Expert Speak War Fare
Published on May 17, 2019
Transferring all attack helicopters to the Army is asking for a complete re-write of the way both the Army and IAF function. If there are command and control issues, they should be hammered out at the relevant levels instead of overhauling broader operating concepts, with the attendant hazards of unintended consequences.
Transferring attack helicopters to Army, a case of duplication of assets and effort?    Much has been made of the IAF taking delivery of the first of twenty-two Boeing AH-64E (I) attack helicopters last week. Once again, a slew of editorials have come forth, suggesting that attack helicopters should be handed over to the Army. This is a narrow view that sees helicopters as only an extension of warfare on the ground, and also overestimates the Army’s ability to absorb and maximise utility of these expensive military assets. Although helicopters like the Apache are excellent at killing tanks and generally wreaking mayhem on the battlefield, they can do a lot more when not supporting massive armoured thrusts or pitched land battles  Although helicopters like the Apache are excellent at killing tanks and generally wreaking mayhem on the battlefield, they can do a lot more when not supporting massive armoured thrusts or pitched land battles. The IAF’s own Concept of Operations (CONOPS) sees attack helos serving in a host of roles beyond the immediate battle area, including air interdiction at ranges well beyond the front lines of combat. While the utility of helicopters in the Destruction of Enemy Air Defences (DEAD) role can be debated, this is another IAF-specific task that has been assigned to its attack helicopters — which have the advantage of avoiding detection by flying extremely low. Then of course, there are the air-to-air and helicopter escort roles, both of which are handled by the IAF. Handing off attack helicopters entirely to the Army would be straitjacketing a very versatile platform to a narrow set of tasks. The US Army, which is frequently cited as an example of how to do things on the attack helicopter front, operates under complete air superiority provided by the USAF. This does not apply to India, where air superiority is not assured, and attack helicopters will have to integrate with heterogeneous air packages, be able to receive information from various platforms to boost their situational awareness, and send their own sensor information onward to improve the air picture available at the command level. Even in the Gulf War, when Apaches were used for the opening strikes against air defence elements, they were led in by USAF MH-53s.  In Israel, for instance, Apaches (indeed all helicopters) remain under control of the Air Force. The Indian Army, which operates half the number of helicopters that the Air Force does, trains roughly twice the number of pilots. In the Army (as in the Navy), one is never a career aviator — frequent stints outside the aviation branch are the norm, not the exception. This means training more air crew to replace those that will inevitably be called away from flying duties, dips in readiness and specialisation as air crews are rotated in and out of squadrons. In the IAF, this specialised knowledge goes nowhere, and flying is all one does for twenty-odd years. As far as the ultimate in combat employment of helicopters is concerned — the Helicopter Combat Leader course at the Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) — no Army pilots graduate this course. The HCL course is run the way the IAF fights and plans to fight — with complex packages of dissimilar aircraft types operating in unison. HCL graduates are trained to squeeze all they can from the helicopters they fly. Without any HCLs in service, and none likely given the demands on TACDE, the logical assumption is that the Army will be unable to exploit its attack helicopters to the extent the IAF does. Even if the training issues are resolved, manpower management will continue to be in issue — the Army will continue to under-utilise air crew and be forced to train disproportionate numbers of pilots. The IAF’s entire attack helicopter fleet, which includes the HAL Rudra gunship derived from the Dhruv light helicopter, Soviet-origin Mi-35s, and now Apaches, are already under operational control of the Army’s Strike Corps The IAF’s entire attack helicopter fleet, which includes the HAL Rudra gunship derived from the Dhruv light helicopter, Soviet-origin Mi-35s, and now Apaches, are already under operational control of the Army’s Strike Corps. When HAL’s Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) is inducted, these too will be operated by the IAF but controlled by the Army. Yet the Army is also inducting HAL Rudras as fast as they can be churned out, has ordered its own LCHs, and has recently been cleared to procure a laughable six AH-64s of its own. Given India’s hollowed out defence budgets that have hobbled any attempt at modernisation, this is precisely the sort of duplication of assets and effort that should be avoided at all costs.
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