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The growth of the Indian Army's helicopter inventory

Saurav Jha @SJha1618

Updated: March 1, 2015, 12:11 PM IST
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The Army Aviation Corps (AAC) of the Indian Army (IA) is just shy of being three decades old. In that period, it has probably become the busiest corps in the IA having to serve in a variety of terrain supporting a whole gamut of operations.

AAC is particularly crucial to maintaining India's dominance in the Siachen Glacier and supporting small unit operations in mountainous terrain. Given that brief, the AAC is always looking to increase the number of helicopters with high altitude capability in its inventory whether it be for reconnaissance and surveillance(RS) roles utility roles, heli-borne insertion or attack.

These varied requirements have served as a peg for the evolution of indigenous helicopter capability in India that is both capable of high altitude operations as well as a mix of roles and will form the bulk of AAC's inventory in the future alongside domestically produced Russian designs given the discussions during Russian President Vladimir Putin's December 2014 visit to India.

AAC of course doesn't only focus on the mountains and given the IA's extensive plans to increase helicopter holdings for its overall strike and pivot corps, AAC's significantly growing inventory may also see the addition of heavy attack helicopters (AHs).

End October 2014 saw the issuance of a request for information (RFI) for RS helicopters for AAC for a third time in just over a decade. This new tender is being advanced under the 'buy and make' category and is in keeping with the Modi government's decision to have the long running RS helicopter procurement met through domestic companies with foreign collaboration under a 'make in India' scheme.

However this time, no specific numbers have been outlined in the tender which is indicative of the fact that AAC's requirements in this category go far beyond merely replacing the around 200 strong but ageing Chetak and Cheetah fleet.

Moreover given that Putin's visit saw India and Russia agreeing to move quickly on having the Russian Ka-226T built in India in a joint venture format with the aim of producing up to 400 helicopters a year, it is abundantly clear that a major part of this procurement will be in the form of domestically built Ka-226Ts.

To meet immediate operational requirements on account of the need to retire some Cheetahs and Chetaks as soon as possible, an initial batch of helicopters will come in flyaway condition from Kamov's facility in Russia.

The rest will however have to be built in India and the Russians are currently on the lookout for a domestic partner for the same and they may even tie up with HAL for this purpose. However given that HAL is also progressing its own light utility helicopter (LUH) design, it remains to be seen whether it will also end up as a JV partner for the Ka-226T. Interestingly though, in mid-October HAL issued its own RFI for selecting a JV partner for RS helicopters. It is also worth noting that the AAC tender has a 30 per cent localization content clause within 4 years of signature of contract.

Now the Ka-226T along with the Airbus Helicopter's AS 550 C3 Fennec had been downselected in the last tender having met the revised technical and operational parameters specified in it. So both the Ka-226T and AS 550 C3 in any case have qualified the IA's requirements for a RS helicopter that can be used for directing artillery fire, carry small body of troops/quick reaction teams for special missions, aerial photography, scouting roles in conjunction with AHs, airborne forward air controller (FAC) functions, casualty evacuation (CASEVAC), NBC monitoring, as a platform for ESM, ECM and ECCM etc and to provide dynamic response during aid to civil authorities. Interestingly Airbus Helicopter may still tie up with perhaps the Tata's hoping to bid with the AS 550 for this latest tender, despite the fact that the government to government dealings during Putin's visit effectively puts the Russians in the lead.

Now, the Ka-226T sports two Turbomeca Arrius 2G1 (2G1) engines which are more powerful than the Rolls-Royce 250C engines that power the baseline Ka-26 . Each 2G1 provides 670 shp, increasing the service ceiling to over 6500 metres, providing improved high altitude and high temperature operation. Given HAL's long association with Turbomeca and co-development of the Shakti engine family, the 2G1 will probably be easily localized in India with even follow-ons perhaps being developed in partnership with Turbomeca.

The Ka-226T also has new avionics with multifunctional displays (MFD), automatic control system, navigation system and radar. It can be equipped with a hoist system, a helicopter sling that can carry up to 1.5 tons, a searchlight and an additional external fuel tank. For search and rescue (SAR) missions, the Ka-226T can also be equipped with a medical module among the many interchangeable modules that fit into its rear. The helicopter's transmission system is made largely from composite material and in layout it has Kamov's characteristic coaxial rotors of composite design, making the Ka-226T rather manoeuvrable in mountainous areas. Top speed is around 200 km/hr and the Ka-226T can carry nine passengers or about 1.4 tons of cargo internally.

Meanwhile HAL has already started work on a 600 plus acre greenfield project in Gubbi in Karnataka to manufacture LUHs. This facility is said to have the capability to manufacture 50-60 3 ton LUHs annually and seems to be tailored to producing HAL's own LUH design which is expected to enter flight testing in mid- 2015 with certification sometime in 2016. The first LUH ground test vehicle(GTV) recently underwent engine ground runs. HAL is now expected to churn out three flying prototypes in quick succession. The speed with which HAL is actually able to do this will decide just how much of the 187 unit RS helicopter order 'allocated' to it earlier by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will actually materialize. The LUH of course is quite contemporary with comparable specs to the Ka-226T although its layout is more conventional.

Even as the precise fate of the LUH design remains unclear, HAL's flagship indigenous rotary offering the Dhruv advanced light helicopter (ALH) however is going from strength to strength in AAC. The IA is now taking deliveries of both the Dhruv Mk III as well as the Rudra AH variant. The Dhruv MkIII is now even being used in highly specialized roles along the line of Control to intercept terrorists as is evidenced by the workings of the 202 Army Aviation Squadron also known as the Soaring Gideons. Units such as these employ the Dhruv's advanced avionics to stealthily and quickly reach landing zones employing day/night nap of the earth flying in the mountains. The Dhruv's advanced communication systems also facilitate real time data sharing with other nodes such as Command HQ and RSTA assets. Today almost 80 Dhruvs have been inducted into the IA with many more on contract.

Impressed with the Dhruv platform's avionics and versatility, AAC has begun inducting the first flights of the Rudra AH earlier known as the Weapon System Integrated Dhruv Mk IV. The IA wants the Rudra's airborne firepower in 'contact' battle scenarios thereby constituting a third another manoeuvre arm with lethal strike capability. Sixty Rudras are currently on order with the first flight being formed in Bangalore.

While employing the basic Dhruv layout, Rudra has a higher percentage of carbon-carbon composite materials to achieve weight reduction. It has commonality in avionics with the Dhruv Mk III, sporting a NVG-compatible cockpit with MFDs, dual flight controls and an autopilot. The avionics suite like the standard Dhruv also includes GPS, FLIR, HF/UHF communications radio, IFF, Doppler navigation and a radio altimeter. An EO (Electro-optic) pod helmet-mounted sight and fixed sights ensure accurate targeting with onboard weapons.

Rudra however has a slightly higher rated version of the Shakti turboshaft with each of its two Shakti engines delivering maximum continuous power of 1,067kW as opposed to 1,000 kW in the Dhruv Mk III. The Shakti engines give the helicopter a sustained max speed of 270 kmph and enable it to fly to over 20000 feet, thereby making it very useful for engaging targets in the mountains in a variety of scenarios. This the Rudra will do with either a Nexter THL-20 chin mounted gun turret housing a 20 mm M621 cannon, 70 mm rockets, air launched air to ground/ anti-tank missiles and will even air to air missiles for use against UAVs and perhaps other helicopters.

The Rudra's scope of employment is obviously not tailored merely to the mountains but also includes a very important anti-armour component in the plains. Indeed the first sixty helicopters are likely to be assigned to the IA's three Strike Corps for warfare in the plains, based respectively at Bhopal, Ambala and Mathura. The next flights will then head for the new Mountain Strike Corps based in Panagarh.

But AAC's appetite for a light AH capability potent in both the plains and mountains is not to be wetted merely by the Rudra. The IA's initial plans are to have at least 30 helicopters assigned to each of its 13 Corps, with one-third of the RS variety (Ka-226T/HAL LUH), one-third of the utility variety ( HAL Dhruv Mk III) and one-third of the AH variety. Now the ten AHs assigned to each Corps will not only be the Rudra but could instead be HAL's Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) for which the IA has indicated a requirement of at least 114 units. In fact AAC's growth in the years ahead can be gauged by the fact that the IA intends to have an AAC 'Brigade' with all its strike and pivot Corps in the medium term.

The LCH meanwhile has entered a decisive phase in its testing schedule and is expected to attain Initial Operational Clearance(IOC) by September 2015. The 5.8 tonne LCH is a 'true' 7000 metre altitude capable AH and can provide air defence amidst mountains, air escort, close air support in urban warfare scenarios and anti-armour capability. While the MBDA Pars 3 LR was said to have been shortlisted to initially equip the Rudra and perhaps the LCH, there has been considerable progress in DRDO's Helina air launched anti-tank missile project and with a new Imaging Infrared Seeker (IIR), the Helina is now able to engage targets out to 10 km. 2015 may see the Helina heading into production.

As AAC eagerly waits for the LCH to enter production, the IA has also put up a request for some 39 Apache AH-64E's to the MoD. While it was decided in 2012 that all future AH acquisitions will go to the IA, the Indian Air Force (IAF) managed to convince the Government that it should be allowed to retain the initial batch of 22 AH-64s that it has sought to buy from Boeing since that procurement move pre-dated the 2012 MoD decision. The IA therefore has put up its own case for additional AH-64E's apparently impressed by the helicopter's network centric capability, payload and reputation. However it remains to be seen whether even the IAF will have its Apache proposal cleared anytime soon.

AAC's rivalry with the IAF's transport wing will also increase in the years ahead however, since the IA intends to have a flight of at least five fixed wing aircraft assigned to each of its regional commands. Moreover both the IA and the IAF are likely to receive variants of the Rustom-2 UAV in the future as well. It is clear that the IAF's fond hope that 'small air forces' will not grow under other services is clearly dashed with the Indian Navy having broken away from that cocoon year's ago and now even the IA is following suit for good measure.

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First Published: March 1, 2015, 12:11 PM IST