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

Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa at the handing-over ceremony for Apache helicopters in Pathankot.
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.

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 man-pack 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.

Tank killer

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, 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.

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