Heralding another multi billion-dollar import of weaponry, the first of 22 AH-64E (I) Apache ‘Guardian’ attack helicopters was formally handed over to the Indian Air Force (IAF) by Boeing at their production facility in Meza, Arizona on May 10.
These copters have been configured as per IAF’s specifications. ‘The addition of AH-64E (I) helicopter is a significant step towards modernization of IAF’s helicopter fleet’ and ‘would have significant capability in mountainous terrain’, an IAF statement said. Interestingly, there is no mention of ‘Indian Army’, except an oblique reference to supporting ‘land forces’, in IAF’s public statements about the induction.
A Vital Shot in the Arm
The Apaches come as a vital shot in the arm for IAF’s attack helicopter capability that has diminished over years. Two squadrons of Mi-35 helicopters based out of 104 Sqn, Suratgarh and 125 Sqn, Pathankot have now been reduced to a single squadron, almost a notional capability. These helicopters had to sit out on the sidelines during Kargil War (1999) due to flight envelope restrictions.
An avionics and night upgrade package for the vintage Mi-35s was undertaken through Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in 2002-03. An ‘envelope expansion’ project was also executed, culminating in trial firing of rockets and Shtrum missiles at Toshe Maidan range near Srinagar. This kept the birds, bought through Indian Army’s budget but operated and maintained by the IAF, mission-worthy for a decade or so. Soon, maintenance and overhaul woes grounded most of these helicopters. First of the four older Mi-25s were gifted to Afghanistan in 2018. In reality, these machines are hardly supportable in India today.
Attack Helicopter Numbers Hit All-time Low
Eastern-origin helicopters like the Mi-35 & Mi-26 (to be replaced by the Apache and Chinooks), though robust and powerful in their heydays, fell upon bad days after the breakup of erstwhile Soviet Union. Poor availability of spares, short Time Between Overhaul (TBO) cycles, high maintenance requirements coupled with the splintering of OEM sources after the break-up drove many assets to ground till new contracts were inked for overhaul and sourcing of spares.
With about 68% Russian inventory, the Indian armed forces are still dependent on Russia for continued supply of spares, maintenance, repair and overhaul and upgrades. Even those efforts have not succeeded in resurrecting the Mi-35 gunships that now languish with life expired components and weapons.
Defining Force Levels
For any self-respecting nation aspiring to make a global impact, capability and force structure must flow out of national security imperatives and a ‘grand strategy’. While capability is undeniably more important than numbers, every capital acquisition must consider force levels – numbers required to be maintained on frontline as ‘Unit Establishment’ (UE) and an additional factor for maintenance reserves (MR) and peacetime / wartime losses (known as ‘strike-off wastage’ or SOW).
High Attrition Rate
One thing IAF can learn from events that unfolded over J&K on 26-27 Feb 2019 is that air assets could be lost at a rapid rate when the balloon goes up. In an ageing fleet, peacetime losses also erode numbers.
Geostrategically, India sits in a volatile neighborhood. Three strike corps of the Indian Army face the possibility of a two-front war. IAF has taken all responsibility for providing SEAD, strike, air defence, tank / bunker busting and close air support for rapidly manoeuvring strike formations. Against this backdrop, are 22 attack helicopters, less than half of which may adorn a squadron’s flight line on a good day, adequate?
IAF Big Brother to Fledgling Army Aviation
The Indian Army has also been pitching their own case for attack helicopters, owned, operated and maintained by the Army Aviation Corps. The Mi-35s were inducted in an era when all that army aviators had ever flown were light Chetaks and Cheetahs. IAF, as the custodian of all air power wisdom in India, had their say in buying the Mi-35 assets out of army budget and operating them, gaining much tactical skills and operational experience (some through UN Missions).
A single army aviator, on rotation, was posted to the IAF attack helicopter squadron. No army aviator ever commanded IAF’s 104 or 125 Squadron. The army learnt attack helicopter operations vicariously and waited for an opportunity that never came till IAF moved its case for 22 attack helicopters.
The New Crop of Army Aviators
Times have changed. The new crop of army aviators are growing up on modern Dhruv ALH Mk III & Mk IV. Weaponized ‘Rudra’ helicopters with full glass cockpit, state of art avionics, rockets, guns & anti-tank guided missiles slewed to helmet mounted sights, have replaced armed ‘Lancers’. Army Aviation Corps is growing at a remarkable pace, boosted by the indigenous capacity of HAL and army’s own desire to reduce dependence on IAF for air mobility and air support.
The Apache AH-64E (I) comes with Hellfire anti-tank missiles, 70mm rockets, 30mm chin-mounted automatic cannons, Stinger missiles and Longbow fire control radar. The constant tussle between IAF and Indian Army is only bound to get compounded with greater exposure to modern machines such as the Apache ‘Guardian’ and Chinooks.
Divide or Consolidate?
When numbers are short and challenges are many, is it a better idea to split assets between two contenders, or to consolidate them under one service towards a common doctrine? This is a question IAF and Army will have to answer in the years to come. Once the finer details are ironed out, they must approach MoD with a plan that puts national interest above turf wars or idiosyncrasies of any one service. The six additional Apaches that have been approved for Army will hardly be enough to meet individual service needs under the new ‘divide and fly’ approach that seems to be gaining ground over jointmanship.
Jointmanship is Key to Future Battles
As we continue down this path, cases will be moved by army in due course for more numbers – as of now, 3 squadrons of 10 attack helicopters each – justifying it under models borrowed from the country where these machines originate from. In the US, all attack and heavy-lift helicopters are operated by the US Army. Incidentally, the US Air Force was established as a separate service through the National Security Act of 1947.
In our case, jointmanship has often been sacrificed at the altar of individual penchants and one-upmanship. Cases like the Apache & Chinook has potential to set off more inter-service bickering over numbers that are already woefully short.
Rework the Numbers?
It is also perhaps a good time to look into the model that is used for computing frontline ‘unit establishment’. Experience must guide us towards truly representative numbers for ‘maintenance reserve’ – spare aircraft procured to account for downtime due maintenance. Past wars, slow attrition due to peacetime losses, lessons from Kargil War, recent skirmishes that saw two aircraft lost in one day, and the full import of all this projected into future battles, must be used to build numbers for acquisition.
As of now, the six Apaches approved for Army looks like a number pulled out of thin air; former Raksha Mantri AK Antony dividing candy between two fighting siblings. IAF will surely reach the end of its tether justifying future cases for such assets, if they don’t take due cognizance of the Indian Army’s requirements.
Real Guardian Can Only Be Indigenous
The real guardian can never be an imported helicopter or piece of weaponry. Even as we celebrate induction of the Apache, it is time to acknowledge a solid capability developed in-house – the Weapon System Integrated ALH ‘Rudra’ (WSI ALH). Bristling with missiles, rockets, cannons, even air-to-air missiles (first on any Indian helicopter), over 30 of these have been inducted by the army (16 with the IAF) while another 30 are on the anvil. Read an insightful saga of this copter on Livefist Defence.
The Light Combat Helicopter(LCH) will add further teeth to our aerial forces once weapon integration is completed and squadrons are commissioned. Take heart that one day, over a hundred Rudra/LCH will assume vanguard.
Slowly but surely, the Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH) should take wing – designed and developed to Indian requirements; carrying a global stamp of quality that will one day breach the ‘million-flying hours’ high water mark of trust foreign OEMs entice us with. Of course, none of this is possible if individual services pursue a divisive agenda while paying lip service to jointmanship.
Then, dear readers, we’ll have something to really cheer about. Happy parenting those projects. Till then, we will have to make do with imported ‘guardians’ 🙂
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at email@example.com. Views are personal. Cover photo courtesy Indian Air Force’s official website. This story was first published by The Quint on 14th May 2019. You can access it here.
‘Rudra’ photo courtesy Subhash John, Experimental Test Pilot with HAL. LCH photo courtesy Sanjay Simha, ace aviation photographer (visit his website here). Images used with permission.