Military & Aerospace

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

And what happens when the killing begins? The helicopters will have to withdraw just as the Mi-17s were forced to in the Kargil War? Will the Corps Commander fight without them or wait until AHs rejoin the battle? Are we planning on acquiring extremely expensive flying machines knowing full well their limited utility in the plains, zero capability in the mountains and high vulnerability everywhere? Amazing! We know that tanks have to close up to 500 metres before they can identify and engage enemy armour and the AH will be right there, making itself extremely vulnerable to SAMs, MMGs, RPGs and small arms. Hardly tells of sound strategy or shrewd tactics.

Our extremely inhospitable terrain with its lengthy border in the mountains precludes the use of AH or any other helicopters in the offensive role…

The AH in the Kargil Conflict Whither Leadership and Vision?

Taking care of one’s turf, boosting promotion opportunities in one’s Service, adding flavor to units and formations are some of the responsibilities of senior military commanders and are necessary for morale, and for glorifying military capabilities. But at what cost? How can any senior military leader willfully acquire weapon systems that do not significantly add to the offensive and defensive strength of a Service? If the AH has no value except during ceremonial occasions and firepower displays, does it need to be acquired?

Here is a true story that emerged from the Kargil conflict. An AH was demanded by the Army to attack some intruders who had captured certain peaks in the Kargil sector (as conveyed to the AOC J&K at Udhampur). Heavy with armour plating, the AH cannot climb and cross Zoji La into Ladakh. Hence, the AH could not be tasked for attacking intruders on Kargil slopes. It cannot fly across those heights into Ladakh due to an intrinsic design limitation. This was explained by the AOC. However, till date, the media repeatedly states that the IAF’s reluctance and unwillingness to help the Army was the reason for the IAF’s hesitation in using AHs in the Kargil Conflict. This canard is a sad commentary of how truths and facts are distorted for petty inter-service rivalry, immediately exploited by the politico-bureaucratic combine and the sensation-hungry media. Damage control is impossible; the truth is neither gripping enough for Prime Time TV nor Front Page news. The canard lives on; fiction becomes fact.

Even today, after 14 years, this misleading fabrication remains a thorny issue between the Army and the IAF. And, which is why the Army is strongly bidding for the AH to be placed under them so that the Army’s AH will support its troops, which the IAF is supposedly reluctant to do. How the Army’s AH, with its armour-plating will cross Zoji La, Rohtang, Khardung La, Baralachala and other high passes to get to the battle zones of Ladakh remains a mystery and needs closer examination. Will the Army AH use thrust augmentation devices to boost the thrust of the AH engines? How will they remove the heavy armour plating? Yes, indeed that is exactly what the IAF did. They removed the armour plating of the AH which went on to cross the Zoji La carrying an insignificant amount of armament.

The harsh truth is that helicopters will be useless offensive fire power platforms in the mountains…

Thus, it begs the question – is the AH of the Army to battle in the mountains without armour plating and with limited armament? The AH with its poor offensive capacity in the mountains is as defenseless as the MI-17 was in Kargil 1999. Putting the AH under the command of the Indian Army cannot make it a better fighting machine than when under the command of the IAF. The harsh truth is that helicopters will be useless offensive firepower platforms in the mountains.

It makes no difference to the AH whether the senior commander is a General, an Air Marshal or an Admiral for that matter. The insatiable desire of Army formation commanders to have everything ‘under command’ is a flawed concept when talking about the AH or any airborne weapon system. Many senior Army commanders have even expressed opinions that fixed-wing dedicated ground attack aircraft for Close Air Support should justifiably be placed ‘under command’ of the Army Commander if not the Corps Commander. Can there be a more absurd, farcical, ludicrous and laughable leadership vision?

Army Aviation

Most certainly the Army needs its own air mobility. It must have airborne artillery observation posts to direct gunfire. Senior Army officers cannot keep requisitioning the IAF for helicopters to swiftly move within their area of responsibility. However, in creating an Army Aviation wing, the issue of duplication and parallel assets has come up with separate logistics channels. All three Services use Cheetah/Chetak yet each have their own pool of spares and rotables, each Service supplied by a common agency, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). All Army Aviation helicopters have been moved from Air Force Bases and duplicate heliports have been built at enormous cost. But that is a different tale.

It is in the mountains that the AH will face its severest test and will, in all probability, fail.

Do We Need More Attack Helicopters?

Can anything be done with the AHs already in use with the IAF? Knowing their severe limitations, why were they procured? There is no justification for these machines being on our inventory. Now that we have them, the AHs can, at best, be used for Special Operations where stealth, surprise, limited opposition and cover of darkness reduces their vulnerability. India has been threatening to attack and destroy terrorist training camps in POK. The AH may be utilised to target the ingress routes of terrorists and to intercept Naxals as they freely wander unseen by CRPF/BSF eyes. It may be used to sanitize an area from aerial or surface intervention on occasions such as Republic Day, the Commonwealth Games and places such as stadiums, bridges, dams, buildings, ports, Vital Points and Oil Rigs. There can be umpteen occasions and options where the AH would make a positive impact. For the tasks mentioned and many more that will emerge from SPG, NSG, PMO, MOD, MHA, Defence HQs et al, India needs not more than just one or two squadrons of AHs.


What about the Army and Navy?

From the foregoing, it is evident that the AH is incapable of supporting a land or sea battle where small arms, SAMs and other hand-held weapons used by the enemy pose a real threat to it. It is a fallacy to believe that heli-borne Special Naval Commandos can capture a ship on high seas. The AH squadron is best retained with the Air Force, readily available for all contingencies. Specialised training for aircrew will be centralised, combined with rehearsals, simulated operations, on-the-job continuation training with para-military and Special Forces.

Monitoring of the state of readiness can be strictly assessed with vital inputs from the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, BSF, CRPF, NSG and SPG. There will be no duplication of resources and no multiple locations with each State of the Union seeking their quota. The AH squadron has to be positioned where infrastructure to operate and maintain specialised airborne weapon systems exist. To create even more fixed assets solely for AH units is not a viable option. IAF Stations across India are intrinsically configured and customised to maintain, support and launch special AH operations at short notice.

IAF Stations across India are intrinsically configured and customised to maintain, support and launch special AH operations at short notice.


The phrase “I want” is natural for any senior military commander, especially when state-of-the-art weapons are being procured. But senior military commanders also have a sacred duty towards truthfully procuring weapons which will genuinely enhance India’s offensive and defensive capability. Those weapons cannot have severe limitations and be susceptible to unacceptable attrition. Unfortunately, the AH is one such weapon. Given our terrain and the innumerable anti-helicopter weaponry available with our adversaries, India has little use for the AH.

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.

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Most certainly, the Navy and Army must have their special air elements under their command and control. Inter-Service rivalry is rampant in all nations; the Indian Armed Forces cannot afford the luxury of creating duplicate parallel offensive air forces which cannot be force multipliers. Like the Hercules, the AH is ideally suited for very specialised tasks and naturally must be operated and maintained by the IAF which already has infrastructure and expertise to be the custodian and repository of Attack Helicopters. And finally, helicopters are very popular targets that attract immediate media attention leaving a deleterious impact on own forces and public at home. We may well be walking into a trap with fancy ideas of acquiring Attack Helicopters. And in the final analysis, it will turn out to be a lose – lose situation if we do.

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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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