For the men deployed in the inhospitable Siachen theatre, there is nothing more cheerful than the sound of an approaching helicopter across the valley. The chopping sounds of the rotor signal the arrival of the much needed essential supplies and rations, and for those injured, the arrival of the saviour. For troops deployed in several high altitude posts, which remain inaccessible by roads and mule tracks, these helicopters are the sole connection with the outside world.

Flying these helicopters are the brave men of the Army’s Aviation Corps (AAC), which is in-charge of manning and operating a major chunk of the aerial assets under the command of the Indian Army. The Aviation Corps, which is the youngest yet the most striving wing of the Army, is the extended arm of the ground troops in the third dimension (Air). The arm, since its inception in 1987 as an air observation unit, has today evolved to perform a wide array of operations ranging from battlefield operational tasks, to servicing the forward deployed troops and to evacuating the injured from the battlefield at moment’s notice.

With increasing role in the battlefield, the arm has overtime emerged as the largest operator of helicopters amongst the armed forces. With its unique ability to provide ground commanders with the option of rapid mobility and deployment of both men and machine to anywhere in the battlefield, the Aviation Corps has established itself at the centre stage of the Army’s push for integrating all combat units to effectively achieve battlefield supremacy.

This unique capability of the Aviation Corps is being called upon by the ground commanders at a never witnessed pace in the recent past, especially along the Northern borders. India’s growing hostilities with its neighbours, along the inaccessible heights of the northern mountains, has mandated the Army to employ assets that would guarantee not only rapid movement but also platforms that would provide punitive strike options. With its wide array of helicopters, it is the Aviation Corps which stands ready to guarantee the commanders with this much needed capability.

The LCH platform test firing the Mistral Air-to-Air Missile.

Even as the dependency on the Corps grows exponentially across the battlefield, the ranks and files of the Aviation Corps is however staring at an uncertain future, as a ghost haunts from within. Of the hundreds of helicopters under the command of the arm, a majority of them are decrepit and lack the capability to effectively operate in lieu with the growing operational roles. Top serving officers of the arm have time and again raised the need for rapid modernization of this crucial arm to maintain satisfactory preparedness status along the frontlines.

Forming the backbone of the Aviation Corps is the indigenously designed and developed ALH (Advanced Light Helicopter) Dhruv, which are operating in both utility and armed roles. These HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) manufactured helicopters have been performing satisfactorily across a wide operational horizon.

The major concern however lies with the fleet of Chetak and Cheetah helicopters, which are the real assets providing the last-mile reach to several of the high-altitude forward posts.

Making several sorties a day, regardless of the weather and terrain, these helicopters have been the feeder assets for the forward deployed troops in some of the world’s most inhospitable battle theatres. A majority of these Chetak and Cheetah helicopters in operation with the AAC have been in service for the past three decades and have now well surpassed their operational life. With the maintenance and upkeep of these helicopters becoming a major issue, the arm is echoing calls for immediate replacements. A breakdown in the fleet of these utility helicopters, which are also being widely used as surveillance and reconnaissance platform, threatens to cut-off the well-established supply lines for the forward deployed troops in several high-altitude terrains.

The Indigenously manufactured ALH Dhruv of the Indian Army Aviation Corps; Courtesy – MoD.

AAC has itself tried relentlessly to address these short fallings through successive acquisition programs, which have all unfortunately met with limited success. But these efforts have met with limited success as successive replacement programs of the Corps have been struck down, leaving it largely toothless.

More worrying is the fact that the arm even after almost three decades of its inception has altogether failed to acquire the all crucial medium and heavy lift capabilities. With India’s conflict steadily moving towards mountainous terrain, a greater need is being felt for the induction of these assets. This was aptly displayed during the recent Doklam stand-off between the Indian and Chinese troops in the Sikkim region, when India was mandated to deploy troops en masse in a short interval.

Further, as India’s potent Strike Corps gain ground, there is an increasing need for the influx of Armed Helicopters to add tooth to the strike capability of these field formations. Even though the arm has realised the need for these platforms through the induction of the indigenously developed Rudra, the weaponized version of the ALH, there still exists a vast void in this arena. The infamous turf war between the Air Force and Army had for years left every single program of the Corps in this regard in a limbo. Even though the Corps has recently been cleared for induction of both the LCH (Light Combat Helicopter) and Boeing Apache, there still exists a need to induct these helicopters in greater numbers.

Way Ahead

The highly fluidic nature of the current battlefield demands for the allocation of dedicated platforms to counter threats at a faster rate. Hence, it is imperative that the Aviation Corps, which remains to be one of the fastest responders, be armed adequately to answer situations as they arise in the battlefield.

The modernization of the Corps is being taken up under the ‘Army Aviation Modernisation’ plan, which was drafted in an effort to make the Corps not just an equipment and inventory based arm but a capability based organization that would effectively help Commanders apply decisive combat power.

The pressing need for the Corps remains to be the en masse induction of Light Utility helicopter (LUH), which will relieve the obsolete fleet of Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. General Bipin Rawat, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), speaking about the modernization of the Corps, said “The first requirement for the Corps remains to be the reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters. The current platforms, the Cheetahs and Chetaks have outlived their shelf life and even after several overhauls these remain to be extremely outdated.”

The Indian Army after decades of hunt for these platforms has down selected the Russian Helicopters manufactured Kamov K-226T Utility Helicopters. The Indian and Russian Government have already formed a Joint Venture (JV) for manufacturing 200 of these helicopters locally in India. While the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a lead rotary aircraft solution provider, is expected to manufacture 140 of these helicopters, while the initial 60 airframes are to be acquired in fly-away condition.

The Kamov Ka-226T Helicopter; Credits – Russian Helicopter

The Army is also banking up on HAL’s under-development 3-tonne light utility helicopter. HAL has already turned out at least two prototypes of the platform, both of which have had successful flights in the current Fiscal Year (FY). HAL is working towards fielding the aircraft for evaluative user-trials by the year end. The state-run manufacturer is optimistic of receiving orders for at least 200 of these platforms. Powered by a single rotor engine, it will be these helicopters that shall actually replace a bulk of the Chetak and Cheetahs along the high-altitude terrain.

Even though the Army has been using the ALH Dhruv for utility roles, the Corps has on various occasions raised the need for acquiring both medium and heavy tactical lift capability for rapid mobility of troops. Currently the role remains deeply entranced with the Air Force, which citing the Joint Implementation Instructions that was drafted way back in 1986, has steadfastly curtailed Army’s request for acquiring these platforms.

Army Chief General Bipin Rawat, during his annual presser, confirmed that the Army solely relies up on the Air Force for its transport requirements. Several retired aviators quip that this inter-dependency between the arms threatens to derail the pace of the battle and noted that there exists a need for these tactical battle support platforms to facilitate inter-theatre movement of troops and equipment. Even as the Air Force stonewalls the procurements the Army is betting big on the under development 12-tonne Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH) of HAL. A senior officer of the Aviation Corps speaking to Life of Soldiers on the side-lines of Aero India – 2017 had confirmed that the Army remains interested in these platforms and that a need does exist specially so for special operation roles.

Further, the Corps repeated plans to acquire strike capabilities, through the acquisition of armed helicopters that have met with limited success. The Army has time and again raised a requirement for armed helicopters to be deployed along the Western Theatre supporting the I, II and XXI Strike Corps, which have all been put in-charge of launching armoured offensives against India’s arch rival Pakistan in times of conflict. World over, all military doctrines dictate that land forces be supported by integral air power assets. US Army has traditionally  maintained that integral air-borne offensive power assets which works in lieu with the artillery will help in rapidly securing the battlefield for the infantry.

While the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) lead acquisition body, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had in-principle cleared the acquisition of six Apache attack helicopters for AAC, the proposal has since made little progress. For the INR 4,168 crore deal, India is exercising the follow-on clause, which was a provision for the $3 Billion Indo-US deal for arming the IAF with at least 22 similar Apache multi-role combat helicopters. Under the deal, the army besides receiving the helicopter and associated maintenance equipments will also be acquiring hundreds of Longbow, Stinger and Hellfire ATGM missiles, which promises to boost army’s strike power along the border regions. MoD’s recent decision to allow the army to acquire these rotary platforms has signalled the rise of a new dawn in the army’s aviation corps. The deal, however, has been received with caution by the army as the ministry has cleared only a part of its request. Sources in the MoD have indicated that even though the follow-on clause enabled India to acquire 11 Apaches, the ministry exercised it for only half a dozen helicopters considering the truncated annual outlay for capital acquisitions.

Boeing Apace AH-64 Attack Helicopter; Courtesy – Boeing Defense.

MoD’s decision to enable army’s aviation corps to operate these platforms comes as a huge relief to the force which had been echoing the need for these armed platforms to support its infantry operations along the frontlines. Successive efforts of the army in the past had gone in vein as every other acquisition including the prior deals for Mi-35 and Apache combat helicopters had been routed to the air force.

The Army is also banking heavily on the indigenously designed and developed LCH (Light Combat Helicopter) program. Designed by HAL, the LCH promises the Indian Army with strike capabilities not only in the plains and deserts but also along High Altitude posts such as those along the Siachen glacier. The LCH, which has already proven it’s capabilities to counter an array of threats, is slated to be inducted in large numbers once technology upon the platform is proven. The MoD has already placed an order for 5 of these helicopters up on HAL. The Army has itself time and again stated that it remains thoroughly impressed with the LCH platform and has committed to ordering at least 60 of these indigenously attack helicopters.

With India’s operational terrain and its hostilities with its neighbours growing exponentially, it is imperative that the government strengthens the arm, to help enable the field commanders to exploit the true capabilities of the arm.