The efficacy of an attack helicopter or a helicopter gunship is best understood in pugilistic terminology. Where it enjoys the advantage of reach (the range of its onboard weaponry be it the gun or missiles/rockets) it is king but where the enemy has the greater reach the helicopter can become a coffin.
As India learned to its dismay in Kargil where a helicopter and an aircraft were lost to shoulder-fired Stinger surface-to-air missiles after which employment of air power had to be revised keeping in view the reach of the Pakistani missiles-it had to stay out of reach and thus air power became less effective till laser guided bombs were bought.
The experience of the Russians in Afghanistan was even worse. The Afghan fighters used to ambush the helicopters in the valleys and many helicopters were downed. In Vietnam, the Americans made wide use of the helicopter and lost the war. The one abiding image of the Vietnam War is that of a helicopter parked on the roof of the American embassy taking in embassy staff for evacuation out of the war zone.
More recently, in an attempt to execute an ambitious long-range strike American Apache helicopters found it difficult trying to take control of the Karbala Gap. They were beaten back by ground fire. A later strike in conjunction with artillery support produced better results. The world also remembers the way an American Apache helicopter was shot down by a shoulder-fired missile in Somalia. Extreme caution needs to precede air operations with helicopters. A clear appreciation of the weapons in enemy hands must be available before the helicopters are sent in.
The Indian Army and the Indian Air Force have been embroiled in a bitter struggle to control new acquisitions of 22 Apache helicopters bought from the US with further follow-on orders. Last year the Government ruled that the Apaches would be under the ownership of the IAF and the Army would handle the Mi-24/25 helicopter gunships acquired when the Soviet Union was in existence.
The speciality of the Russian helicopters was the ability to carry eight fully armed infantrymen for insertion into exploitable gaps in any kind of terrain. Armed as they would be with anti-tank weapons like the Carl Gustav, these infantrymen could play havoc with an enemy tank formation that is unaware of their presence. That was the rationale for the acquisition of the Mi-24/25 and its infantry-capable configuration.
The Indian Armed Forces have felt the need for gunships over a long period of time and this has resulted in the conversion of the Mi-8/17 helicopter to the gunship role with the inclusion of 12.5mm guns and rocket pods for strafing ground positions. Required they may be but the truism of reach remains applicable even today.
During the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) tenure in Sri Lanka the threat from ground based missiles was always confronting the Mi-8 helicopters that had been converted to the gunship role. Given the current world situation the arms black market is awash with almost every kind of weaponry an insurgent group may want to acquire. Shoulder-fired missiles are top priority. The intention is to keep the helicopter gunship at arms length.
Helicopter manufacturers on the other hand have not hesitated to use the expensive titanium sheets to reinforce vulnerable portions of the underside of the helicopter and the fuel tanks to be able to withstand all types of small arms munitions and are including modern self-protection equipment like chaff and flare dispensers and missile approach warning radars to allow the pilot to take evasive measures.
The main intended role of the attack helicopter is close air support to infantrymen and tank-busting in the event of a confrontation with the enemy armor.
The recent qualitative staff requirement of the Indian armed forces calls for a service ceiling of 20,000 ft thereby implying the employment of helicopter gunships all along the Himalayas. More acquisitions of Apache helicopters, ostensibly for the new Mountain Corps that is being raised for the defence of the Himalayas, underscores a high altitude requirement similar to what happened in Kargil where the battle was fought at 18,000 ft.
Here again there is need to warn against the shortcomings that a helicopter faces against entrenched invaders in mountainous terrain. Reach of onboard weaponry will make all the difference between successful operations and losses of the airborne platform. There needs to be a proper appreciation of the shoulder-fired SAMs in the Chinese arsenal before deploying inadequately armed helicopter gunships to try and dislodge them.
Having finally woken up to the demands of military aviation, Hindustan Aeronautic Ltd and the Aeronautical Research Laboratory have begun to produce heartwarming results. With the Tejas close to initial operation clearance and the indigenous light combat helicopter Rudra taking to the skies, India will soon be able to deploy indigenously designed and developed airborne weapons platforms along its periphery which is fast acquiring a China-Pakistan collusive arrangement.
In any case ever since the Chinese invasion of 1962, helicopters have been the mainstay of the many air bridges that have been set up for resupply and casualty evacuation of troops on the forward edge of battle area. That these logistical flights will now be supplemented by armed helicopters will require a well conceived employment plan that will obviate losses and ensure optimal utilization of the armed helicopter.
Since Kargil the Indian armed forces have been assiduously improving the self-defence capabilities of both fixed winged aircraft and the rotary winged helicopters. These gadgets are useful to deflect heat-seeking missiles with the dispersal of chaff and flares the moment the onboard sensors detect a radar lock-on. It is no surprise that a great deal of attention has been paid to the installation of decoys on the Rudra light combat helicopter.
The Rudra is a combat derivative of the indigenous light utility chopper Dhruv which is slowly replacing the French Allouette helicopters Cheetah and Chetak that have been the mainstay of the air bridges that have sustained Indian deployment along the crest of the Himalayas.
With a 20-mm cannon on board it is very capable of attacking enemy convoys from a distance of up to two kilometers which is well out of reach of infantry weapons. Even, the attachment of four launchers on either side of the helicopter of the indigenously developed helicopter-launched Helina anti-tank missile gives it an upper hand. (Helina is a heli-borne version of the ground-based Nag anti-tank missile which has a claimed capability of fire and forget and a range of between 7 and 9 km). This means that the launch platform need not remain stationary after the missiles have been launched to be able to guide it to target. The missile will find the enemy tank on the basis of its onboard sensors and hit the tank from the top, its most vulnerable position.
As part of its protective weaponry the Rudra has French air-to-air missile and a Swedish (SAAB) decoy suite which together makes for a fairly impregnable airborne platform in the context of modern warfare.
However, how many helicopter gunships will be required for India is still a matter of heated debate between the IAF and the Indian Army Aviation Corps. Orders for 22 have been placed for the IAF and a follow-on arrangement indicate the acquisition of 22 more. Requirements of the newly raised Mountain Corps are also being bandied about. The attack helicopters for the Mountain Corps would be in addition to the order being considered by the MoD for the Army. The Indian Army, however, must still decide when and how to procure the additional unspecified numbers of attack helicopters for the Mountain Corps, which is expected to be in operation in about 10 years.