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.

Present Sta­tus

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.

Fu­ture Re­quire­ments/Ac­qui­si­tions

Army Avi­a­tion

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.

Air Force

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.

Mi-17 he­li­copter

Boe­ing AH-64D Apache Block III he­li­copter

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.