A review of IAF’s rotary wing fleet
AVM Manmohan Bahadur (retd)
As the Indian Air Force (IAF) turns a ripe 84, a review of its most talked about, and visible, rotary wing fleet needs to be done. While its prowess in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) is well known due to the numerous unfortunate natural calamities that have happened in the recent past, this piece will review the planned new inductions and how they would influence the IAF’s operational capability. The appraisal would consider the fleet divided into three weight categories — light, medium and heavy while the attack helicopter segment will be discussed separately.
The 400-strong Chetak/ Cheetah fleet (of the three Services and Coast Guard) has been due for replacement for many years but it appears that these machines will soldier on for the next one decade plus, at a minimum. The saga of the replacement helicopter under the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) project has had a very troubled past, with the programme being cancelled twice due to many reasons. This has resulted in the decision of the government to go the Inter-Governmental route with Russia for the Ka-226, which was one of the contenders during the second fly off (with Fennec of Airbus Helicopter). Close to around 200 Ka-226 would be bought from M/S Kamov, with some off-the-shelf from Russia and the majority being made by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). Latest media reports say that HAL would partner a private firm for creating a manufacturing line in India. The announcement of this arrangement is more than a year old and it is hoped that the contract would be signed soon.
The LUH programme of HAL is supposed to cater to the remaining 200 Chetak/Cheetah replacements. The LUH has just flown its first ‘technical’ flight on September 6 and so has at least three years more of test flying before it gets its certification for release to service.
Hopefully, HAL has learnt its lessons from the earlier fiascos of literally all its aircraft programmes not gearing up in parallel for the production line to start. It has a firm order of around 200 machines, a situation that any private manufacturer would love to have — one hopes that the government puts the HAL on notice to ensure fruition of the project, to include productionising of orders.
The Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv has stabilised in service after going through trying times due to poor spares support from HAL. Helicopters sent for servicing used to stay months at a stretch at HAL, eight to 10 months at times, before being serviced. The flight line availability was poor, sometimes below 50 per cent, due to the poor logistics train from HAL. This has now improved, as also the amelioration of problems with its integrated main gear box. Hopefully, the state will improve further so that the Dhruv can be employed full time in the field.
Medium Lift Helicopters
The Medium Lift Helicopter (MLH) fleet is the backbone of IAF’s rotary wing segment and is composed entirely of the Mi-series. Mi-8s are now very few in numbers and Mi-17 and Mi-171V are due for an upgrade. The Mi-17V5 is the present performer with 159 machines already in the inventory (includes a few for the Border Security Force).
That the IAF sees an expansion of its operations in India, and the region at large, is indicated by the fact that 48 more V5s have been ordered to raise four new helicopter units. Once these helicopters are in IAF colours, it is the assessment of this writer that India would be in a position to re-commence its engagement with UN peace keeping missions. It would be recalled that the two IAF Missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and one in Sudan had been withdrawn due to the acute requirements within the country for anti-Naxal and other such tasks.
The phenomenon of climate change that the world is witnessing has been the cause of many natural calamities for which the rotary wing fleet has been called out for HADR. Along with the huge fixed wing airlift capability that the IAF now possesses with 10 C-17, six C-130s, 12 IL-76 and almost one hundred An-32s, India can volunteer to be a regional HADR provider to the countries around. This capability was seen when a C-17 flew 40 tonnes of relief supplies to Fiji in February 2016 post a cyclone strike. The fact that a C-17 can carry a Chinook heavy lift helicopter gives IAF the capability to bring both fixed and rotary wing capability to bear at distant places in the region for HADR missions.
Heavy Lift Helicopters
The venerable Mi-26 is on its last legs and is living on life extensions. A helicopter with exceptional capabilities which has done yeoman service for the military and Border Roads Organisation (BRO), it is difficult to replace in terms of the payload it carries — 20 tonnes in the fuselage or under slung. Its replacement would be the AH-64D Block III Apache from the US, 15 of which have been contracted to form two helicopter flights — one at Chandigarh and another one in the Northeast.
While the Chinook can carry only around 11 tonnes, it has three cargo hooks for under slung loads, is easy to maintain (unlike the Mi-26), and is highly manoeuvrable, an attribute that would permit it to enter the narrow valleys in the Northeast where the Mi-26 could not go. As covered earlier, a Chinook can be staged in a C-17 with its ground equipment, thus giving the IAF to deploy rotary wing support over long distances in quick time.
The Mi-25, which was inducted in the Eighties, is almost on its way out. The Mi-35, upgraded for night operations in the beginning of this century, is the sole true attack helicopter in India’s inventory now. Its deployment in IAF’s UN mission in Congo brought night capability to the UN troops, making them very effective in their anti-rebel tasks. The night upgrade is now approaching obsolescence, as is to be expected, and the arrival of the 22 Apache contracted with Boeing is expected in the next couple of years. These would supplement the Mi-35s in the two attack helicopter Squadrons and some may be used to raise another combat unit.
The Apaches will bring state-of-the-art operational capability in terms of modern Hellfire anti-tank missiles, rockets, a very effective chin mounted gun besides its night op kit of night vision systems. But the game changer would be the milli-metric wave mast mounted radar which would open up the battlefield like never before – the challenge would be to optimally utilise the enormous amount of tactically useful information that would be generated. With the IAF operationalising its Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft and data linking its assets, the Apache would perform a key role in adding to battlefield awareness in the tactical arena.
The IAF has a limited number of weaponised versions of the ALH called ALH (Weapon System Integrated); the Army has named it the Rudra. ALH (WSI) has a potent mix of weapon systems to include rockets, anti-tank missiles, air to air Mistral missiles and a chin gun besides a FLIR and an EO sensor. This armed helicopter is the precursor to the dedicated attack helicopter, the LCH — Light Combat Helicopter. The LCH uses the same engines, rotor and drive system as the ALH Dhruv and being a dedicated two pilot machine has great weapon carrying capability. Having landed at 15,000 feet on the Siachen Glacier, it brings accurate weapon delivery capability to the IAF in the mountains, an attribute that was sorely lacking during Kargil operations. Well into its prototype testing phase, one hopes that this machine lives up to its potential to be a game changer on the battlefield.
Tilt Rotor Technology
The requirement to go faster and with more load to areas that do not have runways or advanced landing grounds has excited military planners no end; it’s here that the V-22 Osprey has a niche position. There are media reports indicating that the Indian armed forces are interested in acquiring some numbers, considering the speed with which the Osprey can deliver men and equipment directly to, or very close to, the scene of action from a base deep in the rear. While no procurement is expected in the near future, due the various other urgent ones pending, a tilt rotor acquisition in future can be expected with considerable optimism.
The Intangible Role of IAF Helicopters
In India, the rotary wing fraternity plays a role of national integration in a subtle manner. Due to poor surface communications in the border areas, especially in the Northeast, IAF helicopters have been the lifeline for the military and civil administration. The link to the hinterland has two aspects; first, psychologically, the outline areas are ‘connected’ to the mainstream and second, the aerial connectivity ensures delivery of essential logistics for the civil population and medical support help to the locals. IAF helicopters have been the bonds that have, over decades, linked the locals to the essence of India. This is a task that is not going to go away in a hurry.
(The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi; views are personal)