Military & Aerospace

Employment of Helicopters in Counter Insurgency Roles
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Issue Vol. 29.2 Apr-Jun 2014 | Date : 29 Jul , 2014


By their very nature, helicopters are complex and aerodynamically unstable platforms as compared to fixed wing aircraft. Their ability to tackle extreme conditions of weather is generally less than that of fixed wing aircraft. Performance degradation with altitude (especially in the high and hot conditions prevalent in the mountains) is more rapid than with fixed wing aircraft. Speeds and altitudes are lower than that of  fixed wing aircraft, putting them at risk against ground fire to a greater degree. Lower speeds result in increased response times unless they are based close to areas of operations. This increases the vulnerability of bases to attack by ground forces especially in counter insurgency scenarios where forces are operating deep in areas where the control of the state is tenuous. Because of their very design, rotors and power transmission systems are exposed and extremely vulnerable to damage from light and medium automatic weapons.

An area of contention between the IAF and para military forces has been the sanitising and securing of drop zones for helicopters…

Unlike fixed wing aircraft, such damage is often catastrophic. Although their ability to land vertically and hover are assets, they are extremely vulnerable during these phases. Due to limitations in weight carrying capability, fitting heavy armour on aircraft in general and helicopters in particular is usually not a workable idea. Providing protection against small calibre automatic weapons up to 23mm for crew members, fuel tanks and some critical areas has been done in certain types, especially gunships. Simple weapons like Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) with shaped charge warheads have proved to be lethal even against armoured gunships like the Mi 25/35. These weapons are readily available to even poorly equipped insurgents. Existing armour on gunships does not provide sufficient protection. As of now evading them is the only effective defence if helicopters have to operate within their lethal envelopes. However due to short ranges, time available to evade is limited. Such a crude use-and-throw weapon operated by someone with very little training but high on motivation can neutralise a sophisticated system. Medium calibre machine guns are also a serious threat.

Vulnerabilities to ground weapons have forced helicopters to fly higher outside the kill envelopes of these weapons or to operate by night when the ground defenders have problems of target acquisition. Both these tactics degrade weapons delivery accuracy especially when using unguided weapons. This brings up the problem of collateral damage which may be acceptable to some extent in an all out war, but is totally counter-productive in counter insurgency situations.

The Indian Scenario

In the past we have used fixed wing aircraft in an offensive role in the North East briefly in the early 1960s and extensively in logistics support roles from then onwards. Indian forces used both Mi-8 transport and Mi-25 attack helicopters in counter insurgency operations in Sri Lanka and in support of UN ‘peacekeeping’ missions in Africa.

Effective command and control plus coordination are aspects that are at times deficient in our joint operations…

As of now, we have been using very limited numbers of medium transport helicopters in the support, reconnaissance, surveillance, air mobility and Casevac roles. Numbers are few, for example 12,000 ground para military forces being supported by just eight IAF helicopters in Central India. The decision to increase the numbers to 14 is touted as a great effort! These have been augmented by UAVs for surveillance and reconnaissance. The sensor packages in the UAVs are reportedly having difficulties in picking up insurgents under forest cover. Although real time data generation is possible, the complaint is that the data reaches the ground para military commander late. We have a habit of degrading our capabilities, inhouse itself because of turf wars!

IAF helicopters are armed for retaliatory fire with light automatic weapons only. Indian Air Force commanders have opposed using offensive air power against our own people. We had done that with fixed wing fighters in the mid 1960s in the North East and like almost all countries realised that except in very high intensity operations bordering on civil war or full armed conflict, such options are counter-productive. The call for use of helicopters in fire support roles is possibly born out of political desperation to try anything and without appreciating the limitations and dangers of offensive use of air power in counter insurgency operations.

Insurgents will love to destroy an IAF helicopter and capture the crew not because it significantly degrades the capabilities of one of the largest air forces in the world (which it does not), but because it acts as a morale booster for their cadres and a propaganda tool for their perceived fight against ‘an oppressive state’. It also helps in attracting recruits and garnering both national and international sympathy.

An area of contention between the IAF and para military forces has been the sanitising and securing of drop zones for helicopters. The former wants neutralisation of insurgents in the area whereas the latter contends that the need to induct ground forces into hostile areas is because the areas have insurgent activity in the first place. A ground force which finds it difficult to clear road lines of communication along a five-metre wide road for, say, ten kilometres because almost all the ambushes have been of security forces moving along roads because they lack the mobility, terrain knowledge and at times the infantry skills to move cross-country unlike the insurgents – can find it difficult to say the least to sanitise areas of around two by two kilometres surrounding a helicopter Landing Zone. Saturating the area with suppressive fire from the air as is done in war zones leads to collateral damage and further alienation.

In an ideal world, we would have state–of-the-art helicopters and Precision Guided Munitions in huge numbers…

Beset with all these constraints of low intensity insurgency operations, the best use of helicopters in our context of relatively low and medium intensity insurgencies is as follows:

  • Enhancing mobility of ground forces by reducing their dependence on road links.
  • Logistics re-supply.
  • Reconnaissance and surveillance to monitor areas of interest on a real time basis. This is where UAV integration works.
  • Provide airborne command and communication links based on helicopters. However the idea of ground forces at platoon levels being controlled from the air by the brass sitting in the relative safety of helicopters proved disastrous in Vietnam and we need not re-invent the wheel.
  • Timely Casevac. This is a potent morale booster also.

These roles require the following measures:

  • A substantial increase in numbers of troop transport and cargo helicopters with simple and not sophisticated night operations capability.
  • Troops need training in helicopter operations.
  • Lack of heli-lift and real time surveillance availability has been a reason for troops getting trapped in insurgent ambushes.
  • For Special Operations such as targeting the leadership elements, specially equipped helicopters and Special Forces from military assets could be used.
  • Better helicopter or UAV mounted sensors with all weather capabilities are needed to fully exploit these sensor capabilities and these missions could be done by Air Force assets.
  • Increased numbers of less sophisticated medium altitude UAVs for routine reconnaissance and surveillance. These will free up more helicopter assets for other tasks.
  • Some helicopters for Communications, UAV control and command post roles. These could be standard cargo helicopters communication kits.

The history of insurgencies shows that military domination alone cannot win this war…

We should increase helicopter assets in support roles rather than go overboard and use gunship firepower as a substitute for boots on the ground in the present state of insurgency. If insurgency is allowed to escalate into a civil war like conflict, the very survival of the state will dictate the use of all available resources without constraints. We would then have already lost the counter insurgency war.

Effective command and control plus coordination are aspects that are at times deficient in our joint operations, both military and civil. Specialised training and area familiarisation of crew and troops is required to fully exploit the potential of helicopters. Commanders with a pure law and order maintenance background and no concept of counter insurgency and ignorant of application of air power cannot be successful in conducting counter insurgency operations involving elements of air power.

Using helicopters crewed by pilots who are not trained in operating in militarily hostile environments risks lives and mission success. Involvement of the military in internal security duties itself is an admission of failure of the state apparatus but has become commonplace now. Equipment constraints with an ageing helicopter fleet and replacements mired in controversies means that the services will not willingly allocate scarce assets for counter insurgency.

Raising the numbers of helicopters from eight to 14 is at best a token gesture.

Laying down priorities is imperative in our case. The dangers posed by insurgency have to be weighed against the military threat from hostile neighbors, some of them involved in supporting the insurgencies themselves. This has to be done at the highest political levels and thereafter decisions taken on allocation of resources. Raising the numbers of helicopters from eight to 14 is at best a token gesture. In an ideal world, we would have state–of-the-art helicopters and Precision Guided Munitions in huge numbers. In such an ideal world, we would not have neglected the root causes of insurgencies and allowed them to fester for decades to start with!

Past record has proved that only ground forces operating with restraint can overcome insurgency. All other weapons systems can at best support these troops and not supplant them. The history of insurgencies shows that military domination alone cannot win this war. There is truth in the axiom that ‘those who forget history are condemned to repeat it’.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt B Menon

Gp Capt B Menon, former fighter pilot, IAF

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