Indian Army’s Mini Air Force
Mini Air Force, or the Army Aviation Corps, is the arm of the future and will play a decisive role in any future conflict. It is a legitimate requirement of all professional armies the world over and the Indian Army is no exception.
Mini Air Force, or the Army Aviation Corps, is the arm of the future and will play a decisive role in any future conflict.
EVER SINCE THE DECISION of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to hand over attack helicopters to the Army, there have been a spate of articles in the media focusing on their misplaced perception of the Army getting its own “Mini Air Force”. The recent decision of the Army on the creation of a permanent cadre for the Army Aviation Corps seems to have further fuelled this perception. The latest article on this subject appeared in a leading daily on December 3, 2012, with a sensational title, “Now Army to Get Own Mini Air Force”. The protagonists of these views obviously do not understand the connotation of the term Mini Air Force or they would not use it in the context of actions being taken by the Army/ MoD towards the planned modernisation and transformation of the Army Aviation Corps. They fail to understand that the world over army aviation has a separate philosophy/ concept of employment and roles/tasks visà-vis the air forces. This fact has been amply demonstrated by the employment of such forces in the two Iraq wars and their present employment in Afghanistan.
The Indian Army today has the largest number of helicopters in its inventory (270 to be precise) consisting mainly of the light observation (Cheetah and Chetak) and light utility (ALH/Dhruv). These assets are nowhere near what had been envisaged in 1963 by the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General J.N. Chaudhuri, to have a full-fledged air arm of the Army which would include all classes of helicopters including attack and light fixed-wing aircraft of the Dornier class. It is worth noting that it took nearly 23 years for the Army to finally break away from the Air Force and form its own aviation corps in 1986. It has taken another 27 years for the Government to take the decision on the issue of the ownership of attack helicopters in favour of the Army. However, the Defence Ministry has failed to resolve the issue in its entirety as the medium- and heavy-lift helicopters have been kept out of the government decree and continue to be held with the Air Force, whereas the issue of fixed-wing aircraft for the Army is not even on the MoD radar.
Future conflicts are likely to be short, swift and intense, where time and speed of operations will be of prime essence, and in our context these are most likely to occur in the mountains in respect of both the eastern and northern borders. In the above scenario, the Army Aviation assets will play a pivotal role right from the word go and will constitute the key element of the commander’s plans. The Army Aviation due to its inherent characteristics is a game changer and a force multiplier that can tilt the balance in any conflict. It would be pertinent to mention here that both our adversaries, China and Pakistan, have full-fledged Army Aviation Corps having all class of helicopters including attack helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft as part of their inventory and they do not in any way qualify as a mini Air Force of their country. Hence, in the present state, the Indian Army Aviation corps is nowhere near being a Mini Air Force as is being projected in the print media. In fact without crucial assets like medium- and heavy-lift helicopters, its full potential cannot be exploited in the tactical battlefield and this remains a major drawback in its operational capability especially in the mountains. The Army in its long-term plans is looking at an attack/armed helicopter unit, a reconnaissance and observation helicopter unit and a light/tactical battle support helicopter unit with each Corps. This gives a very effective operational capability in terms of firepower and mobility to the field force commander to fight his battle without having to look over his shoulders, especially in the initial phase of the battle where time and speed is crucial. The heavy-lift helicopters and light fixedwing aircraft would be command assets, for enhancing the logistics and lift capability as well as their utilisation for command and control purposes. In the absence of adequate and suitable infrastructure on our eastern borders this could be a very critical resource. Suitable organisations are required for command and control and coordination of such resources, and hence the concept of Corps Aviation Brigades, the first one being already effective in 14 Corps with three helicopter units under its command.
With regard to a permanent cadre for Army Aviation Corps, there are three distinct categories in its cadre—the aviators (pilots), technicians (EME personnel) and the support staff. The aviators are officers selected from all arms and currently have strength of approximately 280 officers. In this number, almost 30 per cent are already permanently seconded to the aviation corps and form part of the permanent cadre. The first batch of officers was inducted into the permanent cadre in 1999 and thereafter a continuous process of induction of a certain number of officers based on a selection system takes place every year. Recently, the direct induction of officers into Army Aviation Corps has also commenced both from the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, and Officers Training Academy, Chennai. It is ultimately planned to have a permanent to support cadre ratio of 40:60 with regards to the aviators, keeping in mind the organisational
The Army Aviation due to its inherent characteristics is a game changer and a force multiplier that can tilt the balance in any conflict
and carrier progression aspects. The technicians are already permanently affiliated to the Army Aviation Corps. Their induction is done directly into Army Aviation through the corps of EME with separate career and promotional prospects and they retire on their superannuation from the corps itself. The support cadre on the other hand consists mostly of personnel required for administration, logistics, security and flying operations. These involve trades like clerks, drivers, radio operators, air traffic controllers, meteorological staff, fire-fighting personnel, etc. They are currently drawn from all arms/services of the Army and are posted to aviation units on extra-regimental employment (ERE) for limited tenures, a system which adversely impacts the smooth functioning of these units. In fact the decision to make this cadre permanent had been hanging fire for quite some time, due to the complexities involved in the transfer of these personnel from different arms/units. However, the decision has finally been taken to permanently absorb these personnel into the Army Aviation Corps and to set up a separate records office to manage the administrative requirements of these personnel. This indeed is a welcome step and will help in further streamlining the functioning and operational effectiveness of the Army Aviation Corps and is a far cry from the imagination of some, who consider this move by the Army as a step towards forming a mini Air Force.
Despite all the bottlenecks and impediments, the Army Aviation Corps is continuing to grow, albeit slowly. A significant development is the induction of the Rudra (armed ALH) into the corps by March this year. The replacement of the existing vintage fleet of Cheetah/Chetak helicopters is now imperative, for any slippage on this account will have disastrous security implications, as the maintenance of this fleet itself is becoming a technician’s nightmare. Mini Air Force, or the Army Aviation Corps is the arm of the future and will play a decisive role in any future conflict. It is a legitimate requirement of all professional armies the world over and the Indian Army is no exception.
Rudra armed advanced light helicopter (ALH)