-guided anti-tank missiles. Recall the American helicopter destroyed in Mogadishu with humiliation to aircrew. Can we ignore the fact that over 5,000 helicopters lost in Vietnam and against what type of weapons and enemy? That is how vulnerable an AH is. It is a slow moving target and extremely easy to destroy during hover. And the greatest aerodynamic capability of the helicopter is hovering, a critical disadvantage in close-quarter battles. And does the Army want such a weapon? Even the IAF needs to rethink on AHs and their utility to support forces on the ground.

Can we ignore the fact that over 5,000 helicopters lost in Vietnam, and against what type of weapons and enemy?

The Mountains of India: In Ladakh and Arunachal

It is in the mountains that the AH will face its severest test and will, in all probability, fail. This is well known and has been evaluated often to squeeze some positive outcome but to no avail. Readers will be amazed to know that the first proposal for AH was for the defence of Bhutan. Observe the latest imbroglio about changing the QRs for VVIP helicopters with altitude being the defining factor.

The extremely inhospitable terrain with its lengthy border in the mountains precludes the use of AH or any other helicopters in the offensive role. Suffice it to say, AHs are bound to be under-utilised in the mountains, and since India has thousands of miles of mountainous borders to defend, the AH with the Army or the IAF is a zero force multiplier. Regrettably, there are many who refuse to accept this truth and insist that the AH is the panacea for some of the ills plaguing airborne warfare.

The Army’s insistence to acquire AHs is based on the most specious indefensible reasoning. The IAF advises against their acquisition and indeed, even placing them, if acquired, under the Army. The bureaucrats in the MoD, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Defence Production smirk at this rivalry that ultimately leads to inordinate delay in the procurement of weapons. Desperately required routine acquisitions get sidelined and finally, when hostilities break out, the Chief is left with little choice but to declare, “…We will fight with whatever we have.”

AW-101 Merlin

Is this a display of jointmanship? Or is it plain cussedness and attendant degradation of India’s military acumen and strength, with our adversaries laughing at our discomfort and dissipated fighting capability? Do the proponents demanding AHs weigh these deleterious implications on morale? Frontline fighting formations are aware of this injudicious infighting.

The Heights of the Himalayas

All aero-engines degrade in power output with increasing altitude and therefore, the thrust of turbojet engines decays at just 10,000 feet, the colour of the pilot’s uniform cannot recompense. At 17,000 feet, the thrust falls even further. At 20,000 feet, the height at which attack helicopters are expected to fly, there is less than 50 per cent oxygen to generate thrust. This is the inviolable verity of physics and has nothing to do with Sena Bhavan versus Vayu Sena Bhavan. Both Army and IAF pilots know this fact. Helicopter pilots operating in Siachen, Arunachal, Ladakh and Uttarakhand have experienced this phenomenon and know the perils of limited thrust. Many fatal accidents are attributed to pilots who have ignored this aeronautical truth. Since no AH can perform at peak levels in the mountains where the Army most needs them, why acquire them at all? There must be a reason that is non-military; or is it plain ego?

Since India has thousands of miles of mountainous borders to defend, the AH with the Army or the IAF  is a zero force multiplier…

Advocating that the Army must have its own Aviation arm, many Army strategists have castigated the IAF for being cussed and obdurate about AHs for the Army. The IAF’s obstinacy may well have prevented ‘wasteful expenditure’ for a weapon that has little use anywhere in India. For the sake of hypothesis, let us imagine what the AHs would have done during the recent face-off with the Chinese. Fly around as a show of force? If that is all that is to be done, why buy AHs? Fly around in Mi-17s. Beyond doubt, we have established that AHs will be under-utilised, ineffective and become the proverbial ‘white elephant’ for the Services in the mountains.

Gaza and Golan Heights

It is true that in the Golan Heights and the Gaza strip, the Israeli Air Force deploys AHs that work in conjunction with UAVs and attack specific targets such as vehicles, buildings and hide-outs. Within Israel, there is no remaining opposition to the helicopters to fire their lethal missiles with precision guidance. It is pertinent that Israel does not use its AHs in close support of armoured formations for sweeping across the Negev, assaulting Golan, razing Gaza or entering Lebanon. The Israelis know it would be futile, waste of resources and attract heavy attrition to small arms. What about Indian AHs in Punjab and Rajasthan?

Into the Killing Grounds?

Why then, does the Indian Army want to procure the Attack Helicopter in support of our armoured and mechanised formations? The AH will have to move with tanks/APCs, manoeuver in the tactical battle area; it will fly low and slow in restricted visibility where the enemy cannot be easily discerned and extensive small arms, to which it is extremely vulnerable, will be directed against the helicopter.

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No other Army on Earth adopts this doctrine and philosophy in actual practice. It has failed in Iraq, not once but twice. Helicopter casualties in Vietnam were horrendous as was Soviet helicopter attrition in Afghanistan.

The plains of Punjab and the deserts of Rajasthan will become the killing grounds for India’s AHs which will be floating around within small geographical boundaries under direct command of the Division or Corps Commanders. Being under command they have to remain within the Division or Corps battle zone but that will defeat the inherent flexibility and purpose of airborne weapon platforms. Is that not reason enough to avoid procuring them?

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15 thoughts on “Attack Helicopters: Should India Have Them?

  1. In my opinion AHs are great help for both ground forces and air forces in many ways. They can attack directly and they can provide support attack to the ground at a tight situation that no other aircraft can provide. At afghan war soviet mi-24 and mig-21s shut down by the stinger missiles. And USA lost nearly 5000 HUEYs in vietnam war because they were utility helicopters not AHs. Thats why USA started developing it’s AHs. Now a days AHs can hit there targets 8 to 12 km without noticed. Besides Pakistan has 79 AHs and 37 more on order Including 1000 hellfire block 2 missiles. We have only 20 Mi-35 AHs operational and they are mostly out dated and need to be replaced. 7 Rudra helicopters are not strong enough to fight the modern wars and 3 HAL LCH s are on trial version. In my opinion India should add more AHs in its fleets to save our soldiers.

  2. Gp Capt Bewoor has his point of view and he is entitled to it. There is a similar ongoing debate whether the ‘ tank’ has out-lived its utility. Is it worthwhile to have three strike corps when deep armoured thrusts are no longer in the reckoning anymore? Whether the Airforce can divert assets for battle field support ? One thing is clear –no Army can manage successful operations without air cover and battlefield support which includes the whole gamut of the Airforce’s involvement from engaging tactical targets to casevac, air transported/heliborne operations, para drops and air supply. Ultimately it is not the question of ‘ who will get them–IAF or the AA ?’ . And since the Home Ministry has its own ‘Armies’ -being put at par with the Indian Military they will also clamor for a slice of the cake!! And we also know that the Country, its Bureaucrats , the Govt and its Military Forces lack ‘jointmanship’. Who will have operational control? Who will take battle field decisions-at the tactical and strategic level ?? Recollect the problem of using air power in the Kargil war ( by the Govt : you will not cross this line) and the inability and unwillingness to use fixed wing /armed/attack helicopters effectively at ‘high altitude’ ( by the IAF ; and they had their reasons ) . Will the Indian Army be able to count on Battle Field Air Support against China : in the Himalayas and at high altitude?? Will the helicopters and the Airforce be able to undertake heliborne operations or manage quick reinforcement of threatened localities? Can a field commander depend on availability of air power when he is in a tight position : or is about to launch an offensive. Getting aerial platforms is one thing and networking them to formulate an integrated battle plan is another. It is the effective utilization of all available resources at the point of decision which requires immediate attention in todays battle field milieu , specially in the Indian context.. And who decides their employment — the problem lies here . We fight piecemeal — what we need are theater commanders. Let them be from the Airforce : or the Navy, and if need be from the Army! It does not matter. All available assets are made available to him and then the theater commander decides the quantum of ‘calculated risk’–how many men is he ready to lose , how many tanks can be written off , how many planes/choppers can be downed and should the Navy be ordered to go ahead with the operation , bad weather notwithstanding! Ultimately , after listening to the view point of his staff –the final decision is his. That is why he is where he is. The power of over-ruling and giving orders.

  3. Pakistan has developed Anza a personal portable infrared homing surface-to-air missile (SAM), range is 5 kilometers ( 16404 feet). In that case AH is suitable. it is easy to increase the range and accuracy of missiles. But it is difficult to increase the operational height of the helicopter. The helicopter has to be very near to the war front if we use guns. During Vietnam war USA might have used guns . In our case we are going to use powerful missiles. with pin point accuracy. So the helicopter can keep a safe distance from ground fire. The departmental feeling is maximum among defense officers . We have seen in the last two wars iAF did not give air support to Army in time. So Army should have AH. The departmental feeling is not good for the country. Defense officers should stop writing this kind of articles. Hari Nair has clarified the ‘falling oxygen levels at high altitude’ reducing thrust.’ All these points should have sorted out across the table. The defense officers cannot fool the general public any more. IAF is afraid of loosing their importance during war time. Similar kind of objections were raised by IAF in the case of Tejas. to get Rafael plane. They said the thrust and Angle of attack/ turn is not good and it will fail during dog fight. But in the modern war fare dog fight is not important. Air superiority is achieved by the missile and its avionic. After all the fighter planes and the helicopters are only weapon carrying vehicles. The F-35 cannot out manoeuvre F-16 aircraft which it is meant to replace. So it is very difficult tell what will happen in real war. In the 1971 war PAF said that they could not achieve air superiority because the bombs used by them were not effective as expected. So we should give importance to missiles.

    • There is no doubt Drones are better. But if we start using the same. so many pilots will be job less. Majority of Army and IAF officers are blaming the Govt by raising some issues . But never care for the life of the soldiers or the pilots. India had 1200 Mig 21 fighter planes operated by single pilot. Majority of fighter planes in the world are operated by only one pilot, except Rafael and Euro fighter Typhoon. Russians are operating Sukhoi planes with single pilot. But IAF had asked the Russians to modify the plane and make it suitable for two pilots. The exact reason for this request is not known. Perhaps the idea is to by -pass Swedish- make Gripen .The person who asked for two seater Plane has no consideration for human life. Americans have started using Drones to minimize loss of human life. Swedish Gripen fighter planes are the best replacement for Mig-21.Its specification matches with Mig-21. Its operating cost is the lowest in the world ( $ 3000 per hour), where as Rafael’ s operating cost is $.17000. Another advantage is that Gripen was using the same GE engine which we are using in Tejas. The financial condition of Gripen is not sound. So Govt. of India should have tried to acquire the company(Gripen) like Tatas acquired Corus instead of spending on Rafael planes. This could have solved two problems – one is a suitable replacement for Mig-21 and the other is a suitable engine for Tejas. It is easy to get fighter planes, but training a pilot is time consuming. This will create shortage of pilots in the long run. So over a period of time there will be enough planes but there will be shortage of pilots.

  4. What India needs is a combination of the equivalent of a Wart Hog (US A-10) and attack drones. The Helicopter is almost obsolete. Which is probably why the HAL is likely to begin their manufacture for an India that cannot develop armour for them against small arms fir, or decoys against Surface to Air Missiles. . Weapon development cycle time and bring to operations in the real World, needs to be extremely short. A couple of years at the most. But India, which began work on an LCA in 1954 (HF-24) still does not have an propulsion system and is shoppin with GE Aero Engines. Mt Class mate who fled India’s Reservation-Corruption Raj and the Neta-Babu-Cop-Milard-Crony Kleptocracy to the US just retired as head of R & D at the GE Aero Engine Division. That India has not been taken by Islam (Pakistan) or Communism (China) is a miracle such as we witness in traffic every day or people surviving Indian hospitals and are able to read write and do ‘rithmetic despite having obtained an Indian Ph.D or having been elevated as puisine Judges. The prosecution rests.

    • I fully agree with you that we should use more UAVs. But I do not agree with you regarding Aero engine for LCA. It is not easy to develop Aero engine without proper test facilities . In spite of so many difficulties they developed an engine. But it could not give the designed .value of 70 kN thrust initially. Later on they achieved a thrust of 81kN. But IAF asked for an engine having a thrust of minimum 90 kN. IAF could have given clearance to use a few Kaveri engines on Tejas for trial. Without the cooperation of the users department no indigenous development can be done.

  5. Dear Gp Capt Bewoor,
    I read your article and am rather bemused by the logic in your arguments-
    You mentioned ‘falling oxygen levels at altitude’ reducing thrust… and hence attack helicopter(s) wil NOT be able to fly with any effective weapon-load in the Leh-Ladakh sector!! Also that AHs were never successful, ever!!!
    Sir, I have some news that will perhaps bring you to date on the available technologies and more important on recent successful field trials at Leh ..
    HAL’s Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) prototypes were taken into Leh during this year (2015), both during the winter (for cold soak tests) and summer (for hot and high performance). The Attack Helicopter was ferried in at altitude (continuously) in excess of 6000 m (20,000 ft), flown over the Siachen Glacier including landing at a helipad above 15,800 ft elevation with a very (R) very useful weapon-load capability. The LCH is the first AH to land on the Glacier (and I suspect at those altitudes)!!
    For your further info, the LCH has weapons & sensors that give it stand-off capability against typical ground weapons.
    Such Attack Helicopters, if they had been available for the Kargil conflict capable of targeting those ‘sangars’ with pin-point accuracy would have made a BIG difference to the way we conducted our operations. Please do remember that at such high altitudes, even the opponent will be able to only field only LIMITED AD weapons (in density & coverage). The ground forces will necessarily be thin and clumped in posts / ‘sangars’ that provide for mutual field-of-fire. Please DO remember that the options for the opponents are also severely restricted at those altitudes. Its really a race between which side can wield a stand-off platform that loiter and ‘cherry-pick’ those pin-point targets at stand-off rnage. And at this point in time, I am sure our Chinese and Pakki friends do NOT have such weapon systems. We, however, will soon have…the wpn trials will commence soon,
    – Hari Nair

    • Hari Nair
      The FIM-92 Stinger is a personal portable infrared homing surface-to-air missile (SAM), range is 8 kilometers ( 26246.7 feet) . So AH will be vulnerable to ground fire. But in the modern warfare. the enemies armoured and mechanised formations will be destroyed by using missiles. In that case AH has to be used to destroy if anything missed by the missiles. or the retreating enemy force. So I feel that in a modern warfare air superiority is not so important .particularly in the war front. Fighter plane is required to destroy enemy Air fields, communication net work , refinery and railway yards etc. More over we will get a clear picture of enemy concentration from IRNSS. In the 1971 war Pakistan commander used a helicopter to find out Indian Army formation in the battle of Champ.

  6. Sir, Pardon but saying no role of AH may not be correct. I may not know in technical aspects but a group of two to four light AH can stop a incoming tank attack, can be used to stop marching units with great precession, can be used in thwart air attacks (Which are equipped with A to A missiles). In the era of missiles any thing can happen with a stand -off distance and lock before launches any thing can happen.

  7. In my opinion , AH have a pivotal role in special operation , terrains where conventional , armored vehicles cannot go with swiftness and stealth , AH have the potent capacity to deliver multiple and distraction strikes to defeat the initial line of defence , and least we forget it was the Attack helicopters that started the war of desert storm .

  8. The Groupie is suffering from UNDER COMMAND SYNDROME and here comes the inter services rivalry his contention is one cannot differentiate between friend and foe in the haze of the battle then this this becomes more magnified when close air support is asked from supersonic aircraft. to cite an example of a famous combined arms operation is BATTLE OF LONGEWALA wherein the enemy was mauled and decimated by appropriate ground and air effort which was not coordinated only had it been designed and coordinated it would have been more effective whatever it may have been it was a victory for India.
    my contention is all arms must work hand in glove for victory of the nation i
    would say even after so much time in NDA together the parochialism has not been stamped out of the mind just because of the UNDER COMMAND SYNDROME he is negating the whole concept of warfare why does he not study a bit of German Blitzcreig

  9. With all due respect sir, I think “tanks” are as vulnerable as AHs are. Tanks too have to bear the “dust” and subsequently find the enemy tanks to destroy it. But we buy tanks, and buy it on a large scale . It takes a RPG nonetheless, to destroy its chained wheels, and make it standstill. But we procure it. I dont have to say more!

  10. Hello, Group Captain

    Your theory of lack of suitability of AH in Himalayas is definitely flawed. Helicopter in any military operation is hop and bypass. In the mountains it is to hop from one peak to another. Imagine a squadron of Chinese tanks pressing against Daulat Beg Oldi or even northern plains of Sikkim. You have to place your own tank squadron to stop them. Alternative is to send two helicopters from the nearby peak and shoot them out and then disappear in a valley, before they have time to recover.

    In the plains Attack Helicopter is over rated. It would have difficulty to hide if the opposing side air force is flying overhead.

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