For decades, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has resisted giving the army control of combat aviation assets, especially attack helicopters, which the air marshals have insisted on keeping firmly under their control.
Even as the army began operating light utility helicopters and established its own Army Aviation Corps, the IAF retained control of medium and heavy helicopters (Russian Mi-17 and Mi-26) and attack helicopters (Mi-35).
The IAF’s predominance in helicopters was underscored in September 2015, when $3 billion worth of helicopters – 22 Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy lift choppers – were handed over to the IAF, overruling the army’s arguments that attack helicopters, which are an integral part of the ground battle, should be flown by army aviation pilots.
On Thursday, in a landmark decision, the defence ministry’s apex procurement body, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), chaired by Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, cleared the Army Aviation’s first attack helicopters –a Rs 4,168 crore purchase of six Apaches, including associated equipment, spares, training, weapons and ammunition.
While the IAF will use its 22 Apaches for “air defence operations”, to take out enemy radars and command and control centres; the army’s Apaches would destroy enemy tanks and armoured vehicles on the mechanised battlefield.
It is understood the IAF has let go of the new batch of six Apaches with some reluctance, calculating that the air force budget – already strained because of the Euro 7.8 billion purchase of 36 Rafale fighters – could not sustain the added financial burden of more attack helicopters.
The army’s Apaches will only be delivered from 2020 after Boeing delivers the IAF its 22 choppers. Probably before that, Army Aviation would have inducted the first of its Light Combat Helicopters (LCH), which is at an advanced stage of development in Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).
Like the Apache, the LCH will be flown by both the IAF and the army. The LCH is a 5-tonne-class helicopter, significantly smaller than the heavily armoured and armed Apache. It is untested in combat, while the Apache has flown a million mission hours in combat from the first Gulf War in 1991 to the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the LCH is optimized for extreme altitudes, and for providing fire support to soldiers at heights up to 6,000 metres.
Both attack helicopters are armed with anti-tank missiles, air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground rockets and devastating chain guns that fire hundreds of shells per minute to rip apart lightly armoured vehicles.
Besides the Apaches, the DAC cleared the Rs 490 crore purchase of gas turbine engines from Ukraine for two Grigorovich-class frigates that Russia is building for the Indian Navy.
The two frigates, which form part of a $4 billion order for four such frigates, are almost fully built in Russia’s Yantar Shipyard at Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea. With relations between Russia and Ukraine at rock bottom after Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea, it has fallen to New Delhi to buy the Ukrainian gas turbines that the Grigorovich class frigates were designed to be powered by.
Negotiations are under way for building two of the four frigates in Goa Shipyard Ltd, under the Make in India programme. The purchase of gas turbines for those vessels will be cleared subsequently.