MODERNISING, BUT AT A RATHER SLOW PACE

All modern armies have an aviation corps and are self-contained for most air support requirements. Having an integral air arm enables an army closely integrate ground operations with the air element. Air support requirements include the direction of artillery fire from an elevated observations post (Air OP), aerial reconnaissance, casualty evacuation, movement of troops from one sector to another during combat and logistics support. Attack helicopters armed with air-to-surface anti-tank missiles, cannon and rocket pods act as force multipliers and provide flexibility in the application of firepower to cause destruction to the adversary’s war machinery. 
The Indian Army Aviation Corps came into being in 1986 with the erstwhile Air OP squadrons forming the backbone. Under the Joint Army-Air Instruction of 1986, the Army is empowered to operate only light utility helicopters for communication, directing artillery fire and other miscellaneous duties. All other operational tasks involving helicopters are the responsibility of the IAF. During over three decades of experience in army-air force joint training exercises every year, the army has found that it has not been possible to achieve the synergy that is necessary for fast-flowing mechanised operations. This is so because the attack helicopters are flown for the army by air force pilots who find it difficult to relate intimately and instinctively with the ground battle.
The growth of the Army Aviation Corps has been hamstrung by structural weaknesses. Lt Gen B S Pawar, former director general Army Aviation has written: “While the induction of the light utility helicopters (ALH) has commenced, the medium and heavy lift helicopters that form the core of the tactical lift capability, continue to be with the air force. Hence, the dependence of the army on the air force for tactical movements continues to be near total.  A similar situation exists with regards to attack helicopter units, which despite being an integral part of the land battle, remain with the air force.  Their optimum employment in such a scenario is not possible in the present set up.  The army’s requirement of small fixed wing aircraft in limited numbers for important roles like command and control, aerial communication hubs, logistics including casualty evacuation and communication flights has also not fructified due to objections of the air force.”
Modernisation Plans
The Army Aviation Corps continues to fly vintage Cheetah and Chetak helicopters that are obsolescent as its modernisation plans, especially efforts to replace Cheetah and Chetak light utility helicopters, have not made much headway. According to the report of the Standing Committee on Defence, tabled in Parliament in April 2012, there is a huge shortage of helicopters with the Army Aviation corps. The army faces a shortage of 18 Cheetah, one Chetak, 76 Advance Light Helicopters (ALH) and 60 ALH with weapon systems integrated (WSI). The army’s efforts to acquire light utility helicopters – the total requirement is for 197 helicopters – have been facing rough weather for almost a decade. Of the two final contenders in the fray, Russia’s Kamov and Eurocopter, the latter has refused to extend its bid due to prolonged delays in the acquisition process. 
The Army Aviation Corps has acquired a small number of Dhruv ALH but still lacks medium lift and heavy helicopters that are critical for logistics support in the mountains. The total requirement of ALHs is about 150 to 160. The ALH is being evaluated for high altitude operations with a more powerful Shakti engine which will be manufactured by HAL jointly with the French company Turbomeca. New helicopters will be equipped with UV (ultraviolet)-based missile warning systems through a project being taken up by Bharat Electronics Limited. Another positive development is that a few army aviation brigade bases have been established recently for better coordination of aviation operations, particularly in operational areas like Ladakh where the daily demand is very high.
The army’s plans to acquire attack helicopters for close air support, particularly during mechanised warfare in the plains, have been consistently resisted by the IAF that holds all the attack helicopters in the inventory at present. In France, Germany, the UK and the USA attack helicopters form an integral part of the army. Under Gen Bikram Singh, the present COAS, the desire to have attack helicopters flown by army pilots has received a new impetus at a time when India is considering the acquisition of new helicopters. On December 9, 2012, Defence Minister A K Antony told the Lok Sabha, “The decision to vest the future inductions of attack helicopters with the Army has been taken keeping in view the operational requirements in the field.” 
However, it is still not clear whether the ongoing acquisition of 22 Apache attack helicopters from the US is for the IAF or the army. Several modern machines, including the Apache, are likely to be in the reckoning for acquisition by the army. Simultaneously, HAL is undertaking the development of the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) which is expected to compete with Eurocopter’s Tiger, Bell’s AH 1Z Super Cobra and China’s Zhisheng 10 (Z-10) in terms of quality. Meanwhile, the army is likely to settle for the LCH.
Finally, it is time for the army to acquire UCAVs (unmanned combat air vehicles) similar to those used to good effect in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for employment in future conventional and sub-conventional conflict. Though the DRDO has been reported to be in the process of developing UCAVs, the project needs to accorded much higher priority. A purely indigenous project may take another five to ten years to fully mature; hence, a joint venture with transfer of technology may provide better dividends.
Gurmeet Kanwal is a Delhi-based strategic analyst.