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Army Aviation Corp at 33

WEB_Cheetah AAC

10th October 2019 will go down as a red letter day in the history of Army Aviation Corps (AAC) for on this day the young 33 years old battle hardened Corps was bestowed with the highest military honour, the presentation of the ‘President’s Colours’ at Nasik by the President of India. The ceremony was held and conducted under the aegis of the Combat Army Aviation Training School (CAATS) at Nasik. Today the AAC has a place of pride in the pantheon of Indian Army’s Arms and Services and only a few can claim to have made so great an impact in such a short time. The AAC was baptised by fire with its induction into ‘Op Pawan’ in Sri Lanka immediately after its birth in 1986. ‘Op Meghdoot’ (Siachen Glacier) has been the final frontier for the Corps where the vintage and outdated Cheetahs along with state-of-the-art Dhruvs (ALH) helicopters routinely operate at heights above 20,000 feet – in fact, the Dhruv and Cheetahs are the work horses for the Siachen Glacier, the highest battlefield in the world. The Kargil conflict ‘Op Vijay’ was the AAC’s finest hour where professionalism, grit and courage of the aviators were recognised and the ‘Battle Honour Title Kargil’ was awarded to the Aviation Squadron in the area of operations. Sustained participation in CI/CT operations in J&K and the North East has made the Corps a very crucial component of the Army. Besides glory on the battlefield, the AAC is among the first responders in any natural calamity. Their role in Uttarakhand, J&K and Nepal greatly assisted the Government in providing timely relief and essential aid to the affected people.

The Army Aviation over these 33 years has also undergone major transformational and organisational changes in terms of structures, equipment profile and employment philosophy, though critical operational voids and gaps remain. The Government clearance for acquisition of six state-of-the-art Apache Longbow Attack Helicopters (AH) for the Army (though initially 11 were approved), the induction of the HAL made ALH-Dhruv helicopters in 2002, setting up of Army’s own pilot training establishment at Nasik and the creation and implementation of the concept of the ‘Army Aviation Brigades’ are indeed very significant steps towards the growth and transformation of the Aviation Corps. It is notable that despite initial teething problems of the ALH, the AAC was the first to induct these indigenously developed machines and today has an inventory of approximately 80 Dhruvs – this fleet is expected to grow further in the coming years. The latest in this transformation process is the transfer of UAVs from the Artillery to the AAC – this process is currently ongoing. On the flip side the Government’s policy on the ownership of attack helicopters remains muddled and confused and the Aviation Corps for far too long has been denied its legitimate requirements of Medium and Heavy Lift Helicopters to enhance its tactical lift and special operations capabilities. A reality check shows that the growth of this battle winning ‘Arm of the Future’ is nowhere near what was envisioned by the Army in 1963. Today, it lacks the requisite firepower, manoeuvre and assault capability in terms of attack and lift helicopters.


Present and Future Prospects

Presently, the Army has in its inventory 300 plus helicopters, majority being the light observation class (Cheetah and Chetak). These helicopters are obsolete and have been in service for more than 40 years. Keeping this fleet operational itself is becoming well-nigh impossible due to its vintage and spares non-availability/criticality, a fact accepted and corroborated by both HAL and the Army – however their replacement is still nowhere in sight. The Government’s decision to go in for the induction of 200 Russian Ka-226T helicopters in a Government-to-Government (G2G) agreement in 2014 to replace the ageing Cheetah/Chetak fleet was a welcome step. However, the progress on this crucial project has been tardy to say the least. Even four years after the agreement, the contract has still not been signed, highlighting India’s lethargic approach to the defence equipment acquisition process, even when it is operationally critical. HAL is the nodal agency along with Russian Helicopters for this project and as per the agreement, 60 helicopters will be delivered in a fly away condition while the balance 140 will be manufactured in India at HAL’s new facility at Tumkur, Karnataka. Simultaneously, HAL had also undertaken the development and manufacture of a 3-tonne class light utility helicopter (LUH) to cater to the light reconnaissance & observation class of helicopters for all three services. As per HAL the LUH is expected to complete flight certification and go into production soon. The plans are to manufacture 184 LUHs in the new helicopter complex in Tumkur. Overall, there is requirement of almost 500 helicopters of the light observation class, with Army’s requirement amounting to approximately 280-300, which includes the replacement of Chetak/Cheetah.

In the light utility category, while the induction of the ALH/Dhruv is making steady progress as brought out earlier, there are serious serviceability and maintenance issues which need to be addressed by the HAL on priority to ensure optimal utilisation of this fleet, especially in high altitudes. The recent ALH accident in Poonch Sector of J&K with the Northern Army Commander on board, due to material failure, bears testimony to this crucial factor. As per information, two MRO hubs are being set up by HAL in the Northern and Eastern Sectors in the near future, a step that will greatly enhance both maintainability and serviceability. In addition to the 80 ALHs already held, another 60 are planned for induction in the coming decade -these helicopters will provide tactical lift capability at the level of Corps.

The heavy and medium lift helicopters which form the core of the Army’s tactical lift capability and bulk of attack helicopters remain with the Air force – their optimum operational employment is not possible in the present set up. The army is also looking to acquire a suitable helicopter in the 10 to12-tonne class with stealth features for its Special Operations Units, as well as enhancing its overall tactical lift capability. HAL has been looking at the feasibility of a joint venture with a foreign vendor for a 10 to12-tonne class multirole helicopter whose variants would also be available to the Navy and Air force. Barring the mock-up shown in Aero India-2017, there is no progress in sight.

The armed version of the ALH called the ‘Rudra’ was inducted into the AAC in 2013 – three units are already operational and another is under raising. Rudra is a typical armed helicopter with an array of weapon systems including gun, rockets, air-to-air missiles (French Mistral) and air-to-ground missiles, along with a modern sighting system and integrated electronic warfare self – protection suite. However, in its present configuration it has not been integrated with a suitable ATGM, as the air version of Nag ATGM ’Helina’, being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is not yet ready. The non availability of a suitable airborne ATGM will not only impact the operational capability of the Rudra but, also, the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) project of HAL. The ATGM is the main weapon system of an armed/attack helicopter and without it the helicopter merely remains a gunship, inhibiting the exploitation of its full potential. This is an area of grave concern and needs to be addressed on priority by all stake holders concerned – all previous efforts to acquire a suitable ATGM ex-import have come to a naught and DRDO has been grappling with this project for the last two decades with no concrete results to show even today.

 With regards to the attack helicopters, while the issue of their ownership remains contentious, the army is all geared up for the induction of six state-of-the-art Apache AH 64E Guardian attack helicopters into its fold, though initially 11 were cleared based on the tactical and operational requirement of an attack helicopter unit. Their induction is expected to commence only after the 22 Guardian Apaches have been delivered to the IAF– eight Apaches have already been inducted. The Apaches are most suitable for employment in conjunction with and support of mechanised forces and hence there is no doubt that the 22 Apaches being inducted into the IAF will also be operationally available to the Army during conflict. The Government however, needs to address and clarify the ownership issue at the earliest.

A significant achievement has been the development of the LCH by HAL a state-of-the-art attack helicopter, with capability to operate at high altitudes (16,000 feet) and capable of meeting the unique requirements of the Indian Army in the mountains. The LCH uses the technology of the existing ALH and its configurations except that the fuselage is suitably modified and streamlined for tandem seating. Four prototypes of the LCH have completed pre -induction trials and last year HAL declared the LCH ready for operational induction after completing all weapon integration tests. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) has already cleared the limited series production (LSP) of 15 LCHs, ten for the IAF and five for the army respectively. The LCH is a multirole combat helicopter with the unique and distinct capability to operate at high altitudes –an advantage over other attack helicopters in the world today.



While the AAC has seen significant capability development in the recent past the biggest challenge remains the replacement of the obsolete Cheetah/Chetak fleet. Any further delay will severely impact on the national security. The Government also needs to remove the ambiguity on the serious issue of ownership of attack helicopters to enable clarity in command and control and their effective employment in battle. The transfer of UAV assets to its fold is a significant step and will certainly enhance its capability of supporting operations across the entire spectrum of conflict in the future battlefield.n

Source: India Strategic
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