Joint Asset

Need to bridge the divide for the ownership of the attack helicopters in the Indian armed forces

Nitin SatheAir Cmde Nitin Sathe (retd)

It was in 1984 that the first attack helicopters were inducted into the Indian Air Force. It was also the year I got commissioned as a helicopter pilot. Disappointed at not been selected to fly the fighters because of shortage of vacancies, the next best option, I was advised, was to work hard to become an attack helicopter pilot.

With God’s grace and some luck, a couple of years later I was at the 125 Helicopter Squadron based at Pathankot, learning to fly the deadly Mi-25. The helicopter flew as any other helicopter, but one had to change gears to think ‘offensive’ and learn to use the machine as a weapon delivery platform rather than just transporting troops and rations.

Around the same time, the Indian Army was asking for ‘control’ and subsequent ownership of the attack helicopters. There were heated discussions in crew rooms as well as official parleys at the headquarters.

The IAF was in no mood to hand over the assets. The army was relentless in it demand. And we, the operators, were caught in the crossfire. Rumours were that we would soon have to shed our blue uniforms and don the OG’s (olive greens), or sadly, be sent back to ‘normal’ helicopter units after handing over these fighter helicopters to the army. The only attack helicopter squadron of the IAF was under threat.

The Army Aviation Corps was formed in 1987 post the Joint Army Air Implementation Directive of 1986 (JAAI-1986) wherein the erstwhile air observation post (AOP) units started operating independently, slowly moving to new army bases closer to their HQs. The army had little or no experience in flying operations, especially offensive operations, and also of the complexities of fleet management and logistics. With the IAF reluctant to share its knowledge/experience for obvious reasons, they were forced to start from the scratch.

As far as the attack helicopters were concerned, with both parties reluctant to let go, a middle path was worked upon although everybody knew that this arrangement of dual control was doomed to failure. While the attack helicopters were to be operated and maintained by the IAF personnel, the operational control over the machines was to be exercised by the army. There was a mixing of appraisal channels, funding and budgets, and many SOPs (standard operating procedures), leading to confusion in the ranks.

The HQs on both sides, not geared to handle the ‘change’, passed down orders both difficult to digest as well as execute. In the centre of this storm were the Commanding Officer and the Flight Commander who had to ensure that feathers on both sides were not ruffled. The pilots of the squadron trained as well as they could in this scenario (we used to call it SFCS [super fast changing scenario] in jest!) to be operationally available for the multitude of tasks that both sides wanted to be executed.

In this ‘dual duel’ we went around displaying our aircraft at various army bases, flew many a general in the front cockpit for a ‘joy ride’ and did numerous ‘fly-pasts’ in exercises to impress the top brass and the troops of the army. The IAF, not to be left behind, increased the tasks on the squadron. Most intriguingly, the army brass at all levels remained clueless on the operational utilisation and capability of this machine for a good decade or so.

Apache AH-64E
Apache AH-64E

The Mi-25 and the upgraded 35 was essentially an anti-tank helicopter which was now to be used in other varied offensive roles (like battlefield airstrikes, radar busting and clandestine small-scale operations) and used as a classical attack helicopter that it wasn’t. This has been the case with many of the platforms that the IAF has inducted into their arsenal.

Like the MiG 21 that was originally designed to shoot down the American high-flying U-2 Bomber in the Cold War era, in the IAF this aeroplane was used as a ground attack, air defence as well as electronic jamming and photo recce platform and still continues to serve the country, although in dwindling numbers.

Let us fast forward to the current era. Besides a depleted strength of Mi-25/35, the IAF and the army have the HAL manufactured Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) ‘Dhruv’–WSI (Weapon System Integrated), the indigenous Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) ‘Prachand’ and the state-of-the-art Boeing Apache AH-64. The army also operates a small number of modified Cheetah helicopters fitted with machine guns but their use in hot war remains a question.

As per the induction plans available in the public domain, the IAF and the army are set to receive a large number of the HAL LCH’s in the coming years. As on date, besides the newly formed LCH squadrons in the IAF and the army, there are two squadrons of the AH 64 with the IAF and a half squadron with the army besides a few Dhruv WSI’s with both. The question then arises, are we home-producing these machines after thoroughly analysing futuristic requirements? Or is this being done to give a boost to ‘indigenisation’ of military hardware as also the ‘Make in India’ initiative?

With the current Russia-Ukraine conflict as an example, it can be seen that there have been significantly high losses of these machines on both sides. The Russians have lost as many as 37 attack helicopters (figures as available in the public domain) which raises questions on their vulnerability in the Tactical Battle Area.

We justified the requirement of these machines by measuring their efficacy and success in Iraq, Afghanistan and other such one-sided contests. There, one side either had very poor ground-based air defence; or the air defence was neutralised by one side before getting their attack helicopters to do their part. Therefore, one can say with reasonable confidence that these machines will achieve success in an environment where the ground-based air defence has been subdued/nullified.

The future battlefield, especially in the Indian context, is going to be very transparent and air defence intensive. Secondly, although one needs to be ready for conventional war even on two fronts, the chances of such an eventuality is much less than intense border skirmishes like what we have seen in the recent past, both on our western and northern borders. Thirdly, the use of these machines in intense war would need a very high level of integration between the two services and excellent management of the air defence of the TBA, which is a tough ask as of now.

The war in Ukraine also has brought into focus the efficacy of the use of unarmed and armed unmanned aerial platforms as well as smart munitions. Will these have a major role to play in future conflicts? The answer is, obviously, yes.

It is certain that future wars will be fought differently—more remotely, using more than just remotely piloted vehicles and remotely launched munitions, but by technological interventions that will destabilise and debilitate the enemy.

Having said that, and keeping the above in mind, will it be correct for us to go in for a large fleet of attack helicopters in our arsenal in preparation for an all-out war? Or will it be better to sharpen our skills at remote fighting? I leave the judgement to the planners and the experts of our armed forces.

On the flip side, we also need to be ready for small scale skirmishes and localised conflicts where these machines can prove their worth. Besides this, we have anti-national elements who constantly try to destabilise the internal security of our nation by the use of terror tactics. The attack helicopters are well suited to be used in such scenarios—should the government of the day decide to use ‘force’ to neutralise/flush out these outfits.

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