The induction of Apache AH in the Indian Army will provide teeth to its offensive content
Lt Gen. Rameshwar Yadav (retd)
Changes in war technologies have led to a doctrinal shift in the use of the weapon to achieve the national objective in a more efficient manner. Air power is no exception to this phenomenon in the Indian context. Presently, the Indian armed forces are facing the challenge of hybrid warfare which warrants air support from a sub-tactical level in insurgency-prone areas to the entire spectrum of tactical to the strategic domain of conventional and Nuclear, Biological, Chemical (NBC) environment. The air power, which was entirely in the Indian Air Force’s domain till a few decades back, has gradually been delegated – a part of it – to the navy as well as the army to take special care of corps operations while the Indian Air Force (IAF) continues to retain the overall responsibility of defence of Indian air space.
Accordingly, the air components under navy and army are integral to national air power and their employment is coordinated by the IAF, barring execution left to them for better effect. The navy, due to their long outreach over high seas, have almost all the varieties of aircraft capable of operating from onboard ships as well as shore establishments. Whereas the army is controlling only the tactical level rotary wing equipment as part of army aviation primarily for fire direction of artillery fire, surveillance and logistics purposes. Besides the above, all the three services have a fleet of UAVs as part of their air component.
The Attack Helicopter (AH) is an offensive weapon platform for intimate fire support and destruction of the human and material targets. It has been a matter of debate as regards to its command and control since long. While the air force has been providing AH support so far, the intricacies of its employment in mechanised forces, insurgency and mountainous areas have been found to be a grey area for air force officers. The army officers, on other hand, are well versed with the army tactics, terrain and ground targets, hence better placed for such an AH support. Moreover, the army commanders controlling the battle are in a better position to integrate all the air assets in fast-moving mechanised operations in a time-constrained environment. The old procedure of requisition of air support is a time-consuming process plus there are problems of coordination and battle-field orientation for the air force pilots.
The combat aircraft, over time, have been modernised, providing higher speeds and better avionics as well as the armaments. The combat aircraft have weapons which can be launched beyond visual ranges, besides bombs, rockets and missiles of varied capabilities. They are also equipped with electronic warfare capabilities to survive during electronic black outs, and even have capabilities to incapacitate the enemy command control, communications, surveillance and weapon systems.
On the other hand, there is much better air defence mechanism wherein it is possible to detect and track aircraft the moment they take off from their operating bases by the satellites, AWACS, aerostats and radars, and engage them with high accuracy. Accordingly, the possible way to succeed in the mission lies in defeating the time to execute the cycle of detection, identification, target assignment and firing of the weapons by the defender. This can be done by very high speeds and nap of earth flying to reduce the probability of early detection by air defence units.
This in turn makes it difficult for low flying and fast-moving aircraft to identify ground targets like tanks, artillery guns, bunkers etc., as time over a target is barely a few seconds. The identification of friend or foe is even more difficult in so less time, leading to chances of destruction of friendly forces. As a result, the concept of close air support to the troops in contact with the enemy has become difficult with modern aircraft.
This task essentially requires slow flying aircraft with armament suitable to destroy enemy hard targets like tanks, guns, bunkers and area weapons to destroy troops, transport and installations. The AH has all these capabilities hence, it is suitable to replace the fixed wing aircraft to a reasonable extent for close support tasks. The AH can fly nap of earth to avoid detection, engage the targets and disengage quickly before the enemy can recover and fire at them. Since the helicopters require small helipads which can be constructed anywhere, it makes it more flexible for operational requirements of the army.
Accordingly, if AH is under army control, these can be utilised in a better manner providing enhanced operational efficiency. While the tasks of close air support continue to be the prerogative of the air force, the close quarter battle can be delegated to the AH under army control for intimate offensive fire assaults and destructive tasks. With such an arrangement, the air force can concentrate on the strategic task of shaping the battlefield by creating favourable air situation and isolating the tactical battle area (TBA) through interdiction and disruption of enemy forces being inducted into the theatre of operations.
The AH, with its characteristics, has maximum utility in mechanised formations wherein destruction of enemy tanks assumes importance. The attack helicopters have the capability of destroying the tanks well away from their effective ranges to engage own tanks, hence providing the much-needed tactical advantages. Moreover, the enemy tanks can be engaged from top profile with anti-tank missiles and rockets which makes it easy for destruction because turret is the thinnest part of the tanks. Conceptually, the AH forms the aerial manoeuvre arm of the mechanised formations alongside the artillery formations in the strike corps designed for offensive operations in the plain and desert sectors.
The AH has utility in destroying enemy bunkers, guns, ammunition dumps, transport and logistics installation in all terrain configurations. They were found to be useful in destroying enemy bunkers which could not be engaged by the fixed wing aircrafts in mountainous terrain during Kargil war. The AH can be utilised in insurgency areas to destroy buildings, transport and assets being used by the rebels. The AH is a very versatile weapon platform of multiple utility in varied military contingencies. In order to optimise its capabilities, the AH must be used as a unit with proper tactical drills and procedures.
Looking at the potential of AH as a force multiplier, India acquired Mi-35 AH from Russia in the Eighties, and it has been an important part of the offensive formations ever since the induction. However, it has been under control of the air force. A bitter and long drawn tussle ensued with the IAF over control of the Apache attack helicopters, which are to replace the ageing Mi-35s of the IAF.
The process for acquisition of Apaches for the army was set into motion when the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by the defence minister gave the approval for acquisition of six Apache Attack Helicopters in August 2017 from the 11 Apaches agreed earlier. This Apache AH case for the army was processed as a ‘follow on contract’ of the earlier deal inked for 22 Apaches for the IAF, and their induction is due to commence from 2019 onwards. The army’s plans to induct 39 Apaches for its three Strike Corps in the plains has been approved in principle by the government.
The Apache AH-64E, also known as Apache Guardian, is the most technologically advanced and lethal AH in the world today. The Apaches with the Indian Army and the IAF will also have Lockheed Martin’s formidable Longbow Fire Control radar to detect hidden targets and engage them with precision. The Apache Guardian incorporates 28 technology upgrades on the previous model 64D, the major ones being more powerful engines, upgraded transmission system to accommodate additional power, improved digital connectivity, the capability to control UAVs, advanced sensors and avionics for unhindered night operations, improved landing gear and new composite blades. These important upgrades have led to increased speeds, climb rates and greater payload carriage capacity in the Guardian, and significantly, the E variant is also fit for maritime operations.
The AH-64E is being equipped with a lethal array of armaments including Hellfire anti-tank guided missiles, Raytheon’s Stinger Air-to-Air missiles, 70 mm unguided rockets (Hydra) and 30 mm cannon with 1,200 rounds of ammunition. A unique feature in both these variants is the advanced Target Acquisition and Designation Sight and the Dome installed over the main rotor, housing the Longbow Fire Control Radar. This gives the Apache Longbow the ability to fire the Hellfire anti-tank guided missiles in Fire and Forget mode, as well as the capability to detect, classify and prioritise multiple targets simultaneously.
The induction of Apache AH in the army would bring about a paradigm shift in her capability, thereby providing teeth to its offensive content. It would also require working out the concept of employment of the AH as a manoeuvre arm of the strike formations alongside other helicopters of the army aviation for support operations. The standard operating procedures for air space management and coordination with artillery and armoured formations needs to be worked out in details. It goes without saying that with the capabilities of Apache AH, it would prove to be a versatile force multiplier and a battle-winning factor in times to come. Induction of Apache AH with its cutting-edge technologies is keenly awaited in the Indian Army.