Combat Helicopters with the Indian Armed Forces

The IAF and the Indian Army have been operating rotary-wing platforms, but traditionally, ownership of combat helicopters had been restricted to the former

Issue: 9 / 2020By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By Boeing India / Twitter
AH-64E Apache attack helicopter are the latest addition to the fleet of combat helicopters

Although the aerial combat regime of the Indian armed forces is dominated by fixed-wing combat aircraft, the rotary-wing component is beginning to gain ground as it has a significant role to play in tactical combat scenarios. The Indian Air Force (IAF) as well as the Aviation Corps of the Indian Army have been operating rotary-wing platforms, but traditionally, ownership of combat helicopters had been restricted to the former. The Army Aviation Corps has been operating primarily light helicopters to operate to areas not easily accessible by other means. However, in recent times, there has been a major change in policy due to which the Army Aviation Corps is now going to induct combat helicopters in large numbers in the years to come. As a result, the involvement of combat helicopter fleets of the IAF in tactical battle scenarios, is expected to reduce. The current state of combat helicopter fleets in both the IAF and the Army Aviation Corps has been described in the succeeding paragraphs.

AH-64E APACHE ATTACK HELICOPTER

In September 2015, through the Foreign Military Sales programme of the government of United States (US), the Indian government finalised a contract with Boeing for the purchase of 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters to equip two squadrons in the IAF. The Apache attack helicopters have been inducted to replace the ageing fleet of Mi-35 attack helicopters that had been procured from Russia in 1990. Delivery of this platform against this order commenced with the batch of first four Apache helicopters being handed over to the IAF in July 2019 and all 22 helicopters were delivered by July 2020. Thereafter, during the visit of President Donald Trump early this year, a contract was finalised for six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for the Indian Army. Delivery against this order is expected to commence in 2023.

The fleet of 22 Apache helicopters received so far have been modified specifically to suit the exacting standards demanded by the IAF. Those for the Indian Army will also have the same capabilities. But what is noteworthy is that the aero-structures for the Apache attack helicopter supplied to customers across the world, is produced by Tata Boeing Aerospace Limited, a joint venture company located in Hyderabad. Undoubtedly, the Apache attack helicopters ordered for the Indian armed forces are blessed with Indian blood!

The Apache is rated as the world’s most advanced multi-role combat helicopter and has been operated by the US Army for years as also by another 13 nations apart from India. Apaches have been an integral part of numerous historic campaigns worldwide. The timing of the induction of this platform into the IAF is particularly significant as it comes at a time when tension between India and China has been escalating along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The Apaches have been deployed at Leh as part of the aggressive positioning of assets amid the stand-off with China. The Apache will provide a significant boost to the capability of the IAF to undertake offensive air operations against the intruding enemy forces in the rugged mountainous terrain of Ladakh.

The IAF currently has no other rotary-wing platform on its inventory to match the Apache which is capable of delivering variety of weapons which include air-to-ground Hellfire missiles, 70mm Hydra rockets and air-to-air Stinger missiles. It also carries one 30mm gun with 1,200 rounds of ammunition and is equipped with a fire control radar, which has a 360 degrees coverage, a nose-mounted sensor suite for target acquisition and night vision systems. This fleet will enhance the capability of IAF in providing battlefield support to the strike corps of the Indian Army during operations. Like the Rafale in the fixed wing domain, the Apache is a top-of-the-line rotary-wing platform on the global scene. With this new capability, the IAF will be well equipped to confront challenges looming on the horizon.

MI-35 ATTACK HELICOPTER

The IAF got its first attack helicopter squadron in 1983 which was equipped with the Mi-25 helicopter Gunships procured from the Soviet Union. The more powerful Mi-35 attack helicopter was inducted in April 1990. The Mi-25 has been retired from service and currently the IAF has only two squadrons of Mi-35 attack helicopter one of which is operational and the second is awaiting major overhaul. The Mi-35 is a twin-engine turbo-shaft, assault and anti-armour helicopter with four barrel 12.7mm rotary gun in nose barbette and can carry 1,000 kg of external ordnance including Shturm anti-tank missiles. It is capable of carrying assault squad of eight commandos and has a maximum cruise speed of 310 kmph. The attack helicopter fleet of the IAF has a rich history of participating in operations since its induction. These helicopters have been deployed in support of operations in Sri Lanka by the Indian Peace Keeping Force. The Mi-35 attack helicopters have rendered yeoman service for three decades in the IAF and will be retired from service in another decade. Currently, with just one squadron of Mi-35 attack helicopters available on the flight line, there will be serious limitations in the capability of the IAF to meet with operational challenges.

HAL RUDRA

The Rudra is a Weapon System Integrated (WSI) Mk-IV, a variant of the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) and is the first combat helicopter being produced indigenously. Known as the ALH-WSI, this twin-engine platform has been designed and manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) primarily for the Indian Army. The Rudra Mk-IV variant received initial operational clearance in February 2013.

The Rudra combat helicopter can be deployed in a wide range of missions, including reconnaissance, troop transport, anti-tank warfare and close air support. It is equipped with forward looking infrared and Thermal Imaging Sights Interface, a French Nexter 20mm turret gun, Belgian 70mm rocket pods, Helina anti-tank guided missiles and Mistral air-to-air missiles from MBDA. It is also equipped with SAAB Integrated Defensive Aids Suite, radar warning receiver, IR jammer, flare and chaff dispenser. Powered by two HAL-made Turbomeca turboshaft engines, the helicopter has a maximum speed of 270 kmph, canattain a maximum altitude of 20,000 ft and has an operating range of 660 km.

HAL has been contracted to deliver 76 Rudra ALH-WSI Mk-IV combat helicopters for the Indian Army and the IAF. As of June 2020, the Indian Army has 58 Rudras in service and has two more on order that are to be delivered soon. The IAF has 12 in service with four more on order. The capabilities of this newly inducted platform are yet to be tested in operational conditions.

LIGHT COMBAT HELICOPTER

It was during the Kargil war that the Indian armed forces realised that they lacked a combat helicopter capable of operating efficiently against targets at high altitude. This experience inspired HAL to develop a platform to address this deficiency in combat air power. To cut down cost and time, HAL developed the concept of a light combat helicopter (LCH) based on the Dhruv ALH. The programme to develop the LCH was launched in 2006 and the first prototype took to the air on March 29, 2010.

The LCH is a multi-role attack helicopter and in its category on the global scene, it has the lowest weight and has the highest operational flight ceiling. Powered by two HAL/Turbomeca Shakti turboshaft engines, it has a maximum speed of 270 kmph, service ceiling of 6,500 metres and ferry range of 700 km. The LCH has been tested for landing at an altitude of 16,000 feet and has the distinction of being the first attack helicopter to land in Siachen. The platform received certification in 2016 and its limited series production began in 2017. A total of 176 units are to be produced which includes 114 for the Army Aviation Corps and 62 for the IAF. So far only two prototypes have been deployed by the IAF.

Still under development, the LCH is planned to be equipped with electronic warfare systems and advanced weapons systems, including a chin-mounted, twin-barrel M621 20mm cannon on a Nexter THL-20 turret, 70mm rockets, MBDA air-to-air, air-to-surface and anti-radiation missiles. A helmet-mounted target system will control the turret guns mounted on the helicopter’s fuselage. It will be armed with Helina anti-tank guided missiles, a missile warning system and anti-missile countermeasures Explosive ordnance that it will carry includes iron bombs, cluster bombs and grenade launchers. The LCH will be effective in both anti-infantry and anti-armour operations.

The LCH holds a lot of promise; but as it is yet to be fully developed, it is yet not capable of carrying out all missions in its current configuration as it lacks anti-armour and air-to-air weapons. Nevertheless, the LCH is a potent platform because of its state-of-the-art systems and highly accurate weapons that it will eventually carry, will be capable of hitting targets by day or night. The two deployed in Ladakh are prototypes and the rest that will be produced will hopefully come with the desired operational capability.