What Next for IAF He­li­copters

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


IIT 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 ` 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 201213 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.


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. More-


over, 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.


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 AH64E 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 ` 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.




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