Military & Aerospace

Why Attack Helicopters for Army
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 29 Feb , 2016

As a consequence of this decision it was expected that the 22 Apache AH-64D Longbow AH being procured from the US by the air force, would ultimately be army assets. This assumption was based on the basic premise that the two units of MI-25/MI-35 presently held with the air force, are army assets and are also operationally controlled by the army and the new attack helicopters (Apaches) being acquired are for the replacement of the same. The Government however has gone against its own decision of ownership of attack helicopters by letting the air force retain the Apaches – they should have rightly been part of Army.

The attack helicopters have a well-defined concept of operations and tactics to enable their employment along with mechanised forces. Under all circumstances, their command and control is best suited to be with the field force commander.

Attack Helicopter is a force multiplier which can transcend the limits of surface friction and due to its speed, agility and firepower can operate with stealth and impunity to destroy the enemy forces. It’s forte is to fly at extremely low levels, below the enemy radar aided by its gamut of electro-optical devices duly protected by EW suites and armour plating. The vulnerability of the attack helicopter is therefore comparatively lesser than other platforms in the tactical battlefield area. The employment of attack helicopter is most suited for operations with mechanised forces. But at the same time an attack helicopter is not to be mistaken for a ‘flying tank’. Operations with mechanised forces imply operations in close co-ordination and conjunction with mechanised forces. The attack helicopters have a well-defined concept of operations and tactics to enable their employment along with mechanised forces. Under all circumstances, their command and control is best suited to be with the field force commander.

The authors views regarding the inability of helicopters especially attack helicopters to carry out offensive tasks in the mountains is not surprising, for unless one has flown helicopters in the mountains including, Siachen Glacier one does not know the reality on the ground and has to depend on theoretical knowledge. It is no rocket science to know that all aero-engines degrade in power output at high altitude, but Siachen is a reality and helicopters are the life line of the Indian Army deployed on those icy heights – the highest battle field in the world. Obviously it is common knowledge in the aviation fraternity that attack helicopters in the class of the MI-25/35 and Apache cannot operate in the high mountains- the same does not hold good for lighter categories of combat helicopters.

In this context, the development of the light combat helicopter (LCH) by the HAL is 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 ultra secret Zhisheng 10 (Z-10). The LCH is a derivative of the ALH and the RUDRA (armed ALH) 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. Unlike the RUDRA the LCH will have tandem seating cockpit and stealth features, but will carry the same weapons package now being qualified on board the RUDRA.

The employment of attack helicopters fully integrated with Army Aviation units and fighting alongside and above the infantry will also give a new meaning to close air support in the TBA.

The helicopter is expected to enter service by 2017.

The LCH/ attack helicopter 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. The army aviation corps is all set to have a lethal arsenal of state of art AH/Armed helicopters thus making it a force to reckon with and distinctly the arm of decision in the future.

It should be noted that the ALH with the Shakti engine has already landed on a helipad in Siachen at 19800 feet with four passengers. The ALH units located at Leh and Misamari are already carrying out operations in the high altitude areas of Ladakh, Arunachal and Siachen. The Cheetah helicopter of which Indian Army holds approximately 200 and is due for replacement, is also operating extensively in these areas despite their vintage- the colour of the uniform does matter.

The employment of attack helicopters fully integrated with Army Aviation units and fighting alongside and above the infantry will also give a new meaning to close air support in the TBA. There is indeed a need to relook fresh at the concept of close air support in the TBA and the role of attack / armed helicopters in the same.

The present concept of close air support is a relic of world war II, driven by range limitations of surveillance, target acquisition and engagement capability of land based platforms. The availability of unmanned aerial vehicles, missiles and long range artillery platforms (40-120 km) has changed all that, as today surface based platforms can cover the entire TBA. This also brings into focus the role of attack and armed helicopters in providing intimate close air support in the TBA. 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.

For dominating the tactical battle space of the 21st century, the roles that army aviation needs to perform in support of land battle requires equipment, personnel, aircrew and organizations…

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).

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 affiliated to, especially at the Corps level. During war these units will require to operate from forward composite aviation bases, catering for security, maintenance, fuelling 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.

For dominating the tactical battle space of the 21st century, the roles that army aviation needs to perform in support of land battle requires equipment, personnel, aircrew and organizations that enhance the overall goal and capability of the land forces commander.

The control and ownership of tactical/heavy Lift helicopters by the Army is an operational imperative…

The need is for dedicated aircrew who are not only proficient in flying but are associated full time with army maneuvers, operational thinking and ground tactics, as well as spend time in the field.

The present structure is not suited for the short, swift and limited wars envisaged in the future. While the transformation process has been set into motion by MODs decision to transfer attack helicopters to the army, a lot still needs to be done on the issue of the ownership of the lift/utility component of helicopters.

Experience of other nations clearly illustrates that each service needs a viable integral aviation component for it to retain the capacity to include air encounters as part of its personal armory. The control and ownership of tactical/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 organization.

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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

Lt Gen BS Pawar

former Head of the Army Aviation Corps and Commandant School of Artillery.

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5 thoughts on “Why Attack Helicopters for Army

  1. Attack helicopters are a basically ground operation assets hence by all logic should be allocated to the Army. In India empire building has always been ominously present in our defence system. Logically speaking the Airforce should have; on their own given up these assets to the army. But for years they have been successfully lobbying to hold on to attack helicopters for reasons of their own. An operational asset up in the air does not mean “Airforce”. It’s basically small thinking at the level of the Airforce that’s how we have come about to this situation. It is simple logic that when you operate in a particular environment you become a part of that environment and your mental horizon is orientated towards that. How do you expect an Airforce pilot of an attack helicopter who doesn’t know a damn about the operations and the tactical nuances of mechanised warfare operate in such an environment. We had to put an Army officer on board a MI-24 gunship to guide them in Srilanka. Being a Paratrooper I have a lot of experience in Heliborne Ops and I know how difficult it was to get our point to the Airforce and ask them to do what we wanted. Our problem is the defence ministry run by babus and we have and had defence ministers who would perhaps be more happy selling bananas than looking after the defence of the country.

  2. I have been a proponent of a clear divide. The Strategic, Tactical and Logistical Air Arms need remain with the Air Force. The Operations should either be handed over to the Army, or rotate through Army command while returning for training and renewal to the Air Force. Here, I mean the strike (bomber and missile) forces to be “Strategic”, Air Defence (Interceptors and missiles) to be tactical, Transport to be logistics and Ground Support (Air Observation Drones, Strafers and Bombers, Mobile Surface to Air Missiles) to be Army controlled.

  3. Rather than attack helicopters, India needs the equivalent of the A-10, (Fairchild Thunderbolt) with a squadron under the direct command and control of each operational corps or division of the Army.

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