Heralding another multi billion-dollar import of weaponry, the first of twenty-two 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 10 May.
These copters have been configured as per the IAF’s specifications. “The addition of AH-64E (I) helicopter is a significant step towards the modernisation 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’, or even an oblique reference to supporting them, in the IAF’s public statements about the induction.
A Vital Shot in the Arm
The Apaches come as a vital shot in the arm for attack helicopter capability, that has been greatly diminished over years. Two squadrons of Mi-35 helicopters, formerly based out of 104 Sqn at Suratgarh and 125 Sqn at Pathankot, have now been reduced to a single – almost notional capability.
An avionics and night-upgrade package for the vintage Mi-35s was undertaken through Israel Aerospace Limited (IAI) in 2002-03. This kept the birds, bought through the Indian Army’s budget – but operated and maintained by the IAF – mission-worthy for a decade.
Soon, maintenance and overhaul woes grounded most of these helicopters. First of the four older Mi-25s were gifted to Afghanistan in July 2018. As such, these machines are hardly supportable in India today.
‘Attack Helicopter’ Numbers Hit All-Time Low
Eastern-origin helicopters like the Mi-35 and Mi-26 (to be replaced by the Apache and Chinooks), though robust and powerful in their heydays, fell upon bad times after the breakup of the 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 identified for overhaul and sourcing of spares.
With about 68 percent Russian inventory, the Indian armed forces are still dependent on Russia for continued supply of spares, maintenance, repair and overhaul, and upgrades.
Even those have not succeeded in resurrecting the Mi-35s, that now languish with life-expired components and weapons.
Defining Force Levels
For any self-respecting nation with armed forces, capability and force structure must flow out of national security imperatives and a ‘grand strategy’. While capability is more important than numbers, every capital acquisition must consider force levels – numbers required to be maintained on the front line as ‘Unit Establishment’ (UE), and an additional factor applied for maintenance reserves (MR) and peacetime/wartime losses (known as ‘strike-off wastage’ or SOW).
High Attrition Rate
One thing that the IAF can learn from events that unfolded over Jammu and Kashmir 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.
Geo-strategically, India sits in a volatile neighbourhood. The Three Strike Corps of the Indian Army is facing the possibility of a two-front war, and the IAF is taking on all responsibility of providing SEAD, strike, air defence, tank and bunker-busting, and close air support for strike formations. In this backdrop, are 22 attack helicopters – less than half of which may line up on a squadron’s flight line on a good day – adequate?
IAF Plays 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 United Nations Missions).
A single Army aviator, on rotation, was posted to the IAF’s attack helicopter squadron. No Army aviator ever commanded 104 or 125 Squadron.
The Army learnt attack helicopter operations vicariously, and waited for an opportunity that never came, till the 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 ALH Mk III & IV. Weaponised ‘Rudra’ helicopters with full glass cockpits, state of the art avionics, rockets, guns and anti-tank guided missiles – slewed to helmet mounted sights – have replaced armed ‘Lancers’. The Army Aviation Corps is growing at a remarkable pace, largely boosted by the indigenous capacity of HAL.
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 Apaches 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 that the IAF and the Army will have to answer in the years to come. Once the finer details are ironed out, they must approach the MoD with a plan that puts national interest above turf wars or the idiosyncrasies of any one service. The six additional Apaches that have been approved for the 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 the Key to Future Battles
As we continue down this path, cases will be moved by the Army in due course for more numbers – as of now, three squadrons of ten 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 only in 1947, 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 have 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 being 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 the 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 the Army looks like a number pulled out of thin air; former Raksha Mantri AK Antony, dividing candy between two fighting siblings.
The IAF will surely reach the end of its tether justifying future cases for such assets, without taking due cognizance of the Indian Army’s requirements.
Only An Indigenous Helicopter / Weaponry Can Be the Real Guardian
The real guardian can never be an imported helicopter or piece of weaponry. Even as we celebrate the induction of the Apache, it is time to acknowledge a solid capability developed in-house – the weaponized ALH Rudra. Bristling with missiles, rockets, cannons, even air-to-air missiles, over 30 of these have been inducted by the Army (16 with the IAF), while another 30 are on the anvil with Initial Operational Clearance.
The Light Combat Helicopter(LCH) in due course, 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 take 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 will have something to really cheer about. Happy parenting those projects. Till then, we will have to make do with imported ‘guardians’ .
(Capt KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs at www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has flown over 24 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft and holds a dual ATP rating on the Bell 412 and AW139 helicopters. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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