Army helicopters

The template for modernization of the Army Aviation Corps, now nearly three decades of age, is the ability to improve combat mobility and to fight by night. The first is dictated by the need to attain politico-military objectives at the shortest span of time and the second is a foregone concomitant where “waiting for first light” is a recipe for delay and disaster.

By and large the mainstay of equipment of the Army Aviation Corps is the rotary-winged helicopter though a case has been made out for “one flight per Infantry Corps” of fixed wing assets to facilitate reconnaissance and communications at the Corps commander’s level.

Plans have largely become trapped in the familiar controversies over acquisitions, of anonymous disclosures that tend to militate against transparency and probity in re-equipment programs. Lobbies within the armed forces tend to work for personal aggrandizement rather than the efficacy and good of the Service and, except for the induction of more of the indigenously designed and developed Dhruv utility helicopters none of the contracts for acquisitions from abroad have fructified because they have become embroiled in controversies.

Ownership issues

The issue of who should control the attack helicopters remains mired in controversy with reports suggesting that the ongoing negotiations for the Apache attack helicopters from the US would end in the Indian Air Force adding to the fleet of Mi-34/Mi-35 gunships acquired in the 80s. In October 2012 the Ministry of Defence did issue a statement that in future “ownership” of such assets would rest with the army but that does not appear to apply to the Apaches.

The role of the helicopter in forming the battleground through vertical envelopment tactics and swift redistribution of forces has long been acknowledged and India too has gone along with the trend of arming helicopters for both the air-to-air combat as well as the ground attack roles.

The Army Aviation Corps came into existence November 1986 but there has been unrelenting opposition from the Indian Air Force to the creation of small pockets of airborne assets which would have a deleterious effect on logistics, and maintenance with duality of command.

In any case the ownership of the medium and heavy lift helicopters remains with the IAF. These include the Mi-17s, the upgraded versions of which have just been acquired from Russia, and the Mi-26 which is the world’s largest heavy lift helicopter. It is to be replaced by the US Chinook.

As far as modernization of current assets is concerned the Army Aviation Corps needs to bring its fleet to standards required for combat mobility and night-fighting capabilities that are totally-instrument oriented.    

As part of the ongoing process of modernization is the replacement of the old workhorses- the Cheetah and Chetak helicopters-with the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd designed and developed Dhruv helicopters about 197 of which are to be inducted.

A light combat helicopter named the Rudra is being prepared for induction. With an armament package of 20mm turret gun, 60/80mm rocket pods besides anti-tank guided missiles as well as air-to-air missiles it will be a lethal airborne platform under the command and control of the Army Aviation Corps.

Its service ceiling of 21,000 ft encourages one to believe that the loss of the Cheetah and Chetak (French Allouette helicopters built under licence by HAL) will not be felt. These two workhorses have been deployed in the Himalayas as air bridges to keep forward army positions supplied with the necessities of existence in the extreme cold and rugged terrain.

The Siachen brigade could not have been maintained over the years since 1984 without these helicopters. Modernization in this context and terrain can only be seen in facilities that can make it possible for the helicopter to operate even after dark which, in every respect, would mean “flying blind” with the assistance of onboard instrumentation.

This facility would best be appreciated in instances of medical evacuation and could also ensure round-the-clock, 24x7 manning of forward outposts at the height of winter without the need for withdrawal of troops because they cannot be resupplied as was the cause of the Kargil invasion by Pakistan in 1999.

For reconnaissance and observation during both day and night the avionics fit in the Dhruv will have to

include terrain following and collision-avoidance sensors and infrared detectors to seek out infiltrators by their body heat from heights well out of reach of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles which took their toll of IAF assets during the Kargil war.

Early warning

To complement this facility there must be the inclusion in the cockpit of missile approach warning radar (MAWS) that will give advance warning of an approaching enemy missile. The reaction to this state of affairs would have to be from onboard counter-measure systems like flare and chaff dispensers and electromagnetic counter-measures that decoy the missile to virtual images away from the main platform.

For integral airborne early warning platform, the indigenous platform can be fitted with the narrow pencil-box configured structure that the Defence Research and Development Organisation has created for the airborne warning and command systems based on the Brazilian Embraer aircraft.

It can be fitted onto the Indian Dhruv to enlarge the envelope of electronic warfare and electronic and signals intelligence gathering in and around the battlefield. In many respects that will fulfill the requirement for a tactical battle support helicopter that is currently being handled with the use of imported unmanned aerial vehicles.

As with fixed wing platforms where much of the information that the pilot needs is incorporated in what has come to be known as the glass cockpit -head up displays and digitized situational awareness gadgets, the helicopter cockpit should have most of the information either displayed on visor of the helmet or delivered audio-visually.

A look-at, shoot-at facility would enhance the reaction time especially in an air-to-air combat situation. With a payload inclusive of 20mm turret gun, 60/80mm rockets besides anti-tank guided missiles and air-to-air missiles the contribution of the pilot of combat helicopter will depend on what can be described as adequate “shot selection”-choosing the right weapon to deliver the coup de grace against an airborne enemy or one on the ground or both very nearly simultaneously.

That helmet mounted displays can optimize the utilization of the externally carried weapons pack is a factor not generally recognized. It has a cumulative effect on the total war effort if the idea of “one-shot-kill” can be implemented with an element of certainty brought about by facilities like helmet-mounted displays on what are relatively slow-moving weapons platforms (as compared to the supersonic maneuvers of fixed winged fighters).

Unmanned helicopter

More and more the accent is shifting to unmanned aerial vehicles and the helicopter too is being studied for its applicability as a stand-alone system even while retaining its maneuverability, vertical envelopment facility and interoperability with land forces. Already the unmanned helicopter has demonstrated the capability of delivering supplies-food, munitions and medicines-and extracting casualties through vertical envelopment procedures in Afghanistan.

Given that there is already a shortage of pilots in the armed forces; an unmanned platform is an attractive proposition.

The tilt-rotor –a hybrid vertical takeoff and landing and fast forward movement platform-has been in existence for decades and lends itself admirably to the UAV mode. Nonetheless, the requirements of the battlefield will dictate what configuration would best suit given battlefield conditions.

The Kargil experience has shown that the use of fixed winged and rotor-bladed platforms in mountain terrain have certain vulnerabilities. The need to get close enough to the target to recognize it to launch weapons against it accurately leaves it open to shoulder-fired missiles and rocket propelled grenades.

The modern battlefield would dictate that since most of India’s embattled frontiers are in mountainous terrain a UAV capable of delivering standoff weapons from a height out of reach of SAMs would be an admirable addition to the arsenal.