Unlike fixed-wing combat aircraft that essentially train during peacetime, helicopters of the IAF spend a substantial proportion of their peacetime flying on operational missions
It is understandable that, in the context of aerospace power, aerial platforms with offensive capability have greater priority in procurement compared to those that are employed in supporting roles. Helicopters thus get relegated to a lower priority in all air forces and so is the case with the Indian Air Force (IAF). According to Bharat Rakshak, the IAF holds 359 helicopters on its inventory which includes 70 odd obsolescent light utility Chetaks/Cheetahs, around 100 ageing medium-lift Mi-8s and three timeworn Mi-26 heavy-lift craft. The total holding under 400 appears quite low. However, as per the IAF website, the total helicopter holding is 500; but even this figure is low for the fourth largest air force in the world. Unlike fixed-wing combat aircraft that essentially train during peacetime, helicopters of the IAF spend a substantial proportion of their peacetime flying on operational missions including those for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Their wartime operational roles include attack, anti-tank, armed, Suppression of Enemy Air Defences, communication, recce, Search and Rescue, Casualty Evacuation, Special Heliborne Operations and air-to-air combat against helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. However, a large chunk of their peacetime toils is as strenuous as any war-time mission. The IAF’s doctrinal persuasion is to be equally effective and credible during war and peace. Is the helicopter fleet suitably and sufficiently equipped for doing so?
The IAF had inducted the Russian Mi-26 in 1986, but had difficulty in maintaining the required levels of serviceability. In 2012, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) finally decided to order 15 CH-47 Chinook helicopters. The twin-rotor Chinook from Boeing has a unique design incorporating powerful contra-rotating tandem rotors and is being operated by around 20 countries for heavy-lift assault, troop movement, logistics support, aerial battlefield recovery and special operations. Capable of being refuelled mid-air for extended range, a Chinook can carry 55 combat-ready troops or over 11,100 kg of cargo. The Mi-26 was larger with a maximum take-off weight of 56,000 kg and a carriage capacity almost double that of a Chinook whose maximum gross weight is 22,668 kg. However, the Chinook can be transported in the hold of the C-17 Globemaster III. India has 10 such aircraft and the advantage of being able to transport the Chinook over large (strategic) distances is obvious. By December last year, the IAF was left with only one serviceable Mi-26 with only 100 hours left before a major servicing fell due. Immediately flying was restricted to only urgent operational tasks and the IAF is in discussion with Russian Helicopters for overhauling three Mi-26 helicopters. Meanwhile, delivery of the 15 Chinooks for which a Rs. 8,048 crore contract was signed in September 2015, is expected to start in March 2019 and completed in March 2020. Thus, for several months, the IAF may have none or at the most one, heavy-lift helicopter in call. However, with the induction of the Chinook, the IAF would be well equipped with heavy-lift helicopters.
The US may have eased out Russia in the heavy-lift arena for the IAF, but in the medium-lift category, Russian machines hold sway. In the 1960s, India had bought the lightweight Mi-4 and then went on to buy 128 Mi-8s and 170 Mi-17s, both medium-lift platforms. In 2008, India had signed a contract for 80 Mi-17V5s followed by three additional contracts in 2012-13 for 71 more of these helicopters. The helicopters are flown into India in ready-to-assemble kits and are put together at the IAF depot in Chandigarh. In February this year, the last three of 151 Mi-17V5 helicopters contracted for $3 billion were delivered to the IAF. Another contract for 48 more of the same version is expected to fructify in coming months which will bring the total number of Mi-17V5s to 199. The Mi-17 was designed based on the Mi-8 airframe. The helicopter retains the outstanding performance characteristics of its predecessors and can fly in tropical and maritime climates, and in desert conditions. While the Mi-8 was an 11-tonne Maximum All Up Weight (MAUW) machine with a service ceiling of 14,765 ft, the Mi-17 has a MAUW of 13 tonnes and a service ceiling of 19,690 ft. The Mi-17V5 has a maximum speed of 250 kmph and a standard range of 580 km which can be extended to 1,065 km with two auxiliary fuel tanks. Designed to transport cargo internally or underslung, the Mi-17V5 is one of the world’s most advanced helicopters. It can also be deployed in troop and arms transport, fire support, convoy escort, patrol and searchand-rescue (SAR) missions. The standard portside door and ramp at rear allow for the quick ingress and egress of troops and cargo. The helicopter can be fitted with an extended starboard sliding door, rappelling and parachute equipment, searchlight, FLIR system and emergency flotation system. It can transport either 36 armed soldiers internally or 4,500 kg of load on a sling. It is equipped with a new full-authority digital control system (FADEC). In short, moving ahead, the Mi-17V5 is a modern, efficient and battle worthy medium-lift helicopter the IAF has.
WITH THE ONGOING ACQUISITIONS, THE IAF LOOKS INTO THE FUTURE TO A STRENGTH OF AROUND 600 HELICOPTERS WHICH MAY NOT BE ADEQUATE FOR ACTIVE LAND BORDERS OF OVER 15,000 KM
Light Utility Helicopters
In the light utility category, French helicopters have ruled the roost so far, but the Chetak and the Cheetah have been rather difficult to maintain since the original production lines were wound up in the 1980s. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has been licence producing these types as well as carrying out their major maintenance tasks. The Chetak/Cheetah fleet was to be replaced by 197 light helicopters to be purchased from international vendor/s. Of these, 64 were to come to the IAF. The RFP was first floated in 2008 and again in 2009 as the Reconnaissance and Surveillance Helicopter. Eurocopter AS 550 C3 Fennec and Russian Kamov Ka-226 were the final contenders. However, the tender was cancelled and replaced by a government-to-government deal with Russia at the end of 2015 for 200 Ka-226T helicopters to be manufactured in India by HAL. Early this year, Prime Minister Modi laid the foundation stone for a new helicopter manufacturing facility for HAL near Tumkur in Karnataka as a step in HAL’s expansion of its helicopter production capability. However, there are no signs of the project reacting to the critical shortage of Chetak/Cheetah helicopters with the sense of urgency it deserves and it will be years before this facility produces its first Ka-226T. Moreover, there is some apprehension on account of the fact that the Ka-226T has not been tried and tested over prolonged operations in a Siachen-like environment although it did meet the conditions it needed to for qualification for the Indian military.
Meanwhile, HAL is developing the light utility helicopter (LUH) which is a single-engine design in the three-tonne MAUW class with a glass cockpit and capable of flying at 220 kmph with a service ceiling of 21,325 ft and a range of 350 km with 500 kg payload. HAL intended to produce these as the replacement for Chetak/Cheetah so the future is a bit uncertain on this type.
The IAF is also inducting 54 advanced light helicopter (ALH) Dhruvs (38 utility and 16 armed versions) produced by HAL. With a maximum AUW of 5.5 tonnes, the Dhruv lies on the borderline between ‘light’ and ‘medium’. In contrast, the Chetak has an AUW of 2.2 tonnes and the Cheetah 1.95 tonnes. While the Cheetah can carry three passengers, the Chetak can carry five in addition to a two-man crew. The Dhruv on the other hand, can carry 14 passengers besides the crew. Series production of Dhruv began in 2001 and it has a twin-engine safety to offer while the LUH is a single engine design. The Cheetal (Cheetah with a Shakti aero-engine) was introduced to augment Cheetah fleet for Operation Meghdoot and its better load carrying capability and reliability have encouraged the IAF to order another 20 for its fleet.
The old age of the Chetak/Cheetah fleet and concerns over a spurt of accidents and incidents, led to a virtual grounding of the fleet in December and HAL is clearing each helicopter after a battery of checks. As an aside, a group of army wives had met the Defence Minister in 2015 to protest the continued use of the unsafe Chetak/Cheetah fleet.
ONE CAN ONLY HOPE THAT ‘MAKE IN INDIA’ BRINGS A SEA CHANGE IN INDIGENOUS HELICOPTER MANUFACTURING INDUSTRY SO THAT, IN THE FUTURE, THE IAF CAN GET MORE INDIGENOUS BANG FOR THE BUCK
While IAF had been using the Chetak in an Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) role with a French AS-11 wire-guided missile, the Russian Mi-25 was the first helicopter inducted by it in 1983 which was designed primarily for offensive roles. The Mi-35, an upgraded version, followed in 1990. However, a controversial document called the Army Air Force Joint Implementation Instruction 1986 bifurcated the responsibilities of the two services in relation to the attack and antitank helicopters of the IAF. While operations and training were to be overseen by the Army, administration remained under the purview of the IAF. The mutually unsatisfactory arrangement has failed to meet single-service demands and kept the attack helicopter ownership debate smouldering. In a selection process for the replacement of the Mi 25/35 fleet, Boeing’s AH-64E Apache met all Air Staff Requirements while the Russian Mi-28 failed some of the requirements during the field trials held by IAF. Some 22 Apaches were finally ordered in September 2015 at a cost of Rs. 13,951 crore. The contract includes the acquisition of 812 AGM-114L-3 Hellfire Longbow missiles, 542 AGM-114R-3 Hellfire-II missiles, 245 Stinger Block I-92H air-to-air missiles and 12 AN/APG-78 fire-control radars. The contract for the Apache attack helicopters was a “hybrid” case, with the Defence Ministry inking the helicopter part of it with Boeing and the other with the US Government for its weapons, radars and electronic warfare suites. The Apache is a twinengine, tandem cockpit, two-man crew machine with a nosemounted sensor suite for target acquisition and night vision systems. It is armed with a 30mm M230 chain gun and four hard points mounted on stub-wing pylons, typically carrying a mixture of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and Hydra 70 rocket pods. It is possibly one of the best attack helicopters in the world. The deliveries of the helicopters are expected to begin in July 2019 and completed by March 2020. However, with a decision having been taken about all future attack helicopters being allocated to the Army, 39 are being ordered for the Indian Army. The deployment of just 22 Apaches is of limited value for the IAF.
In the offensive role, the IAF also has the Mi-17V armed with Shturm-V missiles, S-8 rockets, a 23mm machine gun, PKT machine guns and AKM sub-machine guns. It features eight firing posts for aiming the weapons and its onboard armament allows it to engage enemy personnel, armoured vehicles, land-based targets, fortified posts and other fixed and moving targets. The cockpit and vital components of the helicopter are protected by armoured plates while the aft machine gun position is also fitted with armoured plates. The helicopter incorporates engine-exhaust infrared suppressors, a flares dispenser and a jammer and is thus a veritable machine for offensive roles.
With the ongoing acquisitions, the IAF looks into the future to a strength of around 600 helicopters which may not be adequate for active land borders of over 15,000 km. The only consolation is that this projected number is higher than the present holding. Being forced to abdicate the attack helicopter role to the Army is a setback the IAF has to accept. Flying the helicopters on its fleet with the best of professionalism is the way ahead and there is no doubt the helicopter pilots will do exactly that. One can only hope that ‘Make in India’ brings a sea change in indigenous helicopter manufacturing industry so that, in the future, the IAF can get more indigenous bang for the buck.