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  India   Army aviation needs integral attack helicopters

Army aviation needs integral attack helicopters

Published : Dec 15, 2015, 6:09 am IST
Updated : Dec 15, 2015, 6:09 am IST

The Indian Air Force (IAF) acquired MI (Mikhail)-25 and MI 35 attack helicopters (AH) in 1983 primarily for providing intimate fire support to the Army’s Strike Corps.

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The Indian Air Force (IAF) acquired MI (Mikhail)-25 and MI 35 attack helicopters (AH) in 1983 primarily for providing intimate fire support to the Army’s Strike Corps. On November 1, 1986, the Army Aviation Corps (AAC) was created and the AH squadron placed under the command and control of the Army. As the AAC was in a nascent stage, an interim functional arrangement of dual control by the IAF and the Army was decided upon. This was but polite terminology, which was not really workable as the IAF considered itself as the holder of all military aircraft and was loath to share or surrender any of its “turf” to the Army. It took two and a half decades for this again, to put it politely, “sub optimal” arrangement to be reviewed and after detailed deliberation in the defence ministry and it was decided on October 10, 2012 that due that to major operational considerations of AHs needing to be an integral element of the “ground manoeuvre force”, they should also be with the Army.

While IAF is in the final stages of procuring 22 Apache AHs to raise third strike corps and to replace the ageing fleet in the existing units, for the Army, also granted “in principle approval” for raising three AHs Squadrons with 39 Apache AHs, there is no progress.

The Indian Air Force Doctrine 2012 has listed eight tasks of AHs. The first is to provide suppressive fire to the ground troops where artillery or the ground attack effort is either not available or is likely to be less effective. On account of the helicopters’ variable speed and hover capabilities, engagement of surface targets in various situations would be highly effective. The second is to provide flank protection to mechanised formations. Next is the task to interdict targets in the close vicinity of the tactical battle area. A fourth task is to neutralise bridges used by the enemy for breaking out. Another task is to provide route cover and suppressive fire to heliborne assaults to create a favourable ground situation. The AHs are further tasked with providing air defence cover against enemy armed or attack helicopters, engaging enemy helicopters involved in troop carriage, reconnaissance and communication duties and neutralising radar sites located close to the border.

The IAF doctrine quite clearly categorises the first four tasks for support of ground forces, so it should be not have any objection to the Army holding its own fleet of AHs.

AHs have been extensively used as the air manoeuvre arm of the ground force in armies world over, especially for supporting mechanised battle. The Apache helicopter first saw combat during the 1989 invasion of Panama codenamed Operation Just Cause. Since then, Apaches have proven their worth in Bosnia and Kosovo in mid 1990, the First Gulf War in 1991 and in Iraq and Afghanistan. AHs have been used in all kinds of operations including low intensity and unconventional operations. Israel made ingenious use of Apaches in a counter terrorist action called Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in 2008.

More recently, US forces have employed them, against ISIS in Operation Inherent Resolve near Falluja in Iraq. The US doctrine mentions the “Big Five” essentials of victory in a ground campaign, in which Black Hawk helicopters are placed alongside the Bradley and Patriot missile systems. Therefore it can be deduced that while AHs may not impact significantly in Air or Naval operations, but they definitely form the cutting edge of the ground forces.

In March 2015, it was reported that within the span of a week, Pakistan acquired the Bell AH-1Z Viper AHs from the US and the CAIG Z-10 from China. These are Pakistan’s Army and the air force continue battling militants in Waziristan after high-profile terrorist attacks in 2014 in Karachi and Peshawar.

Although the armed forces’ firepower is considerable, its capability gaps and large inventories of ageing weapon systems are apparent. Pakistan’s Army Air Corps first received a small batch of Cobra attack helicopters between 1983-84. Pakistan has a long history of importing US arms and the arrival of Cobras coincided with its long-term support against the Soviets in Afghanistan. From 2007 to 2010 an additional 24 Cobra gunships were delivered to Pakistan for the specific purpose of targeting those terrorists/groups, which the Pakistan Army has classified as “bad”.

On April 6, 2015, the US defence security cooperation agency announced “a determination approving possible foreign military sale” for 15 AH-1Z Vipers together with munitions and spare parts worth $952 million. The AH-1Z is the most modern variant of the original AH-1 gunship that first saw action during the Vietnam War. The AH-1Z, which is flown by the US Marine Corps, is a twin-engine AH with modern avionics and six hard points for mounting weapons. The Cobra is distinct for its nose-mounted three-barrel 20 mm cannon and its landing skids. The AH-1Z is built with the same parts of the UH-1Y Huey — they even share similar tail sections and engine compartments. The DSCA and Bell Helicopter are providing the entire AH-1Z system together with spares. By 2016 Pakistan’s total number of Cobra/Viper AHs/ gunships could reach up to 60 or more.

Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and defence minister Manohar Parrikar have accorded priority to acquisition of military aircraft. The AAC is India’s largest helicopter holding organisation. Not only should it get its required share of AHs, much of its utility helicopter units need replacements and new acquisitions, because their present operational commitments in peace areas and insurgency/ terrorism affected regions itself are plenty. God forbid, if any of India’s two inimical neighbours decide to wage even a limited war, like the Pakistan Army did in Kargil in 1999, we must not be caught with crucial helicopter deficiencies. Hence equipping AAC must also be treated as urgent and it must also be provided as early as possible along with sanctions, if any required, for the material wherewithal to maintain them.