Third of October 2022, was a memorable day for Indian Aviation as the defence minister presided over the formal handing over of the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) to the Indian Air Force. Designed, developed and manufactured by HAL, the induction of LCH aka Prachanda, was a momentous occasion signalling a major step in India’s attempts at indigenization and reducing dependence on imported weapon systems. The LCH will add significantly to the firepower of the Indian military, as it complements the rotary wing attack capability of 22 AH-64E Apache, one squadron of Mi-35s and the weaponised version of ALH, the Rudra variant. The initial order is for 15 LCHs, 10 for the IAF and 5 for the Army. HAL expects to produce nearly 200 LCHs, 65 for the IAF and 135 for the Army. There is little doubt that such a large contingent of Attack Helicopters (AH) would add significantly to India’s military punch.
Even as India celebrates the induction of LCH, there is troubling news emanating from the Ukraine-Russia war on the vulnerability of AHs. As per open-source tracking site Oryx, from the start of the war in February 2022 till mid-November, Russia had lost 37 AHs (23 Ka-52s, 8 Mi 24/35 and 6 Mi-28s). Ka-52 Alligator, the mainstay of the Russian AH fleet, suffered losses amounting to nearly a 25% of the total fleet of 90.  This level of attrition is quite unexpected and unsustainable in a long war. As discussed subsequently, attack helicopters have seen employment mainly in sub-conventional wars or in wars where the users were dominant in the air and the opposition weak. The Ukraine-Russia war is possibly the first instance of AH employment in a conventional war between peers or near peer rivals. The question that arises is whether the vulnerability of AHs exposed during the Ukraine war is relevant in our context?
Theeuphoric talk is about production of 200 LCHs and induction of more Apache helicopters. In view of the happenings in the Ukraine war and some other compelling reasons, there may be a need to pause and rethink on a such large-scale induction. This is more so because there are opportunity costs linked to such a decision. The reasons besides the losses observed in the Ukrainian war, which indicate a need to rethink are:
- Decisions on large-scale induction of helicopters involves substantial outlay. There should thus be a high level of assurance that the weapon system would remain effective over its lifetime of over 25 to 30 years.
- One can foresee major changes in the comingyears such as increasing capabilities and employment of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or drones. These systems can undertake certain roles and tasks ascribed toAHs.
- Russian AH employment reduced after the losses it sustained due to Ground Based Air Defences (GBAD) including MANPADS, with increasing reliance being placed on drones.
- Ukraine has demanded additional weapons from the West such as tanks, fighter jets and long-range missiles. Surprisingly,AHs do not feature in the list of essential weapons. Ukraine clearly does not consider that AHwould prove efficacious in the ongoing war.
The questions that come to mind are: Does Indian military require such a large fleet of AH or would lesser numbers prove adequate? Would UASs be cheaper, equally effective and have a lower impact on morale, in case of losses? Is it possible to reduce vulnerability of attack helicopters by changing employment pattern or introducing technological improvements? These questions need to be answered since there are opportunity costs linked to the induction of a large fleet of AHs. However, it may not be prudent to base conclusions on AH vulnerability on the happenings of just the Ukraine war. It would help if significant instances of AH employment in other wars or war like events is explored.
Historical Review of Attack Helicopter Operations
Helicopters were armed possibly for the first time when the US Marines fired their weapons from the open doors of a helicopter during the Korean war. But the concept of using helicopters for attacking enemy forces required experimentation to pioneer a dedicated attack helicopter, purpose built and tasked primarily for offensive operations. Such a dedicated AH, the AH-1G Huey Cobra was introduced in 1967 during the Vietnam war. Dedicated attack helicopters have been employed quite extensively in many conflicts and war like situations since the Vietnam war. The Soviets in turn designed and developed their attack or assault helicopter, the Mi-24. 
Attack helicopters saw action in the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 to 1988. This war saw air to air engagement between the attack helicopters of Iraq: Mi 25 (export version of Soviet Mi-24) and the Iranian Sea Cobras of US origin. While the claims of both sides are heavily disputed, the final tally of losses was 10 Sea Cobras and 6 Mi25s.
The Soviet Mi-24s saw extensive employment in the Afghan War of 1979-1989. The Mi-24s made a huge impact against the rebels, till they started using Soviet captured SA 7 and even direct firing RPG-7. Initially these were not very effective due to poor training. Subsequently from 1986 onwards, the CIA supplied the new Stinger shoulder-launched SAM. The enhanced capabilities of the Stinger proved very effective and ultimately the Soviets lost 74 helicopters with 27 being shot down by Stinger. 
India also employed its Mi-25 attack helicopters during Op Pawan: the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka. Operations involved mainly search and strike in specified areas. The attack helicopters were dreaded by the LTTE cadre, who nicknamed them ‘Alligator’. There was no air opposition or ground based missiles and thus no losses, except for some bullet holes due to small arms fire.
Indian Air Force during the 1999 Kargil conflict used armed Mi-17s to attack defended bunkers at altitudes between 14 to 16000 feet. In high altitude mountainous terrain, the approach to the target got restricted due to the surrounding terrainproviding time to the enemy to engage these machines. The slow speed of helicopters provided time for tracking thereby increasing vulnerability. In an attack on a high-altitude bunker by 4 x Mi-17 formation, one of the helicopters was shot down by a stinger class of missile. This occurred because that particular helicopter was not dispensing IR flares while other helicopters dispensed flares. 
Moving on, the Apache AH 64 played a big role in the Persian Gulf war of 1991. Task Force Normandy comprising nine Apache helicopters and four Air Force MH-53 Pave Low helicopters fired the first shots of the war when they launched 27 Hellfire missiles destroying Iraqi radar sites, thereby opening a twenty-mile gap in Iraqi radar network. The US and coalition fighters used this corridor to enter unopposed and strike vital Iraqi targets. Later during the 100-hour ground war, over 270 Iraqi tanks and armoured vehicles were destroyed by the US Apache fleet of over 277 helicopters. The coalition forces enjoyed air supremacy and used EW to suppress Iraqi AD systems. 
Attack helicopters were employed during the Iraq war of 2003 and thereafter against the ISIS. Iraq war of 2003 revealed vulnerability of attack helicopters in the aborted attack on the Iraqi Republican Guards Medina division located near Karbala. Suppressive Arty firing to silence enemy guns was not planned and 31 Apaches flew at night through the Najaf corridor The Iraqis set up a flak corridor of sorts and on receiving alerts, opened small arms and ack-ack fire resulting in one Apache coming down intact and the pilots being captured. Other helicopters were damaged and the mission was aborted. This incident did bring to the fore, helicopter vulnerability. However, two days later the same mission was planned with suppressive Arty fire to keep the Iraqi heads down, while the flanks were guarded by F A-18s. The coordinated attacks were quite successful indicating that attack helicopters forming part of combined arm teams are less vulnerable to enemy fire. 
Coming to the Ukraine war, the Russian attack helicopter fleet comprising Ka-52, Mi-28 and Mi-24/35 complemented the support provided by the fixed wing fighters to the ground forces. Initially the attack helicopters escorted the Mi-8/17 helicopters in the assault on Hostomel airport on the very first day of the war. Subsequently, deep strikes up to 50 kms into territory held by Ukrainian forces were undertaken by Ka-52s. Hunter-killer missions were common in the early months targeting vehicles and armour. Russia air force did not seriously pursue the task to establish air superiority. This provided the Ukrainian Ground Based Air Defences (GBAD) an opportunity to reorganise in an effective manner. Ukrainian GBAD including MANPADS thus managed to inflict losses on attacking Russian AHs and over time RussianAH missions reduced.
Attack helicopters used missile approach warning sensors combined with countermeasure dispensing systems. These functioned well, but these systems were unable to cope with large number of MANPADS used by Ukrainian forces. In addition, Ukrainians also used anti-tank missiles such as Javelin in direct fire mode, which proved highly effective due to their immunity to being decoyed by flares.
Analysts have criticised Russia on improper employment of attack helicopters in that, there were instances of these helicopters being photographed flying at 300 feet or so. It would be naïve to suggest that Russian pilots purposefully flew at height disregarding vulnerability to enemy missiles. Normally when attackers are required to search a specific area for enemy targets, the helicopters would climb to higher heights to scan and identify an appropriate target. Sighting of helicopters at 200-300 feet may well be due to this reason, rather than Russian incompetence. 
Some Deductions from AH Employment
Review of AH operations reveals that:
- Helicopters are vulnerable due to their slow speed, providing defenders time to spot, aim and fire their weapons.
- Helicopters avoid detection by flying at very low levels; Nap of The Earth (NOE). However, to locate targets to attack, there is a need to abandon safe ultra-low levels and climb up to around 200 to 300 feet. This increases the vulnerability, since it helps defenders spot the helicopter.
- History reveals attack helicopter operations were unhindered and highly effective in sub-conventional conflicts against adversaries without airpower.
- Small arms fire had limited impact and rarely impeded operations, except for bullet holes and a rare helicopter loss, as at Karbala.
- Attack helicopters were however, vulnerable to innovative use of direct fire weapons such as Javelin missiles and RPG-7 (Ukraine and Afghanistan).
- MANPADS such as SA-7, Stingers etc. proved very effective, inflicting heavy attrition. (Afghanistan and more recently, Ukraine.)
- Missile warning system coupled with flare dispensers reduces vulnerability. Flare dispensation may not ensure safety of helicopters if the enemy deploys a high concentration of AD weapons and MANPADS in the battle area. (Ukraine)
- In conventional conflict settings, attack helicopters operated unhindered if their side enjoyed air dominance and managed to suppress opponent’s AD resources.
- Attack helicopters operating as part of combined arms teams were less vulnerable.
- The ongoing Ukraine-Russia war was initially dominated by Russia but over time turned into a war between near peer rivals. Russia failed to gain air superiority,  nor were AD weapons of the adversary suppressed. Russian attack helicopters operated singly or in pairs and thus suffered heavy attrition.
- Helicopter attacks on high altitude point targets on mountain tops present serious problems since the line of attack gets restricted and attackers are easily sighted and targeted by the defenders using MANPADS.
AHs in the Indian Context
The learnings from earlierAH operations and those in Ukraine would help in analyzing their employment in the Indian context. In the Indian case, attack helicopters are unlikely to be employed in counter-insurgency role. This is because India has abjured use of airpower against insurgents, considering them to be Indian citizens gone astray. The most likely context for employment of attack helicopters would arise in conventional conflicts against adversaries such as Pakistan and China. Both are well-equipped and strong militaries, sporting well-equipped air forces and highly effective AD capabilities, including MANPADS.
Three issues would impact Indian AH operations. These are ability to control the airspace over the battlefield, mountainous nature of the LAC with China and LoC with Pakistan and the effectiveness of enemy AD weapons in the tactical battle area.
Inability to control the airspace over the battlefield would hamper attack helicopter operations. As highlighted in the Ukraine war, inability to control airspace helps the enemy in effectively organizing and deploying GBAD. If the IAF is unable to dominate the airspace and suppress enemy AD weapons, as may be expected in the initial days of the war, attack helicopters would remain vulnerable. Even if India manages to establish some degree of control over the airspace, the adversary may opt for a strategy of air denial as done by Ukraine. With both China and Pakistan possessing strong GBAD including MANPADS, AHs would remain vulnerable. Kargil conflict brought home not only helicopter vulnerability, but also that of fighters loitering in tactical battle area.
The mountainous terrain along the LoC and LAC would increase vulnerability by restricting attack direction along valleys or in alignment with the surrounding terrain. The uneven terrain would make ultra-low level flying somewhat difficult. These factors make it easier for the enemy to spot and target helicopters attacking defended hilltops or targets in valleys. Some of Indian Apache AH are equipped with mast mounted Longbow radar which aids identification and locking onto targets. Such systems are optimized for the European plains where the trees/foliage offer masking. Pilots can hover behind treeswith the radar disc protruding above the tree line to scan the area ahead, pick up and lock on to a target. Employing these tactics in the barren high-altitude terrain may prove difficult. Similarly, it will also not be easy in the desert regions where helicopter position may be revealed by dust clouds raised by its downwash.
While attack helicopters face threats from GBAD, vulnerability to enemy’s AD systems can be mitigated. Focusing on night operations is one way to avoid early detection and targeting. While new generation MANPADS are being equipped with night capability, detection is still likely to be delayed. With an increased focus on night operations, a combined arms approach would further reduce vulnerability of attack helicopters. In case of strong GBAD, suppressive Arty fire and coordinating with fighter attacks could be considered.
The second practice would be to fly at low altitude thereby reducing exposure to enemy AD systems. However, in case a need arises to search and identify targets, the helicopter would be forced to climb thereby increasing exposure. Such exposure can be avoided if target data is provided in advance or passed on during flight using data links. Considering that most attack helicopters have Western design architecture, such data links already available in fighters can be easily retrofitted. This would avoid the need to climb to acquire targets to attack.
Robust counter measures such as missile warning systems coupled with flare dispensation would further reduce vulnerability. However, in the Ukraine war, large deployment of MANPADS and direct fire weapons overcame flare dispensation tactics.
In addition, fitment of Directional Infrared Counter Measures (DIRCM) may be considered. These are anti-missile systems for protection against infrared homing missiles, primarily MANPADS. Currently these are planned to be fitted on large transport aircraft and airliners. (AN/AAQ-24 Nemesis, being installed on C-17s). Israel’s ELBIT systems has designed such a system which has been selected by Italy for fitment on AW 101 helicopter. Russia has also developed such a system, 101KS-O, fitted on its Su-57 fighter.  Development of such a system for the LCH needs to be explored.
As discussed above many options are available to mitigate attack helicopter vulnerability to GBAD; some through changes in operating procedures and others using technology. Each of these however, has some limitation or the other. Ukraine war brought some of these limitations to the fore. One can expect that a strong adversary like China would take steps to retain effectiveness of GBAD. Inability to fully exploit the potential of a large fleet of attack helicopters may then prove to be a liability. Prudence suggests a need to look beyond and explore other options such as UAS or drones complemented by fighters.
The advantages of UAS are its long on station time, ability to perform numerous roles and the difficulty in detection due to their small size. (Recently, the Ukrainian drones entered Russian airspace without detection by S 400 AD systems and attacked airbases, destroying aircraft on the ground.) Secondly, being unmanned, their loss has much lower impact on morale. It also avoids loss of skilled aircrew, which proves highly detrimental in long drawn wars.
Drones have proved very effective in recent conflicts such as Ukraine and Azerbaijan-Armenia wars. The performance and capabilities of UAS are growing rapidly with plans to replace manned aircraft/helicopters in certain roles. Militaries are attempting to exploit the potential of drones in concert with fighters and AHs. Drones can spot targets in the battlefield and if armed launch a missile. Otherwise, the target data can be passed back for attack helicopters to engage. In case the target is in depth, fighters may be tasked to destroy it. Such trials have been undertaken successfully. The aim being to exploit the strengths of each system and optimise the combination to reduce vulnerability, while ensuring effective air support.In short, such a synergistic combination can reduce the number of AHs whileproviding flexibility of using the best option. Such an approach also avoids putting all the eggs in one basket.
India has made huge strides in indigenous development and procurement of UASs for ISR, Kamikaze attacks and as loitering munitions. These capabilities can be supplemented by some high end UASs such as Herons, Predators and Navy’s MQ-9 Sea Guardian/Global Hawk. With the high cost of attack helicopters, (InitialApache cost of Rs 678 Cr/$ 96 million per helicopter and LCH at Rs 260 Cr) most UAS may prove much cheaper; except for the high-end ones like the MQ- 9.
The above discussion does indicate a need for a cost benefit analysis on the efficacy of attack helicopters vs UASs and the combined employment of such systems. The offensive role of attack helicopters in the battle area can to a large extent be complemented by fixed wing fighters attacking targets in depth, since they are less vulnerable due to their high speeds. Targets in contact or in close vicinity of own troops can be engaged by attack helicopters with drones providing target data through digital links. Such complementary action of UASs, attack helicopters and fighters would help to reduce vulnerability of attack helicopters to MANPADs or GBAD. Such an analysis is imperative before plans for acquisition of a large fleet of LCHs are finalized. Once the die is cast, reversal may prove extremely costly.
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