Attack Helicopters: Why India needs these Helicopters ?
India faces diverse external threats and challenges. It has to manage its over 15000 km long borders with seven countries, sections of which are contested or not formally demarcated on the ground or constitute only an agreed line of control. Additional problems emanate from open or porous borders. It has a long coast line of over 7500 km along with an extended maritime zone, island territories, sea lanes of communication for its trade and energy flows and offshore oil installations.
The threat of a two front war looms large today than ever before. In addition sub conventional conflict continues to engage the Indian Army in J & K and the North East supported by Pak and China respectively. In these circumstances helicopters especially attack helicopters, though a very miniscule part of inventory are an essential ingredient of the Indian Military and their acquisition certainly does not threaten national security but enhances it.
Currently attack helicopters are an integral part of the land, sea and air operations of modern armies, including their ever increasing employment in sub conventional conflicts (counter insurgency and counter terrorist operations) the world over. A typical military helicopter force should have all class of helicopters ranging from light observation to utility/lift (light, medium & heavy) including specialized roles (attack/armed) as per the operational requirement of a country’s armed forces.
The operational diversities of the Indian Military coupled with variety of terrain (from sea level to the Siachen Glacier) underline the need for state of art, modern technology helicopters capable of operating both by day and night in a complex battlefield environment of future. It is important to note that Attack Helicopters operate in a battlefield environment as part of an all arms team for optimum effect and not in isolation .
Attack Helicopter is a force multiplier which can transcend the limits of surface friction and due to its speed, agility and firepower can operate with stealth and impunity to destroy the enemy forces. It’s forte is to fly at extremely low levels, below the enemy radar aided by its gamut of electro-optical devices duly protected by EW suites and armour plating. The vulnerability of the attack helicopter is therefore comparatively lesser than other platforms in the tactical battlefield area.
The employment of attack helicopter is most suited for operations with mechanised forces. But at the same time an attack helicopter is not to be mistaken for a ‘flying tank’. Operations with mechanised forces imply operations in close co-ordination and conjunction with mechanised forces. The attack helicopters have a well-defined concept of operations and tactics to enable their employment along with mechanised forces. Under all circumstances, their command and control is best suited to be with mechanised forces. The attack helicopters have a well-defined concept of operations and tactics to enable their employment along with mechanised forces. Under all circumstances, their command and control is best suited to be with the field force commander.
Attack Helicopters were first realistically employed in the 1990s during Operation Desert Storm, where AH-64 Apaches thanks to their Hellfire Missiles, took out SAM and Radar Sites. This coupled with the effectiveness of Mi-25/35 in High Altitude, which was in serious question, led to India seriously rethinking its Attack Helicopter doctrine in the 21st Century. HAL started designing and manufacturing the Light Combat Helicopter (114 for Army while 65 for Air Force), for High-Altitude Warfare, while developing a Weapon System Integrated (WSI) version of the ALH Dhruv, fitting it with a 20mm M621 Cannon, FZ 70mm Rockets and HELINA missiles to take on Armed Roles, which has entered service with both Indian Army and Indian Air Force.
For Heavy Attack Role, both Indian Army and Indian Air Force will be operating the AH-64E Apache Attack Helicopter which armed with M230 Chain Gun, Hellfire and Stinger Missiles and Hydra 70mm Rockets will be serious overkill. Indian Air Force and Indian Army are also planning to co-develop Armed Variants of its future utility helicopters like HAL Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) arming it 70mm FZ Rockets and MISTRAL ATAM Air-to-Air Missiles. Along with this, India operates Mi-17v5 Gunships with UB-32 Pods to take on CAS and Troop Support Missions.
In this context, the development of the light combat helicopter (LCH) by the HAL is a mile stone achievement. The LCH aims to gate crash the exclusive club of the state of art light attack helicopters, which includes Eurocopters Tiger, Bells AH 1Z Super Cobra and China’s ultra secret Zhisheng 10 (Z-10). The LCH is a derivative of the ALH and the RUDRA (armed ALH) and is being designed to fit into an anti- infantry and anti-armour role with capability to operate at high altitudes (16000 feet), a distinct advantage over other attack helicopters. Unlike the RUDRA the LCH will have tandem seating cockpit and stealth features, but will carry the same weapons package now being qualified on board the RUDRA.
The LCH/ attack helicopter units will be the main punch of the maneuver force commander and will be inducted into the Army Aviation Corps and operate in support of ground forces both in the plains and mountains. The army aviation corps is all set to have a lethal arsenal of state of art AH/Armed helicopters thus making it a force to reckon with and distinctly the arm of decision in the future.
It should be noted that the ALH with the Shakti engine has already landed on a helipad in Siachen at 19800 feet with four passengers. The ALH units located at Leh and Misamari are already carrying out operations in the high altitude areas of Ladakh, Arunachal and Siachen. The Cheetah helicopter of which Indian Army holds approximately 200 and is due for replacement, is also operating extensively in these areas despite their vintage- the colour of the uniform does matter.
The employment of attack helicopters fully integrated with Army Aviation units and fighting alongside and above the infantry will also give a new meaning to close air support in the TBA. There is indeed a need to relook fresh at the concept of close air support in the TBA and the role of attack / armed helicopters in the same.
The present concept of close air support is a relic of world war II, driven by range limitations of surveillance, target acquisition and engagement capability of land based platforms. The availability of unmanned aerial vehicles, missiles and long range artillery platforms (40-120 km) has changed all that, as today surface based platforms can cover the entire TBA. This also brings into focus the role of attack and armed helicopters in providing intimate close air support in the TBA.
The primary mission of army aviation is to fight the land battle and support ground operations, operating in the TBA as a combined arms team expanding the ground commander’s battlefield in space and time. Its battlefield leverage is achieved through a combination of reconnaissance, mobility and fire power that is unprecedented in land warfare. Its greatest contribution to battlefield success is the ability it gives the commander to apply decisive combat power at critical times virtually anywhere, on the battlefield, in the form of direct fire from aviation maneuver units (attack/armed helicopters) or insertion of overwhelming ground forces at the point of decision (utility/lift helicopters).
The assets required for the above maneuver, the attack and assault helicopters must be at the beck and call of the field force commander and also piloted by men in olive green who fully understand the ground situation. This will ensure the optimum utilization of the battle winning resource. This has been the basic rationale on which the army’s case for ownership of these assets rests.
An attack helicopter never fights alone. Attacks are coordinated with other maneuver, combat support, CSS, and joint forces to form a combined arms team. This team surprises and overwhelms the enemy at the point of attack. Attacks may be conducted out of physical contact with other friendly forces but synchronized with their scheme of maneuver, or they may be in direct contact with friendly forces. Attack helicopters are offensive weapon systems. They provide commanders the means to deliver massed firepower rapidly and accurately, thus disorganizing enemy forces and allowing the friendly force to gain or maintain the initiative. To be successful, the attack helicopter must be integrated into the ground commander’s scheme of maneuver. This requires that commanders analyze the battlefield and decide early where the attack helicopter will be employed.
The mobility and flexibility of attack helicopters expand the reach of commanders to all areas of the battlefield. Terrain provides cover and concealment for attack helicopters just as it does for armor and infantry; however, it does not limit the mobility of the helicopter. The attack helicopter can attack the enemy’s flanks and rear, thus providing ground forces the time to maneuver and engage enemy forces from directions where they are most vulnerable.
To survive and succeed on the battlefield, the attack helicopter must fight as an integrated member of the combined arms team. In combat, the fires of other attacking weapons enhance the firepower of the attack helicopter. This combined attack strengthens the total force by overcoming limitations found in each weapon system. As a result, total combat power is increased and survivability is improved. When the enemy is simultaneously faced with an array of armor, infantry, FA, TACAIR, and attack helicopter units, it can no longer concentrate on countering a single set of weapons from one direction at a time. Rather, it is attacked throughout its depth with a variety of weapons.
On today’s and tomorrow’s battlefields, the tempo of the fight is rapid, violent, and extremely fluid. The attack helicopter’s primary mission is the destruction of enemy armor or mechanized forces. The attack helicopter, however, must be prepared to conduct reconnaissance and security operations. Additionally, in OOTW, a subversive or less distinguishable enemy may require the attack helicopter to provide direct or indirect fires in DS of friendly ground forces operating in an urban environment. The ability of the attack helicopter to transition smoothly and rapidly is the result of well-led, well-trained, and well-equipped forces; high standards; and detailed planning. While the attack helicopter can react quickly, it requires as much mission planning time as other maneuver battalions.
Nap-of-the-earth flying is the present tactic used by helicopter crews when operating in a high density air defense environment. This type of flying reduces exposure time, which makes it more difficult for ground troops to sight the helicopter and more difficult for higher flying aircraft to visually observe the low flying helicopters. There are problems with this tactic, however, when not performed correctly. Nap-of-the-earth flying has inherent dangers. One of those dangers is that at extreme low altitude, there is little margin for error.
This Post was First Published in Indian Defence-Debate & Facts Facebook Page