In­dian Army to have its own at­tack he­li­copters: A view­point

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On Oc­to­ber 13, 2012, af­ter pro­longed dither­ing, the government fi­nally de­cided to ac­cept the plea from the In­dian Army that it should have its own fleet of at­tack he­li­copters which so far has been un­der the con­trol of the In­dian Air Force (IAF). While one report says that “the De­fence Min­istry has de­cided that all fu­ture ac­qui­si­tions of the at­tack he­li­copters would be for the Army”, sources in the IAF main­tain that the let­ter from the Min­istry of De­fence re­ferred to “all the fu­ture ac­qui­si­tions only”, not the ex­ist­ing ones thus ex­clud­ing the 22 AH-64D Apache at­tack he­li­copters that are be­ing pro­cured by the IAF. Thus along with the Apache fleet, the IAF will con­tinue to op­er­ate the two squadrons of the Rus­siano­ri­gin Mi-25/35 at­tack he­li­copters and the medium-lift Mi-17 V5 he­li­copters. Un­der the ex­ist­ing ar­range­ment, though main­tained and manned by the IAF, the fleet of at­tack he­li­copters is un­der the op­er­a­tional con­trol of the In­dian Army. This ar­range­ment does not quite meet the re­quire­ments of the In­dian Army.

It is ex­pected that this de­ci­sion by the government would bring to an end at least one of the con­tentious is­sues be­tween the In­dian Army and the IAF. The tim­ing of the de­ci­sion how­ever is some­what unique in some ways as it comes at a time when the IAF was just about re­cov­er­ing from the eu­pho­ria of its 80th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions as also soon af­ter a state­ment to the me­dia by Air Chief Mar­shal N.A.K. Browne, Chief of the Air Staff, that “it was not pos­si­ble to have lit­tle air forces”.

While the de­ci­sion un­doubt­edly would raise the spir­its in the In­dian Army, it would def­i­nitely be some­what dis­con­cert­ing for the IAF. But what must have been most odd and galling for the lead­er­ship in the IAF is the report that “The Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor had to in­ter­vene on be­half of De­fence Min­is­ter A.K. Antony” to solve what the lat­ter de­scribed as a ‘fam­ily prob­lem’. Involvement of an out­side agency to me­di­ate in a dis­pute be­tween the In­dian Army and the IAF, apart from be­ing some­what in­con­gru­ous, is likely to set a prece­dent that may not be a healthy one for the In­dian armed forces in the long-term per­spec­tive.

Viewed dis­pas­sion­ately, the In­dian Army’s case for hav­ing its own fleet of at­tack he­li­copters is not de­void of logic. In a fast mov­ing bat­tle fought in a net­work-cen­tric en­vi­ron­ment with large ar­moured forces de­ployed, in­ti­mate, swift and ac­cu­rate fire­power de­liv­ered by air­borne plat­forms would be crit­i­cal to success. Un­for­tu­nately, de­spite sev­eral or­gan­i­sa­tional and doc­tri­nal changes to pro­mote joint­man­ship as also con­sid­er­able rhetoric em­a­nat­ing from the high­est ech­e­lons of the two ser­vices, the re­quired de­gree of in­te­gra­tion be­tween the In­dian Army and the IAF has not been achieved. Hence the sin­gle-minded pur­suit by the In­dian Army to have its own at­tack he­li­copters rather than de­pend on the IAF. The In­dian Army badly needs to cut down the time taken to mo­bilise their strike corps, an es­sen­tial pre-req­ui­site for the newly in­tro­duced Cold Start Doc­trine. The land forces would also need swift re­sponse by at­tack he­li­copters as also a high de­gree of flex­i­bil­ity to cope with rapidly chang­ing tac­ti­cal sit­u­a­tions. As per the In­dian Army, it would be dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, to en­sure th­ese with­out fully in­te­grat­ing the at­tack he­li­copters with the land forces.

The Army Avi­a­tion branch was cre­ated in 1986 with the erst­while Air Ob­ser­va­tion Post units owned by the IAF, be­ing trans­ferred to the Army. Sub­se­quently, the In­dian Army ac­quired its fleet of light util­ity he­li­copters by way of Chee­tahs and Chetaks, the lat­ter even con­verted for lim­ited at­tack role. The weight limit of five tonnes then de­fined has now been lifted con­se­quent to the re­cent de­ci­sion on at­tack he­li­copters. Thus there has been a sus­tained ef­fort by the In­dian Army to en­sure a pro­gres­sive growth of in­te­gral air power. It is only a mat­ter of time be­fore there is a re­newed ef­fort at ac­quir­ing light trans­port air­craft as well, a move that the IAF is likely to ve­he­mently op­pose. The re­cent de­ci­sion by the government is, there­fore, un­likely to bring an end to the turf war.

AH-64D Apache at­tack heli­copter

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