ATTACK HELICOPTERS: WHY THE ARMY NEEDS THEM


The national security of a modern state not only endeavours to safeguard its territorial integrity and national sovereignty but is also indispensable for the pursuit of economic and social development of its citizens by ensuring and sustaining a supportive internal and external environment.

In the overall plan of modernisation of the armed forces, the nation is acquiring 200 plus fighter and transport aircraft, 4000 plus artillery and air defence guns, 3 aircraft carriers, a large number of submarines and frigates, UAVs including armed, a plethora of different types of missiles and hundreds of tanks and FICVs over the next decade.

In this process, about 100 odd attack/armed helicopters, are also being acquired. It is difficult to comprehend how the acquisition of such a small quantity of attack helicopters can lead the country to weapons procurement minefield and endanger its security. On the contrary, these attack helicopters will greatly augment national security and are a part of the overall 1200-1500 helicopters planned for acquisition

It is not correct to state that the Indian Military apes the military doctrines of the US and NATO countries. This may have been true in the Indian military’s formative years, but in the past decade, all three services have issued new warfighting doctrines, which are very clear in their intent and relate to the Indian environment in terms of terrain, geopolitical environment, threat perception, etc.

The urgent need as of now is to have a ‘joint warfighting doctrine’ and a ‘national security doctrine’. In fact, the Indian Army Doctrine includes the most talked about ‘proactive strategy’, commonly referred to as the ‘cold start doctrine’, which is Pak centric and seeks to address any future misadventure by that country on the lines of the Parliament/Mumbai type attacks.

Accordingly, restructuring has been done of the pivot corps to enable quick and immediate action within 48-72 hours by using the integral assets at the corps level. For this, the resources required (including attack helicopters) must be at the beck and call of the field force commander—the present arrangement of these assets ownership with the air force and operational control with the army is not satisfactory. Nowhere in the world does such an absurd arrangement exist.

India faces diverse external threats and challenges. It has to manage its over 15,000 km long borders with seven countries, sections of which are contested or not formally demarcated on the ground or constitute only an agreed line of control. Additional problems emanate from open or porous borders. It has a long coastline of over 7,500 km along with with an extended maritime zone, island territories, sea lanes of communication for its trade and energy flows and offshore oil installations. The threat of a two-front war looms large today, more than ever before.

In addition, sub-conventional conflict continues to engage the Indian Army in J&K and parts of the Northeast, supported by Pakistan and China respectively. In these circumstances, helicopters, especially attack helicopters, though a very minuscule part of the inventory, is an essential ingredient of the Indian Military and their acquisition enhances national security.

The Vietnam war also referred to as the helicopters war, formed the testbed for validating the concepts of air mobility and assault. The helicopter was universally employed for various missions, including attack, air assault, aerial resupply, reconnaissance and command and control, the most common being the transportation of troops/ stores as utility or cargo helicopters. The actual integration of assault and armed helicopters evolved during the Vietnam war, leading to the concept of organic tactical mobility and dedicated attack helicopters.

Currently, attack helicopters are an integral part of the land, sea and air operations of modern armies, including their ever-increasing employment in sub-conventional conflicts (counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations) the world over. A typical military helicopter force should have all class of helicopters ranging from light observation to utility/lift (light, medium & heavy) including specialised roles (attack/armed) as per the operational requirement of a country’s armed forces.

It is a fact that all major armies of the world including our adversaries China and Pakistan have a full-fledged Army Aviation Corps, consisting of all types of helicopters including attack helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for communications and logistics support. It is therefore surprising that the world’s third-largest standing army, which has unresolved and active borders with both China and Pakistan and has fought wars with both these countries, continues to be denied a viable and operational Aviation Corps which can turn the tide in any future conflict.

The operational diversities of the Indian Military coupled with a variety of terrain (from sea level to the Siachen Glacier) underline the need for state of art, modern technology helicopters capable of operating both by day and night in a complex battlefield environment of future. It is important to note that Attack Helicopters operate in a battlefield environment as part of an all-arms team for optimum effect and not in isolation as happened in the first Iraq war with disastrous consequences for the fleet of Apaches. The lessons were well learnt with their effective employment in the second Iraq war with positive results.

In Afghanistan, it is the Huey Cobras –AH 1Z, which were more effective and had greater employability than the Apaches, due to their lighter weight and better capability to operate in the mountains.

The ownership issue of attack helicopters is no more a matter of discussion. In October 2013, the Defence Ministry after vacillating for decades finally took the call on the crucial issue of the ownership and operations of Attack Helicopters. The letter issued by the MOD clearly stipulated that the entire attack helicopter fleet will be owned, operated and maintained by the Army. Though late in coming, the decision is a welcome step and will have a major impact on warfighting in the tactical battle area(TBA) in the Indian context. The Government had to finally follow the path taken by the US and UK governments, on similar issues involving their respective air forces and armies.

It would be pertinent to mention here that the case for the inclusion of attack helicopters to be part and parcel of army dates back to 1963 when Gen. J.N. Chaudhary, the then COAS stressed the requirement for a separate air wing for the army. He emphasised that efforts at increasing the firepower and mobility of the army would not be complete without an integral aviation element comprising light, medium, heavy as well as armed/attack helicopters.

However, it took 23 years for the army with Government intervention, to finally break away from the air force and form an independent Army Aviation Corps in November 1986. The organisation sanctioned was nowhere near what had been envisaged in 1963, totally lacking the wherewithal to be a full-fledged aviation arm of the army, primarily due to non-availability of armed/attack and utility helicopters in its inventory. It is ironic that it took another 26 years since the birth of the Aviation Corps to get the attack helicopter arsenal in its inventory. This move will greatly enhance its capability, making it a battle-winning factor in any future conflict.

As a consequence of this decision, it was expected that the 22 Apache AH- 64D Longbow AH being procured from the US by the airforce, 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 airforce, 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.

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. Its 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.

Helicopters have great utility in the mountains too, as can be testified by those who have flown there, including Siachen Glacier. It is true that all aero engines degrade in power output at high altitude, but Siachen is a reality and helicopters are the lifelines of the Indian Army deployed on those icy heights – the highest battlefield 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 milestone achievement. The LCH aims to gate crash the exclusive club of the state of art light attack helicopters, which includes Eurocopter’s 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 the 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 onboard the RUDRA. The helicopter is expected to enter service by 2017. The LCH/ attack helicopter units will be the main punch of the manoeuvre 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 the decision in the future. At present, ALH units located at Leh and Misamari are already carrying out operations in the high altitude areas of Ladakh, Arunachal and Siachen. Even the Cheetah helicopter which is due for replacement, of which Indian Army holds approximately 200, is also operating extensively in these areas despite their vintage. The ALH with the Shakti engine has already landed on a helipad in Siachen at 19800 feet with four passengers.

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 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 an 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 an attack/ armed helicopters in their operations, due to the visibility, proximity and response time factors.

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 firepower 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 manoeuvre units (attack/armed helicopters) or insertion of overwhelming ground forces at the point of decision (utility/lift helicopters).

The assets required for the above manoeuvre, 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 utilisation 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 airforce, 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 organisations 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 organisations that enhance the overall goal and capability of the land forces commander. The need is for dedicated aircrew who are not only proficient in flying but are associated full time with army manoeuvres, 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 armoury. 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 organisation.

Lt Gen BS Pawar is former Head of the Army Aviation Corps and former Commandant, School of Artillery. Currently, he is the President of the Northern Region of The Helicopter Society of India. A defence analyst, he writes for defence journals and publications and is also on the editorial board of a few of them.

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