The Indian Army of over 1.1 million soldiers operating in variety of terrain, from high altitude jungles to snowy mountains of Ladakh and Kashmir and plains of Punjab to the hot deserts of Rajasthan is extremely poorly equipped in terms of its aviation equipments.
The Indian Army Aviation Corps first set up in 1986 with a grand vision of providing the army with the wherewithal to reach the inaccessible remote areas with men, weapons and platforms with alacrity has not yet been able to fulfill its plan.
Perhaps the IAF, which has been the repository of major aviation equipments, seems to be a major barrier in allowing the Army Aviation Corps to progress on its vision.
However, of late the MoD seems to have recognized the requirement of various categories of helicopters for tactical support at the far flung border areas, where the rival forces are face to face with the Indian soldiers.
With Cheetah and Chetak helicopters set to retire in the coming years, the Aviation Corps is urgently looking to induct new breed of support helicopters in roles such as reconnaissance and surveillance, tactical battle support, special operations duty, heli borne early warning role and also the light fixed wing aircraft for surveillance and communication tasks.
The Army aviation performs crucial role both in war and peacetime operations but the changing battlefield scenario, with more and more air elements being added to the Army’s inventory all over the world, the Tactical Battle Area will present an entirely different picture in future warfare.
The army commanders require flexibility and swift action to challenge the rival forces. Hence, the Light Utility Helicopters are now being considered a great asset to stop the advancing enemy infantry or tank convoy. Army aviation officials claim that two squadrons of Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters were acquired from the Army budget but they have been placed with the Air Force. Though Army Aviation has operational control over these helicopters, Army officials complain that due to command and control issues these cannot be optimally utilized to their full potentials.
Besides the LUH the Army Aviation has also staked its claim on the Heavy Lift Chinook helicopters and the heavy duty attack helicopters Boeing AH-64D Apache , which MoD has given its approval to acquire for the Air Force.
The Army Aviation has been inducting the indigenously made Advanced Light Helicopter Dhruv over the years and has largest fleet of Chetak and Cheetah helicopters, which are getting obsolete. These have been performing yeoman duty in the Siachen glaciers, ever since Indian Army landed there. However it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep this fleet serviceable in view of its ageing air frame.
However, the Army headquarters seems to be frustrated over the inordinate delay in inducting the 197 light utility helicopters, process for which had begun in the middle of last decade and still there is no immediate possibility of flying them in near future in its units.
The process has been twice cancelled and initiated and put on hold again after surfacing of fresh allegations of efforts to influence the deal in favor of AgustaWestland in February, 2013. As a consequence the Army Headquarter has requested the MoD to delay the acquisition process and the Director General (Acquisition) has asked Eurocopter and Kamov to extend their bids offer till the end of 2013.
According to the last Request for Proposal issued by the Ministry Of Defence, initially 60 helicopters will be acquired off the shelf and the rest, 137, will be manufactured in India under license by the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.
The European Eurocopter, the Russian Kamov and the Italian AgustaWestland were in the fray but with the Agusta caught in the wrong acts of violating Indian law on bribery in the VVIP Helicopter deal, the RFP process seems to be once again in jeopardy.
The Kamov and the Eurocopter had earlier participated in the RFP and they have once again entered the fray to bag the US$ 750 million deal. The three forces together need over 430 helicopters for which the process was initiated way back in 2007.
However, with HAL entering the fray in the LUH deal; though still not a part of the RFP process, the entire process may take an interesting turn. Since the HAL has claimed that the company has already developed a LUH and the three ton helicopter would start rolling out of HAL factory by 2015, the much delayed acquisition process will have to consider the HAL offer also, as the MOD has declared a new policy of giving priority to indigenous products.
The HAL made LUH was displayed for the first time in Aero India 2009 in Bangalore. The LUH will have a crew of two and can fly six soldiers. HAL plans to power the LUH with the Turbomeca Shakti turboshaft engine. The helicopter will have a flying range of 351 kms and service ceiling of 21,300 feet. Thus it can meet the requirements of armed forces from Siachen to the Line of Actual Control with China, from Arunachal Pradesh to Ladakh.
Besides the utility helicopters, the Army is also rooting for the Advanced Light Combat Helicopter, which is in the final stages of development and production. These Indian made combat helicopters will definitely enhance the firepower and the combat capabilities of the Indian army.
In the emerging battlefield scenario the Army Aviation Corps is yet to emerge as the third dimension integrated force multiplier due to the absence of the required rotary wing platforms. Since , the future battlefields are likely to be mostly in the high altitude jungle terrain and snow clad mountains , the army must have its own independent air element to facilitate an integrated war fighting not only for the purpose of mobility but also to enhance the firepower of the army.
With Unmanned Air Vehicle entering the fray, the filed formations of the army would require to deploy them not only for surveying the enemy forces but also to use them in combat role. Hence, new concepts of air land warfare demands that the UAV’s are integrated with the Army Aviation Corps.
However, with the third derailment of the process of acquiring the LUH, the Army Aviation is facing a grim future. The explosive bribery scandal in the VVIP Helicopter deal has led to the postponement of the process to acquire 197 helicopters, for US$ 1.5 billion.
During the course of investigation in Italy, the authorities there found documents pertaining to the process of acquisition of 197 helicopters also. The AgustaWestland was also a competitor in this race but this was ejected later and only Kamov and the Eurocopter remained in the race.
One Brigadier of the army headquarter was implicated in this deal for trying to influence the decision making process in favor of AgustaWestland. The committee had then said that both the helicopters meet the basic requirements.
The MoD had constituted a special technical oversight committee headed by Lt General Gurdeep Singh which faced complaints of technical deviation, since the Kamov is twin engine and the Eurocopters are single engine helicopters. The 197 helicopters are supposed to undertake patrol, casualty evacuation and reconnaissance role. After the VVIP helicopter fiasco, the technical oversight team is not ready to give clearance to the objections raised because of the risks of allegations of favoritism.
However, MoD officials are hopeful that they will be back on track once the VVIP helicopter purchase scandal issue is resolved. But the Army Aviation top brass are worried that this may take long and will lead to unforeseen delays once again. Since the Cheetah and Chetak helicopters are getting old and they need immediate replacement, the combat requirement will have to suffer.
Besides LUH the Army Aviation needs a balanced composition of Light Utility, Advanced light, combat, attack and heavy lift - all class of helicopters in its inventory to augment its mobility and fire power, considering the evolving battlefield of the future.