IAF gets its first Apache helicopters, army aviation stakes its claim - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 3 September 2019

IAF gets its first Apache helicopters, army aviation stakes its claim

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 3rd Sept 19

Providing the Indian armed forces with a badly needed firepower boost, The Boeing Company formally handed over eight Apache AH-64E armed attack helicopters to the Indian Air Force (IAF) at Pathankot on Tuesday. 

These are the first of 22 Apaches that will equip two IAF attack helicopter squadrons that have, so far, flown Russian-origin Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters. The first to fly the Apache will be Pathankot-based 125 Helicopter Unit, named “Gladiators”. Next up for the Apache will be 104 Helicopter Unit, based in Suratgarh, Rajasthan.

Both these Apache units are scheduled to be fully equipped and operational by end-2020. “I am happy to note that the delivery schedule is on time with eight helicopters already being delivered,” said IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, at the handing-over ceremony in Pathankot.

The Apache, especially its latest, and most advanced, variant called the AH-64E, is widely respected as the world’s most formidable attack helicopter. Sixteen countries have bought more than 2,000 Apaches since the initial variant entered service in the early 1980s.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government initiated the procurement of 22 Apaches, while the current government signed the $1.4 billion contract in September 2015. 

The Apache is primarily designed to provide fire support to ground forces, including to infantrymen who can manpack only limited weaponry, especially in the mountains; and to mechanised units that have pinned down enemy tanks frontally, setting the stage for Apaches to fly in from the flanks, hidden by tree lines or sand dunes, and set enemy tanks ablaze with missiles and rockets.

The Apache is the world’s most lethal tank killer, firing Hellfire missiles from a distance of four-to-five kilometres – too far for the tanks to engage the Apache accurately. To destroy enemy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), attack helicopters or even fighter aircraft, the Apache mounts AIM-92 Stinger missiles on its stub wings. For ground targets, it carries 70 millimetre Hydra rockets and a 30-millimetre chain gun. All these weapons are integrated through the vaunted Longbow fire-control radar, which is carried by every second Apache.

“Alongside these capabilities… it also has modern electronic warfare capabilities to provide versatility to helicopters in network centric aerial warfare. These aircraft have been modified specifically to suit the exacting standards demanded by the IAF,” said Dhanoa.

There is deep conflict, however, between the IAF and the army over who should fly the Apache. While the IAF flew the Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters, the army argues that such support assets, which are directly employed in the tactical ground battle, should be flown and operated by army pilots who understand the ground battle.

The army cites the employment of attack helicopters in the US context, where Apache units are a part of the US Army. This is also true of most other evolved militaries such as the British Army.

The IAF, however, cites precedent. Initially, the IAF operated all flying platforms, including light helicopters such as the Chetak and Cheetah that flew only passengers and medical evacuation sorties. That began changing in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Army Aviation Corps was raised and took over charge of light helicopters. The army’s role gained momentum with the induction of the indigenous Dhruv chopper, and its armed version, the Rudra, both of which the army has inducted in numbers.

The army also took a stake in India’s first indigenous attack chopper, the eponymous Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), which is nearing completion. “The Rudra and LCH are basically army platforms, since they must be integrated to provide fire support to army operations. The same is true for the Apache, especially in mechanised warfare,” says a former army lieutenant general, who headed the Army Aviation Corps.

This logic has been acknowledged in the defence ministry. Negotiations are currently underway for another six Apache AH-64Es for the Army Aviation Corps.

The IAF argues that the Apache is not just a battlefield support platform, even though an official release on Tuesday mentions that its procurement “will enhance the capability of IAF in providing integrated combat aviation cover to the army strike corps.” Air force planners argue that Apaches could mount “shallow surgical strikes” across the Indo-Pakistan frontier; and that the attack helicopter could fly low-level strikes on Pakistan’s air defence radar network, in order to clear an “electronic safe path” for IAF strike fighter to fly safely to strike deeper-lying targets.

Other planners counter that such missions were possible only in highly asymmetric wars, such as the Gulf Wars, where the absence of a well-developed Iraqi radar network allowed US Army Apaches a free run. Pakistan, which has a sophisticated radar and air defence network, would be able to detect the Apaches and engage them effectively, it is argued.


  1. NSR says ---

    I hope the new CDS puts some fear of God into this IAF for siphoning off these Apaches from Army Aviation …

    The CDS should make all top IAF officers sit in a room and lock it so that they can watch all the old and new war movies … including the latest...

    12 Horsemen
    Lone Survivor,
    Zero Dark Thirty
    Blackhawkk Down
    etc etc etc

    The helicopters should be ready at the Brigade and commander HQs, strike and tank formations, special forces, etc to take off at a moment notice to address the transport of troops and to neutralize enemy threat issues...

    The Apaches and Chinooks are not for display as ORNAMENTS in IAF bases...

    So lock them up and make them watch all those movies until they come to the conclusions that Apaches and Chinooks should be allotted to ARMY AVIATION only...

    If IAF need some attack helicopters to guard their bases, then they should use LCH, Rudra, Mi-35, armed Mi-17, etc

    So why CDS with power and some teeth and claws was long overdue...

  2. "The concept of tri-service, geographical commands offers distinct organisational advantages for a global military like America’s, whose Central Command might be fighting a campaign in Iraq, even while its Pacific Command is engaged in a war with North Korea. The sheer distance between America’s combat theatres requires each to be self-contained. In the Indian context, where the operational commands are in close proximity, it would be wasteful to emulate the American structure. It would be especially fruitless to pre-commit air force squadrons to fixed commands, since the large combat ranges of modern fighters (further enhanced by mid-air refuelling) make it theoretically possible for a fighter aircraft to take off from an airfield under one command, and strike targets in two other commands in a single sortie."


    "Finally, he (CDS) would save money by pooling facilities and resources all three services wastefully maintain today."

    given a task, army with fewer air assets would try and deal with the given situation with it's assets (to a person with just a hammer in his toolkit every thing looks like a nail head) instead of calling on air force which understands air to ground engagements better and will take a call based on 1. greater appreciation of air situation (likely to be contested or air superiority not the air supremacy us war movies depict) 2. whole range of options from multiple fixed wing platforms to diff type of Helios 3. maintenance of Helios is complex and technical, duplicating expertise would be expensive. yes some roles like transport and aop for historic reasons ended in creation of army aviation but with a net centric warfare the whole concept needs reassessment in indian context (outlined by ajai sir in paragraph one).

    for an IBG enthusiast and swarming theorist the delay in committing air assets might appear a cardinal sin but a shared picture of battle theatre which can be delivered by investing in network might help inmultiple ways. netcentric, swarming are not exclusive concepts.

    besides these 22 apache would better serve as hub s (with expensive ew suites and hardware) in hub and nodes configuration, they are too damn expensive to be exposed with machine guns mounted on them (history of russian deployment of mil mi 24 hind's in afghanistan should have taught us that ) in a missile infested environment you need cheaper helios with data links and air to surface missiles doing the actual running. never pit a million dollar weapon against third world army if you have just 20 odd pieces instead of hundreds as first world army does.

    if you actually save some budget equip the infantry (ghatak sic) with some basic mortar, rpg, missiles (inexpensive igla -s is a right step) so that there dependence on artillery and air detachments is less and they have the tools to solve known battle hurdles like determined resistance to advancement from a fortified position , enemy air support etc


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