Army Aviation Growth – Reality Check
Sub Title : How to make the Corps a potent force capable of supporting the Indian Army operations across the entire spectrum of conflict
Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue Mar/Apr 2019
Author : Lt Gen BS Pawar, PVSM, AVSM (Retd)
Page No. : 44
Category : Military Affairs
: April 22, 2019
Over the years Army Aviation has rendered yeoman service, be it at the icy heights of the Siachen Glacier or during natural calamities. The article outlines the journey of the Aviation Corps through more than three decades of is existence to include the present status and the list of its requirements, which are essentially aimed at making it more operationally effective
Even after 32 years of its existence the Army Aviation Corps continues to fly the vintage fleet of Cheetah/Chetak helicopters and is faced with a somewhat ambivalent Government policy on ownership of Attack Helicopters (AH) and has been for varied reasons denied its requirements of Medium and Heavy lift helicopters to enhance tactical lift, special operations and logistics capability. Acquisition of fixed wing aircraft for its communication requirements, presently, seems to be a distant dream. In fact, a reality check shows us clearly that the growth of this battle decisive arm of the future has been nowhere near what was envisioned in 1963 by the then COAS Gen JN Chaudhary.
A decade back the army had even processed a case for acquisition of a 10-12 Ton class of helicopter for its special operations aviation units, calling it the ‘Tactical Battle Support Helicopter (TBSH)’ with the active involvement of the HAL. However, this project also did not see the light of day due to some intricate issues. Though it was heartening to see the HAL display a mock-up of the 10-12 Ton class ‘Multirole Helicopter’ during the Aero India Show in Feb 2017, but its development in the near future remains a question mark as there has been no visible progress on this project thus far.
Despite the above shortcomings there have been some very significant and positive developments in the recent past. Firstly, the Governments clearance for acquisition of six state of art Apache Longbow AH for the Army, though initially 11 were approved and secondly, the long awaited forward movement on the Ka-226T light observation helicopters project, for replacement of the Chetak and Cheetah helicopters – these have been in service since the late 60’s and early 70’s respectively. The most significant development in the Army Aviation’s growth plan, has been the induction of the HAL made ALH-Dhruv helicopters in 2002. The Army Aviation Corps was the first to induct these indigenously developed machines and today has an inventory of approximately 80 Dhruv’s – this fleet is expected to grow further in the coming years.
It will be worthwhile to point out here that all major armies of the world have a suitably equipped and operationally potent air arm(Army Aviation Corps), which have in their inventory not only all types and class of helicopters, to include attack, medium and heavy lift, but also fixed wing aircraft for communications and logistics. In fact, both our adversaries China and Pakistan have a very potent and effective air arm in their respective armies. The Pakistan Army Aviation has in its inventory the likes of Mi-17 and Chinook helicopters in the medium/ heavy lift category and the MI-25/MI-35 and Huey Cobras in the armed/ attack helicopters category – as per reports Pakistan has also acquired the Chinese Z 10 state of art AH which has only recently been inducted into the Chinese Army Aviation.
Presently the Army has in its inventory the largest number of helicopters amongst the three services (300 plus), majority being the light observation class (Cheetah and Chetak). These helicopters are obsolete and have been in service for more than 40 years. Keeping this fleet operational itself is becoming well-nigh impossible due to its vintage and non availability/criticality of spares, a fact accepted and corroborated by both HAL and the Army. The ‘Cheetal’ helicopter (upgraded Cheetah), fielded by HAL as an interim measure is not a satisfactory solution for the long term as the technology remains old and outdated – it basically has a more powerful engine with an upgraded gearbox to absorb the additional power, but the airframe and numerous other features remain the same.
In the light utility category, while the induction of the ALH/Dhruv is making steady progress as brought out earlier, there are serious serviceability and maintenance issues which need to be addressed by the HAL on priority, to ensure optimal utilisation of this fleet especially in high altitudes – this is an area of prime concern for the army. However, the heavy and medium lift helicopters which form the core of the Army’s tactical lift capability and bulk of attack helicopters remain with the Airforce – their optimum operational employment is not possible in the present set up. It is ironic that even the Armed Police Forces like the BSF have a full fledged air arm which has in its inventory the latest version of the Mi-17V5 helicopters.
The army’s requirement of small fixed wing aircraft (Dornier Class), in limited numbers for roles like command and control, aerial communication hubs, logistics including casualty evacuation and communication flights has also not fructified – one unit per operational command has been planned. This despite the fact that even the Coast Guard and Border Security Force have fixed wing aircraft in their inventory.
The Government’s decision to go in for the induction of 200 Russian Ka-226T helicopters in a Government to Government deal is welcome step and move in the right direction – as per reports the contract has been signed last year after an inordinate delay. Out of the 200 helicopters 60 will be delivered in a fly away condition and the balance 140 manufactured in India- HAL is the nodal agency along with Russian Helicopters for this project. Simultaneously, HAL has also undertaken the development and manufacture of a three ton class light utility helicopter (LUH). This is to cater to the light reconnaissance & observation class of helicopters for all three services. As per HAL the LUH is expected to complete flight certification and go into production soon. The plans are to manufacture 184 LUH in the new helicopter complex already under construction in Tumakuru, Karnataka. Overall there is requirement of almost 500 helicopters of the light observation class, with Army’s requirement amounting to approximately 280-300, which includes the replacement of Chetak/Cheetah.
In the utility/lift category the induction of indigenously manufactured ALH commenced in 2002. Since then 80 helicopters have been inducted and operationalised and another 60-70 are planned for induction in the coming decade -these helicopters will provide tactical lift capability at the level of Corps.
Another variant of the ALH is the armed version called the ‘Rudra’, which was officially handed over to the army during the Aero India show in Feb 2013 – the first unit is already operational and another under raising. Rudra is a typical armed helicopter with an array of weapon systems including gun, rockets, air to air missiles (French Mistral) and air to ground missiles, along with a modern sighting system and integrated electronic warfare self – protection suite. However, in its present configuration it has not been integrated with a suitable ATGM, as the air version of Nag ATGM ’Helina’, being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is not yet ready. It is pertinent to note that non availability of a suitable airborne ATGM will not only impact the operational capability of the Rudra but also the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) project of HAL. The ATGM is the main weapon system of an armed/attack helicopter and without it the helicopter merely remains a gunship, inhibiting the exploitation of its full potential. This is an area of grave concern and needs to be addressed on priority by all stake holders concerned – all previous efforts to acquire a suitable ATGM ex import have come to a naught and HAL has been grappling with this project for the last two decades with no concrete results to show even today.
The army is also looking to acquire a suitable helicopter in the 10-12 ton class with stealth features for its Special Operations Units, as well as enhancing its overall tactical lift capability. The HAL has been looking at the feasibility of a joint venture with a foreign vendor for a 10-12 ton class multirole helicopter whose variants would also be available to the Navy and Airforce.
With the decision of the MoD on the ownership issue of attack helicopters in army’s favour in 2012, the army had projected its own requirements of attack helicopters – 39 Apache Mk III for its Strike Corps. While initially 11 Apaches were cleared by the Government for the army, based on the tactical and operational requirements of an AH unit, its recent decision to cut this down to only six Apache’s has left many military aviation professionals baffled – the employment philosophy of attack helicopters does not justify such numbers. However the US Congress approval last year for the direct commercial sale of six AH-64E Apache Helicopters, including support equipment in terms of engines, fire control radars, sensor suites, missiles, rockets, etc for an estimated cost of $930 million is a very positive development for the Army Aviation Corps- this will give them the requisite experience to operate and maintain these state of art machines and greatly enhance its combat potential.
Simultaneously the development of the LCH by HAL is indeed a landmark achievement and they need to be complimented for the same – the LCH is a state of art attack helicopter, with capability to operate at high altitudes (16000 feet) and would meet the unique requirements of the Indian Army in the mountains. The LCH uses the technology of the existing ALH and its configurations except that the fuselage is suitably modified and streamlined for tandem seating. A number of development flights have taken place since its maiden flight on 29 Mar 2010 and HAL hopes to achieve initial operational clearance this year- hopefully. Both the Army and Airforce are the potential customers for the LCH with the Army’s requirement pegged at 114 helicopters – initial acquisition of five LCH for the army and ten for the airforce has already been approved by the Government.
An immensely important and crucial area in the growth of the Army Aviation Corps is to build suitable infrastructure and have it in place in order to smoothly and effectively absorb the new equipment and organisations. Support services like air fields, air traffic control, meteorology equipment and maintenance facilities would also need upgrading. Another important facet is the training facilities for both the air and ground crew – the importance of simulators for this purpose cannot be over emphasized.
To make the army aviation a potent force capable of supporting the Indian Army operations across the entire spectrum of conflict in the Tactical Battle Area, it must have a mix of both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft with helicopters forming the core. The helicopter fleet should consist of attack and armed helicopters, heavy, medium and light utility (lift) helicopters and light observation helicopters. There also would be a need for specialized helicopters suitably modified for special operations.
The aim is to make the force a capability based organization rather than an equipment and inventory based structure, implying commensurate induction of man, machine, organizational and infrastructural requirements. New dimensions in tactical night operations as a direct result of sensor and avionics capabilities, with the ability to operate at low levels at night will yield great dividends. Only then will the Army Aviation evolve as a potent arm of the Indian Army, whereby its combat efficiency is enhanced to the maximum extent.