Where has the attack helicopter (AH) been decisive? The appropriate answer would be – nowhere. AHs in support of huge mechanised attacking or defending armies have never been tested against any enemy. Exercises in Europe with Red & Blue forces could not give a correct picture of how the helicopters would perform. What attrition would they suffer? How would the mechanised formations changing directions, outmanoeuvring each other keep their helicopters with them? How will the ground forces, who need to be within about 500 metres to recognise enemy tanks, identify own AHs from those of the enemy? More pertinently, how will the AH pilots differentiate friend from foe? What happens with sudden reversals and retreats to re-group for counteroffensive? What is the impact on own forces when own AHs are destroyed among manoeuvring tanks and infantry combat vehicles? The infamous fog of war becomes foggier with helicopters raising dust and howling jet engines. None of this can be ignored and wished away.
In the Middle East and Afghanistan, the Americans and Soviets utilised their AHs – with no advantage, and that too, against a poorly endowed enemy with weak doctrine and training. Our adversary on the other hand, is well trained and has soldiers who have been known to fight courageously. With the latest technology at their command, American AHs caused many Blue-on- Blue engagements during both the First and Second Gulf Wars, but with negligible destruction of enemy forces. The Israelis found nothing great about AHs during the Lebanese and Gaza skirmishes. Even today, Israel uses only fixed-wing aircraft, not AHs inside Gaza and Lebanon
Soviet AHs lost heavily in Afghanistan. There are documented stories of Afghans knocking out AHs using wire-guided anti-tank missiles. Recall the American helicopter destroyed in Mogadishu with humiliation to aircrew. Can we ignore the fact that over 5,000 helicopters were lost in Vietnam and against what type of weapons and enemy? That is how vulnerable an AH is. It is a slow moving target and extremely easy to destroy during hover. The greatest aerodynamic capability of the helicopter is hovering; this however is a critical disadvantage in close-quarter battles. Does the Army want such a weapon? Even the IAF needs to rethink on AHs and their utility to support forces on the ground.
It is in the mountains that the AH will face its severest test and will, in all probability, fail. The extremely inhospitable terrain with its lengthy border in the mountains precludes the use of AH or any other helicopters in the offensive role. Suffice it to say, AHs are bound to be under-utilised in the mountains, and since India has thousands of miles of mountainous borders to defend, the AH with the Army or the IAF is a zero force multiplier.
All aero-engines degrade in power output with increasing altitude and therefore, the thrust of turbojet engines decays at just 10,000 feet, the colour of the pilot’s uniform cannot recompense. At 17,000 feet, the thrust falls even further. At 20,000 feet, the height at which attack helicopters are expected to fly, there is less than 50 per cent oxygen to generate thrust. Since no AH can perform at peak levels in the mountains where the Army most needs them, why acquire them at all? There must be a reason that is nonmilitary; or is it plain ego?
Why then, does the Indian Army want to procure the Attack Helicopter in support of our armoured and mechanised formations? The AH will have to move with tanks/APCs, manoeuvre in the tactical battle area; it will fly low and slow in restricted visibility where the enemy cannot be easily discerned and extensive small arms, to which it is extremely vulnerable, will be directed against the helicopter. No other army on earth adopts this doctrine and philosophy in actual practice. It has failed in Iraq, not once but twice. Helicopter casualties in Vietnam were horrendous as was Soviet helicopter attrition in Afghanistan.
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 ATTACK HELICOPTERS: SHOULD INDIA HAVE THEM? Attack Helicopters form an important component of combat power. However, there are periodic issues which arise with respect to their utility and to their ownership. In this issue, of Point Counterpoint, two contrary viewpoints are highlighted. It is left to the discretion of the reader to formulate his own opinion. Editor. 20-25-Point-Counterpoint_14_19_ BEING A FLY GIRL.qxd 3/24/2016 10:26 AM Page 1 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
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 sanitise 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.
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 heliborne 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.
Gp Capt A G Bewoor was commissioned in the Indian Air Force in October 65 into the Transport Stream. This article is an abridged version of the article which first appeared in the Indian Defence Review (IDR) dated 30 September 2015.The full article can be accessed at http://www.indiandefencereview.com/news/attack-helicopters-should-indiahave-them/ . It is reproduced here courtesy IDR.