Military Helicopters in India
The operational diversities of the Indian military coupled with variety of terrain (from sea level to Siachen Glacier) underline the need for state-of-the-art, modern technology helicopters capable of operating both by day and night
The operational diversities of the Indian Military coupled with variety of terrain (from sea level to Siachen Glacier) underline the need for state-of-the-art, modern technology helicopters capable of operating both by day and night
Lt General B.S. Pawar (Retd)
TODAY MILITARY HELICOPTERS ARE an integral part of the land, sea and air operations of modern armies and are being increasingly employed in sub-conventional operations (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 and heavy) including for specialised 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 Siachen Glacier) underline the need for state-of-the-art, modern technology helicopters capable of operating both by day and night, in a complex battlefield environment of future. As per reports the armed forces are looking to induct as many as 1,000 helicopters in the coming decade ranging from attack/ armed and high altitude reconnaissance to medium and heavy lift.
Presently the Indian military holds in its inventory approximately 600 helicopters of all types and class including some specialised ones. However, they are mostly old and vintage and few in numbers, far from the quantity required. The light observation helicopters (Chetak and Cheetah) held with the Army, Navy and Airforce have outlived their utility and need immediate replacement.The latest attempt to replace these ageing and obsolescent helicopters has met a similar fate to that of the earlier procurement project of 2004 cancelled in 2008. The trials for the current project were completed in 2013— in fray were the Airbus AS 550 C3 Fennec and the Russian Kamov-Ka 226T helicopters. The decision to cancel this critical project was taken by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in August last year after allegations of corruption and technical deviations in the selection process, surfaced during the ongoing VVIP helicopter probe. A fresh RFI has been issued in October last year with the aim of identifying probable Indian vendors including Indian companies forming joint ventures (JVs) with foreign com- panies. Indian majors like Tatas, Reliance, Mahindra, Bharat Forge, are likely to enter the fray looking at JVs with foreign majors like American-Bell and Sikorsky, Russian-Kamov, Italian-Agusta-Westland and European-Airbus Helicopters. The Navy is also looking to replace its current fleet of Chetak/ modified Chetak-MATCH (midair torpedo carrying helicopter) with a twin engine, 4.5tonne helicopter capable of operating from warship decks, as well as being armed with rockets/guns and lightweight torpedoes. RFI for these has also been floated along with that of the reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters (RSH).
In the light utility category, the ALH has already entered service with all three Services and Coast Guard. The ALH has also been test evaluated for high altitude operations with the fitment of a more powerful engine ‘Shakti’ being produced jointly by the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and French firm Turbomeca. This is a major achievement and will give a boost to helicopter operations in high altitude areas especially Siachen. The induction of the armed version of the ALH (Rudra) has already commenced with a unit currently under raising for the army – however a major drawback in the Rudra presently is the lack of a suitable anti-tank guided missile in its weapon arsenal. In the mediumlift category the air force holds the MI 8 and the MI 17 Russian helicopters. While the MI 8 fleet is in the process of being replaced by MI-17s, the majority of the existing MI-17 fleet has been upgraded/refurbished in respect of avionics and night capability. Currently 80 MI-17 V5 helicopters are being acquired from Russia—these helicopters are upgraded versions, with glass cockpit, night capability and armament package and will boost the armed forces lift capability.
In the heavy-lift category there is nothing worthwhile held with the Indian military, barring a few Russian MI 26 helicopters whose high-altitude capability is poor. Based on the Army’s requirement of a suitable helicopter capable of lifting under slung the ultra-light howitzer being acquired from the United States for deployment in mountains, the process for acquisition was set into motion. Trials for the same have been completed with the American Chinook CH
47 scoring over the Russian MI-26. Fifteen numbers are planned for induction.
The weakest link is in the Indian military inventory is the holding of specialised helicopters like the attack and anti- submarine warfare. (ASW). The MI 25/MI 35 attack helicopters held are vintage and require replacement on priority. Even the Sea King ASW helicopters held with the Navy need upgrade/replacement with a state-of-the-art modern ASW helicopter. In the recent trials conducted for acquisition of attack helicopters the American Apache Longbow has been selected over the Russian MI-28 (Havoc). The induction of 22 Apaches Block III (latest upgraded version) is likely to commence this year. The Army has also put in its requirement for 39 Apaches Block III for its three strike corps – in-principle approval for the same has already been given by the MoD. The Navy had also conducted extensive trials for replacement of its multi-role Sea King fleet with the European NH-90 and American Sikorsky 70B in fray in the recent Defence Acquisition Council meeting the selection of Sikorsky 70B has been approved.
The Army Aviation Corps today holds the largest number of helicopters amongst the three services, the majority being of the light observation class (Cheetah and Chetak). Their vintage and non-availability of spares is making their maintainability a nightmare—a fact acknowledged both by the HAL and the military. The latest Cheetah accident in Nagaland on February 2 this year has once again put the spotlight on safe operations capability of now ageing and obsolete Cheetah/Chetak fleet. This has followed in close proximity of the fatal Cheetah helicopter accident that occurred late last year at the Bareily Army Aviation Base, killing three officers. In the accident of February 2 the helicopter crashed immediately after take-off with the possible cause being engine failure. It is to the credit of the two pilots in handling this critical emergency, that the Corps Commander and three other officers (including the two pilots) survived the crash with minor injuries. These frequent occurrences of mishaps have an uncanny resemblance to what is happening with the MiG-21 fleet in the Airforce. The cancellation of the most important and critical project for acquisition of 197 reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters (RSH) has left the services bereft of a suitable helicopter to replace the ageing Cheetah/Chetak fleet and will no doubt affect the overall operational capability of the Army, especially in high-altitude areas where the Cheetah helicopter is the lifeline of troops deployed on those icy heights. This unnecessary cautious approach to cancel the project was taken despite the fact that an oversight committee appointed by the MoD during the previous Government had cleared the trial process of any irregularity. It is also pertinent to note that the trials for replacement helicopters were conducted by a joint team of specialists and professionals from both Army and Air Force and hence no single entity could have influenced the outcome.
In the utility/lift category the induction of indigenously manufactured ALH commenced in 2002. Since then 60 helicopters have been inducted and operationalised so far—another 60-70 are planned for induction in the coming decade. The latest version of ALH fitted with the more powerful ‘Shakti’ engine, has also entered service. Another variant of the ALH is the armed version called the ‘Rudra’, which was officially handed over to the Army during the last Aero India show in February 2013— the first unit is already under raising with the army planning to induct a total of 60 helicopters for its Pivot Corps. Rudra is a typical armed helicopter with an array of weapon systems including gun, rockets, air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, along with a modern sighting system and integrated electronic warfare self-protection suite. However, in its present configuration it has not been integrated with a suitable anti-tank guided missile (ATGM), as the air version of Nag ATGM ‘Helina’, being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation is not yet ready. As an interim measure, the MoD had cleared the fitment of three initial Rudra units with an ATGM ex import. Accordingly trials were carried out and completed two years back —in contention are the PARS 3 of MBDA France and SPIKE-ER of Israel. No decision has been taken on this project so far with the Rudra remaining without an ATGM – this delay is also likely to impact the light combat helicopter (LCH) project of HAL. The ATGM is the main weapon system of an armed/attack helicopter and without it the helicopter merely remains a gunship, inhibiting the exploitation of its full potential.
The Army is also looking to acquire a suitable helicopter in the 10/12-tonne class for special operations as well as enhancing its overall tactical lift capability. The HAL is looking at the feasibility of a joint venture with a foreign vendor for a 10/12-tonne class multi-role helicopter whose variants would also be available to the Navy and Air Force. However very little progress has been made on this project so far.
With the decision of the MoD on the ownership issue of attack helicopters in Army’s favour, the army has projected its own requirements of attack helicopters – 39 Apache Mk III for its Strike Corps. It is understood that the latest version of the upgraded Apache Block III (Guardian) is to be inducted into the Indian military, which demonstrates many of the advanced technologies being considered for deployment on future attack helicopters.
The Air Force is also in the process of modernising its helicopter fleet. In addition to the problem of being left stranded with an obsolete fleet of Chetak and Cheetah helicopters, the Air Force’s main concern remains the medium-(MI-8 and MI-17) and heavy-lift (MI-26) helicopters. While the MI 8 is obsolete and needs phasing out, the existing MI-17 holding is not adequate. The existing MI-17 helicopters held have been refurbished/upgraded for night capability and 80 x MI-17V5 helicopters (upgraded version) with glass cockpits, night capability and hard points for fitment of weapon pods are in the process of being inducted. Order’s have also been placed for additional 59 x MI17V5 helicopters with Russia to cater for the phasing out of certain older MI-17 helicopters—this also includes the requirements of the Border Security Force which has a mini air force of its own under the Home Ministry. In the heavy-lift category fifteen American CH-47F Chinook are in the process of being inducted—this will greatly enhance intratheatre troop movement/logistical support during critical phases of the battle, especially on our northern borders.
The Indian Navy operates a helicopter fleet consisting of the Sea King (ASW), Kamov (anti-surface vehicle) and the modified Chetak-MATCH (Mid Air Torpedo Carrying Helicopter). In addition they have a fleet of Chetak helicopters for ship borne operations. These helicopters are old and need replacement/upgrades. The Navy is already looking at overhauling its fleet air arm including helicopters. With the earlier acquisition process for 56 naval utility helicopters (NUH) for replacement of Chetak helicopters cancelled, a fresh RFI has been issued in October last year on the same lines as for the Army/Air Force RSH – requirement is for 56 twin-engine 4.5tonne class of helicopters. The acquisition of Kamov-31 airborne early warning (AEW) helicopters from Russia in the 1990s has proved a versatile platform for airborne operations at sea—more numbers are likely to be inducted. The Navy has successfully conducted the trials for acquisition of multi-role helicopters (NMRH project) to replace its ageing fleet of Sea King’s. As brought out earlier Sikorsky’s S-70B has been selected and while 16 helicopters are planned to be inducted initially, the total requirement is of approximately 60 such platforms. Navy along with the Army is alsoclosely monitoring the HAL proposed joint venture for the10/12-tonne class multi-role helicopter project.
HAL Ventures for Indian Military
The HAL has embarked on a number of ventures for the Indian military, the most significant being the development of the light combat helicopter (LCH). The LCH is stated to be a state-of-the-art attack helicopter with capability to operate at high altitudes (16,000 feet) and would meet the unique requirements of the Indian military. The LCH uses the technology of the existing ALH and its configurations except that the fuselage is suitably modified and streamlined for tandem seating. A number of development flights have taken place since its maiden flight on March 29, 2010, and HAL hopes to achieve initial operational clearance by September this year – this seems a tall order as the trials are yet to commence. Both the Air Force and Army are the potential customers for the LCH.
The HAL has also undertaken the development and manufacture of a three tonne class light-utility helicopter (LUH). This is to cater for the light utility class (reconnaissance & observation) of all three services and is over and above the 197 replacement helicopters for Cheetah/Chetak — as per reports the design freeze stage has been reached. As per original plan HAL was to supply 187 LUH to Army and Air Force – this is likely to undergo a change in view of the new developments. HAL’s plans for development of a 10/12tonne class MRH, a concept being adopted by the militarie the world over is presently at a nascent stage with no progress in sight.
In a significant development the private sector has recently entered the rotorcraft industry, thus challenging the exclusive preserve of the HAL. A Tata firm, Tata Advanced Systems Limited has tied up with the helicopter giant Sikorsky and established a major hub at Hyderabad for producing the S-92 Super Hawk helicopters. Presently only the cabins are being manufactured at this facility but the project envisages the assembly of the entire NH-92 in the near future. The new government’s ‘Make in India’ policy and thrust on indigenisation has given a fillip to the private industry to enter the defence and aerospace market. The case of the Avro transport aircraft replacement project and the two RFIs issued for the RSH and NUH projects are a clear pointer in this direction. These are very positive developments which will generate competition and go a long way in fostering growth in the aerospace industry, especially helicopters. Moreover, HAL will have to keep in mind the developing future helicopter technology and incorporate the same in its future projects for the armed forces, even if it involves joint ventures, if it wants to stay relevant in the helicopter market.
Military helicopters will play a vastly enhanced role in any future conflict. Their crucial role in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations cannot be over emphasized—the operations in Afghanistan have fully corroborated this aspect. The non-replacement of the Cheetah/Chetak fleet has very serious operational and safety implications and there seems to be no immediate solution in sight. The armed forces and MoD, along with HAL need to address this issue on priority.
Boeing AH-64D Apache Block III helicopter