Anil Bhat says that Indian Army’s aviation arm needs to be strengthened
Raised on 1st November 1986, Indian Army’s Army Aviation Corps (AAC) completes 28 years of its existence on the same date in 2014. Beginning as erstwhile air observation post units equipped with the Auster / Krishak fixed wing two-seater aircraft as part of Indian Air Force (IAF), it got equipped with light observation helicopters (Chetak / Cheetah) in early 1970s. It was after 16 years of raising the AAC in 2002 that the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) manufactured the twin engine Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), Dhruv, which was added to its fleet. AAC’s growth has been challenging initially mainly owing to IAF’s opposition to AAC’s enhancement of both, its role and assets.
In as early as 1963, then Army Chief General JN Chaudhary, stressed on the requirement for a separate air wing for the army comprising light, medium and heavy as well as armed helicopters. He strongly felt that a separate aviation element integral to the army was essential for increasing the army’s fire power and mobility. Despite persistent efforts, it took 23 years for the government to sanction the raising of AAC as an independent Corps of the army in November 1986. The organization of the AAC sanctioned was nowhere near that was envisaged in 1963 and continues to remain so even today, lacking the wherewithal to be a full fledged AAC, primarily due to nonavailability of armed/attack and utility helicopters (AH) in its inventory. This move will greatly enhance its capability, making it a battle-winning factor in any future conflict.
Interacting with this writer, former Vice-Chief Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi, reiterated what he wrote in his book Indian Army Aviation 2025, “Today, Army Aviation has the largest number of helicopters amongst the three services. Yet, the expansion of this vital corps has been slow, mainly on account of opposition from the IAF. In the tactical arena, army formations and units require intimate support from the air. This can be best provided by Army Aviation. Unfortunately, on account of “turf” considerations, the logical growth of Army Aviation has been hamstrung. The result is missed opportunities in battle – (The AAC) needs to rapidly modernize so that this important component of the army becomes a force multiplier par excellence and be an important battle winning factor in future wars and conflicts”.
Former DG, Army Aviation Lt Gen B S Pawar, PVSM, AVSM (retd), who this writer interacted with, brought out some important issues requiring expeditious action in a number of his articles . Pawar pointed out that most of the approximately 600 helicopters of all types and class, including some specialized ones, are old and not in sufficient quantities to cover varied requirements of the tactical battle area during operations as well as peacetime requirements of an army much of which is deployed in high altitude, not to mention unexpected emergent requirements during disasters like the floods in Jammu & Kashmir recently and Uttarakhand last year.
“Light observation helicopters (Chetak and Cheetah) held with the Army, Navy and Air Force have outlived their utility and need immediate replacement. Though joint trials for their replacement (army & air force) were completed more than a year back, the MoD is dithering on the final decision due to the ongoing investigation into the — Agusta Westland VVIP helicopters , though one fails to see the connection. In the utility category, the HAL manufactured Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) is already in service with the army, air force and coast guard. The navy has not found them suitable for ship borne operations,” Pawar stated.
The twin engine glass cockpit ALH is all weather, night capable machine with state of art avionics, which was test evaluated for high altitude performance with the fitment of a more powerful engine ‘Shakti’, being produced jointly by HAL and French Turbomeca. This will enhance its capability for operations in high altitude, specially the Siachen Glacier. In the medium lift category, the MI-17 fleet, held by AAC needs some refurbishing/upgrades as well as additional quantity for which the process is on. Pawar hails the development of the light combat helicopter (LCH) by HAL, considered a milestone achievement as it competes with the exclusive club of state-of-the-art light attack helicopters like Eurocopter’s Tiger, Bell’s AH 1Z Super Cobra and China’s ultra secret Zhisheng 10 (Z-10). The LCH is a derivative of the ALH and the weaponised ALH. The LCH is being designed to be able to operate at high altitudes of up to 16,000 feet, a distinct advantage over other attack helicopters and an asset for Indian Army’s mountain formations. Rudra, the attack helicopter manufactured by HAL, for the Indian Army, is the Weapon System Integrated (WSI) Mk-IV variant of the DHRUV ALH and is the first armed helicopter produced indigenously in India. It is deployable in a wide range of missions, including reconnaissance, troop transport, anti-tank warfare and close air support.
While HAL was contracted to deliver about 76 Rudra ALH Mk-IV helicopters for the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force, the Army plans to equip AAC with 60 helicopters, forming six squadrons. HAL handed over the first Rudra helicopter to the Indian Army in February 2013. Pawar also strongly recommends not only for all light, medium and heavy lift helicopters, but also fixed wing assets like the Dorniers to be allocated to the AAC.
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 due to objections of the IAF, despite the fact that even the Coast Guard and Border Security Force have fixed wing aircraft in their inventories. A survey of military aviation organizations worldwide reveals the inadequacies of the Indian AAC. All major armies of the world including China and Pakistan have a full fledged air arm of their own, comprising all types of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. Pak Army Aviation boasts of an inventory consisting of all classes of helicopters, including AHs and fixed wing aircraft.
In contrast, the Indian AAC remains a reconnaissance and observation force with a few light utility helicopters/ army aviation assets which are inadequate for the size of the Indian Army and the tasks it is required to perform. Expansion of the AAC is therefore imperative. Its inventory must include a mix of light fixed wing aircraft and all categories of helicopters including AHs / gun ships for various roles like reconnaissance, surveillance, combat fire support, airborne command posts, combat service support, special operations and logistics and importantly, having night fighting capability.Its integration should be complete, with aircrew who are not only proficient in flying but are associated full time with army maneuvers, operational thinking and ground tactics. The author Lt Col Anil Bhat VSM (Retd) is the Associate Editor of Salute