By Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)
October 12 will go down in the history of the Indian Army and the Army Aviation Corps (AAC) as a red letter day. After vacillating for decades, the ministry of defence finally took the call on the crucial issue of the ownership and operation of Attack Helicopters (AH). The letter issued by the MoD clearly stipulates that the entire AH 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 war fighting in the tactical battle area (TBA).
The Indian government (MoD) 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 inclusion of AH to be part and parcel of army dates back to 1963 when Gen. J.N. Chaudhary, the then chief of army staff (COAS) stressed the requirement for a separate air wing for the army. He emphasised that efforts at increasing the fire power 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 Indian Air Force (IAF) and form an independent AAC 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 has taken another 26 years since the birth of the AAC to get the AH 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 is understood that the 22 Apache AH-64D Longbow AH being procured from the US by the air force are likely to come to the army. This assumption is based on the basic premise that the two units of MI-25/MI-35 AH presently held with the air force, are army assets and are also operationally controlled by the army — in fact, a few army aviation pilots are also posted to these units. The new AH (Apaches) being acquired are for the replacement of these vintage AH.
However, irrespective of the above, as per reports, the army is also going ahead with its plans to acquire state-of-the-art AH, preferably Apache, to equip its strike corps. In related developments, the armed version of the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) called Rudra is at an advanced stage of development and the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is likely to commence its induction into the army by early next year. Though not a typical attack helicopter, it has an array of comparable weapon systems to include gun, rockets, air-to-air, and air-to-ground missiles (ATGM); integration of the weapon systems (minus the ATGM) is currently going on at HAL. Once inducted, the Rudra units will form part of the Holding/Pivot Corps constituting a formidable offensive punch to the field force commander. Seven to eight units of Rudra are planned for induction into the army in the coming years as per the army’s perspective plan.
In this context, the development of the light combat helicopter (LCH) by HAL is a milestone achievement. The LCH aims to gatecrash the exclusive club of the state-of-the-art light attack helicopters, which includes 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 Rudra, and is being designed to fit into an anti-infantry and anti-armour role with a capability to operate at high altitudes (16,000 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 on board the Rudra. The helicopter is expected to enter service by 2015.
The LCH/ attack helicopter units will be the main punch of the manoeuver force commander and will be inducted into the AAC and operate in support of ground forces both in the plains and mountains. The army has plans to induct 114 such machines into its inventory. The earlier reservations of the air force regarding its induction into the army being no longer valid, the AAC is all set to have a lethal arsenal of state-of-the-art AH/armed helicopters, thus making it a force to reckon with.
Also, the employment of AH fully integrated with army aviation units and fighting alongside and above the infantry will give a new meaning to close air support in the TBA. There is indeed a need to re-look fresh at 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 (UAV), 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 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 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 fire power 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 manoeuver units (attack/armed helicopters) or insertion of overwhelming ground forces at the point of decision (utility/lift helicopters). The assets required for the above manoeuver, 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.
It is, therefore, surprising that the MoD in its decision has not addressed this issue of ownership of the helicopter aviation assets in its entirety, with the army’s requirement of tactical and heavy lift capability not being addressed. The positioning of a few MI-17 helicopters at army bases in Jammu and Kashmir to reduce the response time for counter insurgency operations is at best an ad hoc arrangement for a specific type of operation and limited to a specific area and hence, does not address the larger issue of ownership and operational role of the army.
The army’s modernisation and restructuring thrust to move towards a capability-based force, envisages integral lift capability of a company at the Corps level, a battalion at command level and a brigade at army level. Accordingly, the resources for this capability in terms of tactical and heavy lift helicopters have been planned for induction as per the army’s perspective plan. The tactical lift class of helicopters (10-12 tonne) are also required for special operations.
In fact, the case for the acquisition of the tactical class of helicopters has been ongoing for the last seven-eight years. Even HAL has been involved in this project but no headway has been made because of stonewalling by the air force on the ownership issue. It would be pertinent to mention here that the army’s plans for the induction of the Ultra Light Howitzer (ULH) into the artillery (trials for which have been completed and induction is likely soon), had triggered the requirement for heavy lift helicopters, which would be capable of lifting the ULH in the mountains as well provide heavy logistical support, specially on our eastern borders where the infrastructure is woefully inadequate.
Based on this army requirement, the air force set in motion the process for acquisition of this class of helicopters. As per reports, the trials have been completed and the American Chinook has been down selected vis-a-vis the Russian Mi-26. This will give a major boost to the heavy lift capability with the Chinook already having proved itself as a logistical warhorse in Iraq and Afghanistan. By not addressing the ownership aspect related to assault helicopters, the MoD has left the issue unresolved, thereby allowing the festering wounds and turf wars to continue between the two services.
Unlike the air force, 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 manoeuvers, 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 AH 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.
(The writer is a former ADG, Army Aviation Corps)