By Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)
Military helicopters are specifically built or converted for use by military forces. The most common use of military helicopters is transportation of troops or stores. However, these can also be modified or converted to perform other tasks such as combat search and rescue (CSAR), medical evacuation and airborne command; or armed with weapons they can be used for attacking ground targets. Specialised military helicopters are required for conduct of specific missions, like attack, surveillance and observation and anti submarine warfare (ASW).
Military helicopters play an integral part in the land, sea and air operations of modern militaries. The ever increasing demand for use of military helicopters in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations also makes a case for their requirement with the security forces. Hence, there is a need for holding different class of helicopters ranging from surveillance and observation to heavy lift and specialised ones like attack and ASW. The operational diversities of the Indian armed forces coupled with the variation of terrain (from sea level to Siachen) underlines the need for state of art, modern technology helicopters capable of operating both by day and night in a complex battlefield environment of future.
Presently, the Indian military holds in its kitty almost all class of helicopters including some specialised ones but they are mostly vintage and few in numbers, far from the quantity required. The light observation helicopters (Chetak and Cheetah) held with the Indian Army (IA), Navy (IN) and Air Force (IAF) have outlived their utility and need immediate replacement. In the light utility category, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) manufactured Advanced light Helicopter (ALH) has already entered service with the IA, IAF and Indian Coast Guard. The IN has not found them suitable for operations from the ship.
The ALH is all weather, night capable twin engine machine with state of art avionics and glass cockpit. The ALH has recently been test evaluated for high altitude operations with the fitment of a more powerful engine ‘Shakti’, which has jointly been produced by HAL and French company Turbomeca. In the medium-lift category, the IAF holds the Mi-8 and the Mi-17 Russian helicopters. While the Mi-8 requires immediate replacement, the Mi-17 needs some refurbishing and additional inductions. In the heavy lift category, there is nothing worthwhile, barring a few Russian Mi-26 helicopters whose high altitude capability is poor. The weakest link is in the holding of specialised helicopters, especially the attack helicopters. The Mi-25s/Mi-35s in the inventory are vintage and require replacement on priority. Even the Sea King ASW held by the navy need upgrade; or better still replacement by state of art modern ASW helicopters.
Army Aviation: The Army Aviation Corps today holds the largest number of helicopters amongst the three services, the majority being of the light surveillance and observation class (Cheetah and Chetak). These are of 1960-1970 vintage and this ageing fleet’s replacement is crucial. The trials for their replacement have been completed and the report is under evaluation with the defence ministry. In the fray are the French Eurocopter AS 550 Fennec and the Russian Kamov Ka 226T. While the Fennec is a single engine helicopter with a standard main and tail rotor design, the Russian Kamov is twin engine and has contra-rotating rotors. The induction of the selected helicopter at the earliest is crucial. Any further delay will have disastrous operational consequences.
In the light utility category, the induction of ALH has already commenced. The latest version of ALH fitted with the more powerful ‘Shakti’ engine — enhancing its performance in high altitude, especially for operations in Siachen glacier — has also recently entered service. Another variant of the ALH is the armed version called the ALH weapon systems integrated (ALH-WSI) which is to be inducted into the army aviation corps. This is a typical armed helicopter to be integrated with an array of weapon systems including gun, rockets, air to air and air to ground missiles, along with a modern sighting system and relevant sensors. While the integration of the gun, rocket and air to air missile has been completed, the project is delayed due to non-availability of a suitable anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). The air version of Nag ATGM ’Helina’, being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is not yet ready. As an interim measure, plans are afoot to import it. The contenders are MBDA’s Pars 3 and Spike ER of Israel. Trials have already been completed and the report is under evaluation. In all likelihood, the induction of ALH-WSI will be delayed.
In the medium-lift category, the IAF continues to stonewall all efforts of the army to acquire a suitable helicopter in the 10-12 ton class. It is essential to induct this class of helicopters into the army as it will provide the core of the tactical lift capability for a field force commander, who need not look over his shoulder in the midst of a battle. The HAL is looking at the feasibility of a joint venture with a foreign vendor for this class of multipurpose helicopter whose variants would be available to all three services. However, very little progress has been made in this regard so far.
The weakest link in the military helicopter capability is the attack helicopter. The present two units of Russian origin Mi-25/ Mi-35 are army assets, though manned controlled and operated by the IAF. The case for their takeover by the army has been going on since 1986 after the formation of the army aviation corps. These helicopters are obsolete now and need replacement on priority. The trials for their replacement have been completed and in contention are the American Apache Longbow-AH 64D and the Russian Mi-28 (Havoc).
Apache is time-tested, a veteran of conflicts, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan and has demonstrated many of the advanced technologies being considered for deployment on future attack helicopters. It has a radar dome atop the main rotors, which facilitates firing anti tank Hellfire missiles in full fire and forget mode, allowing the helicopter to stay masked behind terrain as it acquires and engages targets. The Mi-28 also is a state of art attack helicopter and has the ‘Ataka’ anti tank missile, an improved version of the ‘Vikhr’ fired from the Mi-25/ Mi-35 helicopters. The selected attack helicopter is likely to commence induction this year.
Indian Air Force: The IAF is in the process of modernising its helicopter fleet. Its existing fleet of Chetak and Cheetah light observation helicopters are to be replaced by either the Russian Ka-226T or the French AS 550 Fennec which have already undergone trials and are presently undergoing evaluation.
However, of main concern are the medium (Mi-8 and Mi-17) and heavy lift (Mi-26) helicopters. While the Mi-8 is an ageing fleet and need phasing out, the existing Mi-17 holding is not adequate. The currently-held Mi-17 helicopters are being refurbished for night operations and an additional 80 Mi-17V5 with glass cockpits are being inducted for the requirement of army and Paramilitary forces.
In the heavy lift category, there is only a limited number of Mi-26. The army along with the IAF is looking for a suitable helicopter in this category, which would be capable of lifting (under slung) the ultra light howitzer being acquired from the US. In contention are the American Chinook and Russian Mi-26. Both are capable of carrying 22 fully equipped troops. Induction of this class of helicopters will greatly enhance intra-theatre troop movement in addition to providing logistical support during critical phases of the battle.
Additionally, the IAF is gearing up to induct AgustaWestland 101 for VVIP transportation. The contract for 12 AW101s has already been signed. The AW101 is a state of art helicopter well known for its excellent reliability and operational capability. Powered by three engines, the helicopter is able to operate in hot and high conditions.
Indian Navy: The Indian Navy today operates a helicopter fleet consisting of the Sea King (ASW), Kamov (ASuW) and the modified Chetak-MATCH (Mid Air Torpedo Carrying Helicopter). In addition, they have a fleet of Chetak helicopters for ship borne operations. These helicopters are also old and the naval version of ALH has not met its requirements. The navy is pushing a case for the acquisition of multirole helicopters. The helicopters in the fray are European NH 90 and American Sikorsky S70B (Black hawk). The navy is also in the process of midlife upgrade of their Sea King fleet, besides looking at replacing the Chetak fleet including the MATCH. Navy has also shown an interest in the HAL joint venture of 10-12 ton class multirole helicopter which is yet to take off.
The most significant development at HAL has been the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH). The LCH uses the technology of the existing ALH and its configurations except that the fuselage is suitably modified and streamlined for tandem seating required for a modern day attack helicopter. An indigenous attack helicopter is a step in the right direction as it can be tailored to suit the terrain and climatic conditions of our area of operations. A number of development flights have taken place since its maiden flight on 29 March 2010, and it is expected to enter service by 2014. The LCH, once fielded should compare well with Eurocopter’s Tiger, Italian Mangusta and Bell’s Huey Cobra attack helicopters. Both the IAF and the army are potential customers for induction of the LCH.
HAL is also looking at the development and manufacture of a three ton class light utility helicopter (LUH). The configuration and design freeze have been completed. The first prototype flight is expected by mid-2012.
Military helicopters will play a vastly enhanced role in any future conflict. Their crucial role in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations cannot be over emphasised. The operations in Afghanistan have fully corroborated this aspect. The modernisation process of the existing military helicopters with the three services has commenced but the momentum needs to be maintained.
(The writer is a former ADG, Army Aviation Corps)