May - 2013 ISSUE

Force Magazine
Game Changers - October 2011
Attack and assault helicopters in combat operations in the Tactical Battle Area
By Bali Pawar

The Vietnam War has also been referred to as the helicopters war which formed the test bed for validating the concepts of air mobility and assault. The helicopter was universally employed for various missions including attack, air assault, aerial resupply, aerial reconnaissance and command and control. Actual integration of assault and armed helicopters evolved during the Vietnam War leading to the concept of organic tactical mobility. In fact, this concept led to the need for armed helicopters/gunships and finally the evolution of the dedicated Attack Helicopter (AH). The employment of Huey Cobras fully integrated with Army Aviation units and fighting alongside and above the infantry gave a new meaning to close air support. Subsequently the US Army Aviation 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) was deployed in Vietnam in 1965.

Today’s army aviation forces have the potential to provide the field force commander tremendous flexibility throughout the spectrum of an operation. This integral force can focus on the integration and synchronisation of aviation effort within the framework of the land forces commander’s operational concept. Aviation is a third dimension centrepiece providing the commander an exponential leverage to harness its components, to achieve decisive victory by providing operational, tactical and logistical mobility.

Nature of future wars will be short notice, short duration and high intensity, with deeper and wider combat zones, with emphasis on depth battle. The AH being an offensive weapon system and part of aerial manoeuvre units is an ideal weapon system for such a conflict scenario. They also facilitate the operations of assault helicopters in the tactical battle area (TBA). Precise and incisive fire power, speed and manoeuvrability in the third dimension and close integration with assault and recce helicopters make the AH a force multiplier in the TBA and a critical resource of the field force commander.

The primary mission of Army Aviation is to fight the land battle and support ground operations. Army Aviation operates 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 recce, mobility and fire power that is unprecedented in Land Warfare and hence is the crux of land force operations. 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. This may be direct fire from aviation manoeuvre units (attack/armed helicopters) or insertion of overwhelming ground forces at the point of decision. This versatility is the very essence of army aviation. This has an important relevance to our Eastern borders where our infrastructure is woefully inadequate compared to what the Chinese have developed. The army aviation with its versatility can be effectively employed right from commencement of offensive till conflict termination. This force is also ideally suited for Indian Army’s cold start doctrine, as its assets like the reconnaissance, assault and attack helicopters would be available for employment from the initial stages itself and pay rich dividends. The assets required for the above manoeuvre, the attack and assault helicopters need to be at the beck and call of the field force commander and also piloted by men in olive green who fully understand the ground sit. This will ensure the optimum utilisation of this battle winning resource.

There is indeed a need to relook fresh at the concept of close air support in the TBA and the role of AH/armed helicopters in the same. The present concept of close air support is a relic of world war two, 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. 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 visible, proximity and response time factors. However, helicopters have their limitations due to their inherent characteristics and weather conditions. Hence, fighter aircraft will continue to be relevant but will have a diminished and limited role in the TBA.

A combination of attack/armed and assault helicopters is ideally suited for employment in counter Insurgency and special operations. Employment of this resource by USA in Afghanistan, Russians in Chechnya and Pakistan in Federally Administered Tribal Area’s (FATA), in counter insurgency operations clearly illustrates this. While in India we have used assault helicopters and to a limited extent — armed helicopters in Counter Insurgency Operations, the use of AH has been avoided as a policy due to the concerns of collateral damage. In special operations, Operation Neptune Spear/Geronimo launched by the US to get Osama, exemplifies the close and precise integration of all elements of army aviation with special forces as well as other elements like the UAV’s to achieve success.

Two areas of concern in the TBA need to be addressed — the aspect of air space management and air defence to ensure successful use of aviation assets. While the air defence issue can be addressed by taking suitable offensive and defensive measures, the air space management needs detailed coordination and planning. As per reports there is a proposal to give the responsibility of the air space over the TBA up to 150 metres to the field force commander. The air space above this height band will be managed by the air force. While it is a positive step, the issues of tactical/mini UAV’s and aerostat operations in the TBA would need further examination. The management of airspace in the TBA is a complex issue with a plethora of weapon systems operating in a confined space and would need special attention to ensure optimum utilisation of all weapon systems in the TBA.

For dominating the tactical battle space of future the Army Aviation has to go beyond fielding light observation and light utility helicopters. The roles that army aviation needs to perform in support of land battle requires equipment, personnel, specially aircrew and organisations (Aviation Brigades) 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. Turf battles are part of every nations defence forces, but 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 AH and Medium/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. Focus needs to be placed on the enhancement of the operational capability of army aviation across the full spectrum of operations in the TBA.


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