May - 2013 ISSUE

Force Magazine
Power in Air - January 2012
A comparison of Indian, Chinese and Pakistan armies’ air assets
By Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)

It has been 25 years since the establishment of the Army Aviation Corps (AAC), but it is axiomatic that this young and fledgling corps even today remains mostly a recce and observation force.

In August 1947, the assets of the erstwhile British 1 Air Observation Post Flight (Air OP) Auster fixed wing, two-seater aircraft, were decided between India and Pakistan. Thus came the existence of the Air OP units in both the countries under their respective air forces. The initial aircraft authority by Pakistan Army Aviation were the Auster and the American, Bird Dog, also a two-seater fixed wing aircraft. The Indian Army Aviation updated the Auster, Krishak and the Pushpak — all two–seater light aircraft in the initial stages of the Air OP growth. The main role remained observation and direction of artillery for both Air OP organisations.

Pakistan Army Aviation, however, gained authority from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in 1958 and full Corps status in 1977, resulting in a total break from the Air Force. In India, on the other hand, the army had to struggle for almost more than three decades to form its own full-fledged Army Aviation Corps (AAC) in November 1986. This, however, came with some restrictions and reservations, due to the rigid stance and attitude of the Indian Air Force (IAF). In the new arrangement, the AAC was to hold and operate only light utility aircraft. In the case of China, the army aviation bureau came into being in 1985. The Peoples Liberation Army Aviation corps (PLAA) was established in April 1986, almost similar to the birth of our own Army Aviation Corps (1 November 1986). Initially, there was pooling in of helicopters from the Chinese Air force and Civil Industry.

While in Pakistan the entire gambit of helicopters, from light to heavy, including attack helicopters and certain class of fixed wing aircraft for training and communications duty were to form a part of AAC, in India, the transition was not satisfactory. This, despite the fact that the Indian Navy, a much smaller service, had already got its Fleet Air Arm and were holding and operating all categories of helicopters, large transport aircraft and fighter jets, when they broke away in the Seventies.

The Indian AAC holds only light category of helicopters including the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH). The medium as well as the heavy lift and the attack helicopters continue to be held and operated by IAF. This aspect remains a moot point between the two Services. The attack helicopters, though assets of the army, continue to be IAF units manned and located at IAF bases. This certainly is a major drawback in the present structure of the Indian AAC. In the present arrangement both the medium and heavy lift and attack helicopters are made available to the army for training and operations, which is not a satisfactory arrangement. The Chinese PLAA is the youngest arm of PLA and is stated to be a frontline combat force capable of supporting tactical operations of the field force commanders. It has in its inventory all types/classes of helicopters including attack helicopters.

Pakistan’s AAC basically falls into four Army Aviation Groups with each having two to three squadrons. The group could be a combination of cargo, air assault, and combat or communication squadrons. The Army Aviation Groups are commanded by brigadiers. In addition, the Pakistan AAC also has Corps Composite Squadrons as Corps units with a mix of aircraft for different tasks. In India, we have recently established the first Army Aviation Base with a brigadier at the helm of affairs. As a concept, each base would have two to three squadrons, each having a different role, with different types of aircraft. Combat Squadrons will also form part of these bases, once attack/armed helicopters (armed ALH) form part of the AAC. We have the Recce & Observation (R&O) Squadron equipped with the Cheetah/Chetak helicopters and limited utility squadrons equipped with the ALH.

Pakistan Army Aviation holds in its inventory a plethora of aircraft to include both helicopters and fixed wing. Significant among them are the Bell AH-IF (Huey Cobra attack helicopter), the Mi-17, Mi-8, the Bell 412 and Puma medium and heavy lift helicopters. It also has, in its inventory, the Cessna 421 fixed wing aircraft for communication duties. In the light category, they have the Alouette III/Lama, similar to our own Chetak/Cheetah helicopters. In the Indian AAC, presently, we have the Cheetah/Chetak and ALH in the inventory. The attack helicopter (Mi-25/Mi-35) and the Mi-17/Mi-26 for troop lifting requirements of the army are held with the IAF.

The Chinese Army Aviation is organised into five helicopter brigades assigned to different warzone commands based on the military regions. Each brigade typically controls one to three regular aviation regiments and two or more reserve units. The PLAAC regiments normally have three squadrons (flying units) which typically operate 8-12 machines. The aircrafts however actually belong to a single maintenance unit which provides the machines to the squadrons on as required basis. The equipment profile consists of transport helicopters of all categories, attack helicopters, and a separate pool of training helicopters held with the training regiment. A typical military region of Chinese warzone can boast of 80-100 helicopters. The Chinese in their organisation also have an air assault aviation regiment

Employment Philosophy
The employment philosophy for both Pakistan and Indian Army Aviation is almost similar with very little difference due to the holding of different types of aircraft, their capability and envisaged employment. The Indian Army Aviation also factors in the attack and troop lifting helicopters held with the IAF, for enunciating its employment philosophy. The main tasks carried out by both Aviation Corps are:

(a) Surveillance, reconnaissance and direction of artillery fire.
(b) Limited Logistic support.
(c) Troop lifting and heliborne operations.
(d) Combat support.
(e) Causality evacuation.

The Chinese employment philosophy is based on the warzone concept. The warzone concept is meant to take the fight to the enemy which essentially means transporting viable formations and supplies to the battlefield. This is where the PLAAC comes in with its large fleet of all categories of helicopters for mobilising the leading troops of affiliated formations to the intended area of operation. Once this is accomplished the task carried out by the PLAAC are almost similar as enunciated above in case of Pakistan and Indian AAC.

Pakistan Army Aviation has all its resources including logistic and maintenance controlled by one agency, hence there is synergy in training and operations. The Combat Squadrons (attack helicopters) are better integrated with integral scout helicopters (Alouette III/Lama). However, operating such a vast and varied range of aircraft profile has its drawbacks. Most of the aircrafts are vintage and some have become obsolete, leading to a maintenance nightmare. Night operations capability is limited including that of its attack helicopters.

The PLAAC also has all its resources including helicopters, fixed wing aircraft and logistics/maintenance units under its command. It has a large fleet of aircraft which is far superior to our assets both in terms of quality and quantity. With a fleet of over 400 aircraft with various ratings and capacity the PLAAC can perform a multitude of task in support of ground operations. They also have an indigenous production capability and are not totally dependent on imports. However, it is stated that there is a shortage of pilots and mechanics in the PLAAC which is likely to affect its operational capability. One of the major problems faced by the PLAAC is in the area of logistic and maintenance support due to a large inventory of different types of helicopters held. The main helicopters held in their inventory are the MI-8 and 17 (different versions) S-70C black hawk, Z-9 and Z-9W, Super Puma, Gazelle, Alloutte 3 etc.

The Indian Army Aviation, on the other hand, has its assets divided between the two services leading to dual control. The indigenous production of Cheetah/Chetak and ALH helicopters by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is an advantage in spares management area and thereby helps in better maintainability with respect to night operations. The Indian Army Aviation has a distinct edge over Pakistan, with the ALH being fully capable of operations by night. The Mi-25/Mi-35 is also night capable but the attack helicopters do not compare well with other modern day state-of-art attack helicopter. The LCH, once fielded, will certainly tilt the balance in our favour.

Future Plans
Pakistan’s Army Aviation is looking at replacing its old and vintage helicopters like the Alouette III/Lama with Bell with 407s, from USA. It also looking at enhancing its medium lifts capability and refurbishing/upgrading of its fleet of Huey Cobras. Induction of additional attack helicopters is also on the cards. Concerted effort is being made to upgrade then overall night capability.

The Chinese, on the other hand are in the process of streamlining the holdings of the helicopters in their inventory. They are stated to have produced a state-of-art attack helicopter, the Z-10, which compares favourably with other modern state-of-art attack helicopters like the Eurocopter Tiger and Bells AH 1Z Super Cobra.

Indian Army Aviation is also looking at replacing its old and trustworthy workhorse, the Cheetah/Chetak helicopters. Trials for the replacement helicopters with three contenders are currently on. The programme for the weaponisation of the ALH is on track and the induction on the Shakti engine has enhanced the high altitude capability of the ALH. With the LCH project now on track, Indian Army aviation will certainly have an edge over its Pakistani counterparts in terms both quantity and quality.


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