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Augmenting Military Helicopter Fleet

From Ukraine's frontlines to India's skies, a journey through Helicopter warfare and future strategies

April 26, 2024 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd) Photo(s): By PIB, SP Guide Pubns, Boeing, X / SpokespersonMoD
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army

 

MINISTRY OF DEFENCE SIGNED TWO CONTRACTS WITH HAL FOR ACQUISITION OF 34 ADVANCED LIGHT HELICOPTERS (ALH) DHRUV MK III FOR INDIAN ARMY & INDIAN COAST GUARD.

Mounting helicopter losses, both Ukrainian and Russian, in the Ukraine War has been in the news for some time now. At the same time, it is interesting to note that of the about 11,846 US helicopters deployed in the Vietnam War, US records show that 5,607 helicopter were lost, and overall the US military lost almost 10,000 aircraft, helicopters and UAVs (3,744 aircraft, 5,607 helicopters and 578 UAVs). Data also shows that in addition to the losses of Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, the US lost 10 AH-64 Apache helicopters, 14 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, 23 CH-47 Chinook helicopters and one CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter in the war.

According to the Russian Defence Ministry, since the beginning of the special military operation, Russia has destroyed 592 aircraft, 270 helicopters, and 22,932 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of the Ukrainian Armed Forces

Details of helicopter losses in the ongoing war in Ukraine will remain ambiguous primarily because of the US-led Western disinformation campaign. As of March, 21, 2024, Ukraine claims to have destroyed 310 Russian helicopters since the war began, including Kamov Ka-52 and Mil Mi-28N helicopters. However, these claims cannot be verified independently, given the fact that Western propaganda has been inflating Russian losses in all domains. How many helicopters the Ukrainian helicopters has lost is naturally not showing up on Google, META or X because of the US policy. However, given the Russian air superiority, helicopter losses on the Ukrainian should be considerable.

According to the Russian Defence Ministry, since the beginning of the special military operation, Russia has destroyed 592 aircraft, 270 helicopters and 22,932 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, as also 509 anti-aircraft missile systems, 15,827 tanks and other armoured combat vehicles, 1,271 combat vehicles of multiple launch rocket systems, 9,081 field artillery and mortar guns, and 21,274 units of special military vehicles.

IAF's Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH)

One thing is however clear that deployment of helicopters along the frontline in Ukraine has become extremely dangerous, with high certainty of being shot down, given the type of weaponry, including AI-enabled platforms employed by both sides. As a result, helicopters at the frontline are only being used in emergency situations like casualty evacuation.

Above does not imply that helicopters will cease to be used in conflict situations world over. Same is the case with tanks and mechanised forces. For example, $500 Russian drones have been effectively destroying $10,000,000 American Abrams tanks in Ukraine according to the New York Times. The proliferation of AI-enabled drones in the battlefield may lead to rethink about long maneuvers by mechanised forces depending on which side has better AI countermeasures, but generally only the tactics of deploying helicopters, tanks and mechanised forces would need to be modified.

Deployment of helicopters along the frontline in Ukraine has become extremely dangerous, with high certainty of being shot down, given the type of weaponry, including AI-enabled platforms employed by both sides

News reports of April 11, 2024, state that Indian Military is engaged in bolstering its attack helicopter capabilities. This is being done through a two-pronged policy; procuring the US-made Apache helicopters, as well as the indigenous Light Combat Helicopters (LCH) 'Prachand', produced by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). According to the media, deliveries of the AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for the Indian Army are set to begin in May 2024 when the initial batch of six Apache helicopters is likely to be delivered.

IAF's Apache helicopter

These six Apache helicopters are a separate deal from the Indian Air Force (IAF) existing fleet of 22 Apache helicopters. The news report states that the Army is going in for more Apache helicopters because the IAF has refused to transfer any of its Apache helicopters to the Army although the Army had also contributed funds towards their purchase. Procurement of the six Apache helicopters would boost the Army's attack helicopter capabilities. However, a bigger boost is in the offing with the Army planning to procure an additional 18 Apache attack helicopters, according to the media.

Concurrently, the Army Aviation Corps is also poised to become the primary operator of the indigenous LCH 'Prachand' helicopters. Media states that an order of 90 LCH helicopters is expected for the Army, with an additional 66 planned for the IAF. This huge procurement, estimated to cost over ₹45,000 crore, signifying the crucial role of the LCH in the Indian Military's future attack helicopter strategy. The IAF appears to be prioritising procurement of the indigenously developed LCH 'Prachand' attack helicopters. This is evident from their decision to forgo further Apache procurement and focus on inducting the LCH into service.

LCH 'Prachand' helicopter

The Indian Army's acquisition of Apaches and the combined order of 156 LCHs by both the Army and the IAF would contribute immensely towards modernising the Armed Forces and bolstering India's attack helicopter capabilities; strengthening the nation's military preparedness.

While, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) cleared a proposal for 34 new Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv in March 2024 (25 for the Indian Army and nine for the Indian Coast Guard), the HAL has been working on the 13-tonne Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH) project, which is planned to be a versatile and adaptable helicopter designed to serve a variety of roles within the Indian Armed Forces.

The Indian Army's acquisition of Apaches and the combined order of 156 LCHs by both the Army and the IAF would contribute immensely towards modernising the Armed Forces and bolstering India's attack helicopter capabilities

A computer-generated model of the IMRH shows the optimal armament configuration capable of carrying up to 1,500 kg of weapons externally. At least three hard points on each side of the IMRH suggests the ability to carry a dual rack of anti-tank guided missiles ATGMs). The image has also raised speculation that it is also likely to be equipped with pods containing 57mm and 80mm unguided rockets or even a nose-mounted 20mm cannon.

Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH)

The roles to be performed by the IMRH would include air assault, air attack, anti-submarine operations, anti-surface operations, military transport and VIP transport. The IMRH is aimed to replace all the current Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters of the Indian Armed Forces. The scaled model tests of the IMRH have been ongoing since 2021 while first flight of a full prototype is expected in 202526. The introduction into the Armed Forces thereafter is expected in 2028 after two years of testing. A total of six prototypes are planned for trials before production.

IMRH will be the first major project to follow new manufacturing policy under Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020. As per this policy, a private sector entity will form a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) with HAL for manufacturing the IMRH. With its multi-role functionality and potential offensive capabilities, the IMRH would play a vital role in safeguarding India's airspace. Its development signals a significant step forward for India's defence manufacturing capabilities.