The Aviation wing of the Indian Army got a big combat boost on 17th August with the decision of the Defence Acquisition Council of the Ministry of Defence to accept the recommendation of the Army Headquarters for acquiring six iconic AH64E Apache attack helicopters. Though the Army Aviation Corps (AAC) has been pitching for full three squadrons of 39 Apaches since the last few years, the decision to provide only six Apaches can only be termed as the beginning of the ambitious modernisation programme of the Army Aviation to provide a combative edge to the Corps. The last major step to provide teeth to the aviation wing was taken in 2013 when the weaponised version of the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Weapon Systems Integrated (WSI) nicknamed Rudra MkIV was inducted.
These Apaches would be acquired under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme of the US State Department. Earlier the MoD had okayed the $3.1 billion contract for acquiring 22 Apache Helicopters and 15 Chinook Heavy Lift Helicopters in 2015 from Boeing for the Indian Air Force, which will start receiving the deliveries from 2019. This fresh order of six Apaches will be issued as a follow on option to the IAF contract. The Army had earlier requested the MoD to provide them with at least 11 Apaches as a follow on contract.
The Indian Air Force had long resisted the move to provide combat helicopters to Army Aviation. But when media reports said that IAF had objected to the Army getting the Apaches, the IAF clarified that it has never opposed or objected to the procurement of any platform by the Indian Army. According to IAF, the force is in process of replacing its MI-25/35 attack helicopters with 22 AH64E Apache helicopters. The follow on clause has been exercised by the Government of India with 6 helicopters for the Army. The IAF has no objection to any internal restructuring / reequipping by the Army as long as it doesn’t presuppose transfer of assets of IAF or “impinge upon its enunciated role.”
However, according to sources the MoD succumbed to the pressures from the Army Headquarters and made a crucial decision that future acquisitions of attack helicopters will be for Indian Army Aviation. The MoD had accepted Army’s view that the attack helicopters would be more relevant to operate in conjunction with the ground forces the Indian Army Aviation must have control over the attack helicopter fleet. Since the Indian Air Force would also be acquiring these attack helicopters the issue of duplication of fleets has been brushed aside. The mandarins in South Block decided, that to have better coordination amongst the ground and aviation forces for synchronised attack plans, the Army must have their own combat aviation support also. In combat situation the Army wants its own pilots to be in command of the attack helicopters to have effective command and control. The Apaches are also likely to be allotted to the mountain divisions being raised along the Line of Actual Control with China, where they are expected to overpower the enemy forces on the mountainous terrain.
Hence after the initial induction of six helicopters, path has been cleared for further arming of the army aviation with the Apaches, which can play a very devastating role against the enemy ground forces. With the Apaches and the LCH, the Indian Army will be able to effectively counter the enemy forces on the icy heights of Himalayas. Hence, the Army has successfully won the support of Arun Jaitley headed Defence Acquisition Council to equip its three primary strike corps geared for rapid armoured advance into the enemy controlled area. The Army convinced the decision makers that it should have total command and control over tactical air assets for rapid deployment along with its strike corps, based at Mathura (1 Corps), Ambala (2 Corps) and Bhopal (21 Corps). The Apaches with the Indian Air Force would have to focus more on its larger strategic role. However, sources in the ministry said that in the event of war, only six AAC Apaches would not suffice, hence the IAF would have to handover its combat helicopter fleet under the full command of the local army commander to the AAC, so as to have complete coordinated ground war plan effectively executed. Presently the IAF has only two ageing squadrons of Russian Mi-25/35 combat helicopters. The Army Aviation wing of the Army will also be inducted with 80 Rudra Helicopters comprising of eight squadrons. As Hindustan Aeronautics Limited has already developed the indigenous Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) , Army Aviation will also be equipped with 114 of them as and when HAL starts producing them. Both Dhruv and LCH can play a significant role in High Altitude Warfare, as they will have good firepower and can also be utilised in wide range of operations such as anti tank warfare, close air support, reconnaissance and troop transport. Both can effectively challenge the enemy targets in a battlefield scenario against tanks and artillery. Apaches have been described as the most dreaded attack helicopters of the world as it can track up to 128 targets a minute and prioritise its neutralisation of threats.
Like the 22 Apaches ordered for the Indian Air Force, the six Apaches for the Army Aviation Corps will also be armed with Hellfire and Stinger missiles besides spares and maintenance support with a total package cost of Rs 4,168 crore. For the 22 Apaches , the IAF would be receiving 812 AGM-114L-3 Hellfire Longbow missiles, 542 AGM-114R-3 Hellfire-II missiles, 245 Stinger Block I- 92H missiles and 12 AN/ APG-78 fire control radars. In case of war and combat requirements, the IAF will have to transfer these offensive assets to the Army for a coordinated strike on the enemy bases.