Are these acquisitions in order? Is it desirable for both the army and the air force to be equipped with attack helicopters? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to first analyse the role played by air power - comprising fighter-ground attack aircraft, attack helicopters and combat drones or UCAVs - on the modern battlefield. Subsequently, during the attack, the reconnaissance helicopters provide visual security for attack helicopters.
‘The Army has not fully grasped the value and appropriate employment of airpower primarily because the Air Force itself has been ambivalent its doctrines’.
Jaswant Singh, former Defence, External Affairs and Finance Minister
‘Airpower dominates the battlefield and must be employed concentrated to achieve maximum synergy… In the Inter-Services context, this eminently profound article of faith has been allowed to acquire an extended meaning of single-service ownership of all air assets’.
General Shankar Roy Chowdhury, former COAS
Acquisition of Attack Helicopters
In September 2015, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approved the acquisition of 22 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and 15 CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters from the United States (US) for approximately US$ 2.5 billion. The contract signed at that time gave India
an option to buy 11 Apaches and four Chinooks in addition. It was reported in end-August 2017 that India had exercised the option and decided to acquire six additional Apaches.
While the first lot of 22 Apaches will go to the Indian Air Force (IAF) to replace its ageing Mi-35 attack helicopter fleet, the six additional Apaches will go to the Army Aviation Corps. This move is in accordance with the UPA government’s decision to accept the army’s long-standing demand that attack helicopters should be integral to it. AK Antony, then Defence Minister, had directed that the next set of Apaches should be given to the army. The army is reported to have projected a total requirement of 39 attack helicopters to support offensive and defensive operations, particularly the operations of its three Strike Corps.
Air Power as a Force Multiplier in Conventional Conflict
Are these acquisitions in order? Is it desirable for both the army and the air force to be equipped with attack helicopters? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to first analyse the role played by air power — comprising fighter-ground attack (FGA) aircraft, attack helicopters and combat drones or UCAVs — on the modern battlefield.
Employed in a synergistic manner in conjunction with the ground forces, air power can be a substantive force multiplier that can pave the way for victory. Interdiction of targets in-depth and the provision of sustained close air support (CAS, also referred to as battlefield air strikes or BAS) to the ground forces are now part and parcel of the tactics, techniques and procedures (TT’s) of conventional combat on land.
The capacity to execute joint AirLand operations is considerably enhanced by the ability of the air force to mass firepower quickly and deliver a wide range of weapons at the point of decision. In Gulf War II, the LS armed forces had raised CAS/BAS to the level of a fine art. Air-to-ground strikes were whistled in more frequently than in any other war and were delivered with alacrity in an unbelievable response time of 15 to 20 minutes.
Hence, the importance of battlefield air strikes in modern wars must not be underrated. A few missions of FGA aircraft and attack helicopters can deliver more ordnance by way of 1,000 lb. bombs — some of them equipped with precision guidance for terminal homing — in a few minutes on an objective selected for capture than the 18 guns of a 155 mm Bofors medium artillery regiment can deliver in 20 to 30 minutes.
During adverse operational situations, particularly in fast-flowing mechanised operations in the plains, accurate air force and attack helicopter strikes can save the day. The Battle of Longewala during the 1971 war with Pakistan, where a Pakistani armour thrust was brought to a grinding halt by the IAF, is a good example. Also, it is a truism that in-your-face air force and attack helicopter strikes against the enemy in contact with own troops — strikes that can be seen by the troops — provide a major psychological boost to their morale.
The smooth conduct of electronic warfare and “information operations also benefits from air force and attack helicopter strikes. Writing in ‘The First Information War’, author Alan D Campen noted that “The targets of the opening shots in Desert Storm were two Iraqi radars located just inside Iraq’s border with Saudi Arabia. Hit from army helicopters firing Hellfire missiles, these stations went silent. Moments later, a stealthy F-117 launched a 2,000 pound, laser-guided bomb, on an interceptor control station. Those two attacks opened a door in an electronic wall through which 668 aircraft were to streak into Iraq.”
Air Cmde Jasjit Singh has written: “If there is a single lesson of warfare for the past hundred years, it is that land forces cannot achieve their strategic, operational and tactical tasks effectively without deep synchronisation, bordering on synergy, between land and air operations. In effect, air power is the crucial lynchpin without which no military objective can be achieved; and, hence, the key to joint operations.”
Another battle winning factor is the possession in abundance of precision-guided munitions (PGMs). Superior precision firepower, delivered from ground-based and aerial platforms, can give ground forces a decisive edge in limited wars. Long-range lethal munitions and precision targeting promise to provide an immense edge to well-equipped ground forces. According to Robert H. Scales Jr, “The lesson from the Gulf War is clear: in a high-intensity war, firepower must break the enemy s will to resist before close combat begins. Firepower must so weaken the enemy that close-in killing by infantry and armoured forces becomes a coup de grace rather than a bloody battle of attrition.”
The Indian army’s experience during the Kargil conflict had also brought out a similar lesson. Maximum Indian casualties occurred during initial assaults on the icy mountaintops occupied by regular Pakistani soldiers before the artillery had built itself up to the level of being able to concentrate 100 guns on each target in turn. Sustained, accurate and high volume concentrated artillery firepower eventually won the battle for India by completely decimating enemy sangars and enabling the infantry to assault virtually unopposed. Tiger Hill and many other objectives were finally re-captured with minimum casualties. Air-to-ground strikes by the IAF were also instrumental in weakening the enemy’s resolve. The battle winning capability of ground-based and aerially-delivered firepower in limited wars was established beyond doubt.
Forming Joint Air Attack Teams
However, fighter ground attack (FGA) aircraft have several limitations. FGA aircraft are finding it increasingly difficult to penetrate the dense air defence (AD) umbrellas of manoeuvre forces to launch effective air strikes. Secondly, the electronic warfare (EW) measures adopted by the enemy successfully degrade the capability of FGA missions to deliver their lethal payload within acceptable limits of accuracy. Low survivability and reduced effectiveness of FGA missions are bound to cause considerable anxiety. This is applicable with a variation of only one order of magnitude to strikes by attack helicopters. Hence, the suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) is rapidly becoming a high priority task whenever FGA or attack helicopters missions are planned while operating in a high-density AD environment.
During a lo-lo attack mode, flying just above the treetops at near-supersonic speeds, an FGA mission pilot’s time-over target is not adequate to allow acquisition and engagement to the desired accuracy.
Any help that he can get by way of guidance from 3 heliborne FAC and for unmistakable target acquisition will enhance mission effectiveness. Ideally, FGA missions should be integrated with army aviation assets and the indirect firepower of the artillery. Such concerted employment of air support resources would be a potent combat force multiplier and would result in the optimum utilisation of valuable and scarce assets.
One method of achieving the levels of integration and close cooperation that are necessary to optimise capabilities is to form joint air attack teams (JAAT) — an idea whose time has come. The JAAT provides the ground formation commander with a highly mobile, lethal force capable of engaging enemy forces beyond the range of ground-based direct firing weapons, well before the enemy forces establish contact with own troops or mechanised forces. The JAAT can delay, disrupt or destroy enemy manoeuvre elements in any tactical situation, help contain enemy penetrations and provide commanders with useful information about enemy dispositions. locations and activities. The flexibility of JAAT can be employed to maintain continuous pressure on mobile enemy forces beyond the range of ground-based weapons, particularly in situations of dire emergency such as when a heliborne force is counterattacked by enemy armour before a link-up can take place.
A JAAT is a composite team of army aviation s reconnaissance (light) helicopters, attack helicopters and air force FGA aircraft. The team will usually operate as the aerial punch of the combined arms team. The aviation assets forming a JAAT may be brought together for a pre-planned CAS strike or for immediate CAS requests or during battlefield opportunities. The ground forces commander, normally the brigade commander or the GOC of a division, would normally have overall responsibility for the planning, coordination and employment of a JAAT. However, battalion or combat group commanders may request JAAT strikes at their discretion.
The process of pre-planned JAAT strikes follows the same decision-making process as that of pre-planned CAS missions. however, such strikes are likely to be extremely limited in number because of the rapidly changing tactical situation on modern battlefields, particularly during mechanised operations. During defensive operations, while planning to deny the enemy a successful breakout over a linear obstacle system before first light, it would be prudent to plan JAAT strikes against enemy armour inducted into a bridgehead or armour that is in the process of breaking out. Should a bridgehead have been denied to the enemy, such a pre-planned JAAT mission can be diverted with relish to the enemy s ‘A vehicle waiting for areas. Similarly, vehicle-based infantry battalions scurrying to occupy a depth line of defence would be lucrative interdiction targets.
During meeting engagements and tank versus tank battles, spontaneous requests for immediate JAAT strikes would be commonplace. A JAAT can also act as an ‘anvil of fire’ in the classic ‘hammer and anvil tactics of destroying enemy forces. During defensive operations, enemy actions designed to disrupt the defender’s time frame or to pose unmanageable threats would be justified grounds for whistling in JAAT strikes. In situations where attack helicopters are ‘on-call’ to brigades, for example to a leading combat command, immediate JAAT strikes would be easier to plan and execute.
Skilful execution is necessary to implement the JAAT concept successfully. Reconnaissance helicopters must first reconnoitre the target area for firing positions for attack helicopters, also called battle positions. They must find suitable directions of approach, locations of enemy AD weapons launchers and command and control vehicles, choke-points and bottlenecks through which enemy forces may pass and potential engagement areas. On locating and identifying the enemy elements to be attacked, they must ensure that visual contact is maintained throughout the operation. Subsequently, during the attack, the reconnaissance helicopters provide visual security for attack helicopters. The FGA aircraft will usually enter the target area in a two-aircraft flight as the basic attack configuration. Terrain and weather will influence the number of flights which can operate in a target area at one time. FGA aircraft commence moving for the strike using low-altitude tactical navigation to draw maximum advantage from contour masking. [The Forward Air Controllers (FAC) provide updated information as necessary and give the final attack clearance.
Indian attack helicopters must be capable of the night attack and all-weather flying. These must be able to lay-off in and operate off
small helipads in forwarding hides where the pilots can be briefed in real-time and can return for ammunition replenishment, re-fuelling and maintenance checks for short durations. In other words, attack helicopters need to become a well-knit and finely integrated part of the ground battle environment with the only difference being that they launch their lethal payload while they are airborne.
Attack helicopter pilots must eat, live and train together with their counterparts in the manoeuvre arms. In some Western armies attack helicopters are known as the ‘fourth squadron’ of a combat group. That is the level of integration that Indian attack helicopter units should aspire to achieve.
Finally, while a beginning has been made, six attack helicopters will be grossly inadequate to support ground operations across the full spectrum of the threats and challenges with which the army will need to cope over the next few decades. The remaining 33 attack helicopters that the army requires must be acquired expeditiously so that the Army Aviation Corps becomes a potent force and an effective force multiplier during the next conventional conflict that the army is required to fight. Ideally, the 22 Apaches being procured for the IAF should be transferred to the army so that a single force holds all of them.
There would be operational synergy in doing so as the army is the primary user of the potent firepower punch that the Apaches pack and their employment during the war has to be planned in intimate coordination with the ground forces. Such a move would also facilitate training and logistics. It was a mistake to have initially decided that the LAF should hold and man the attack helicopter Heat. In other modern armies attack, helicopters are an integral part of army aviation. The consequences of historical mistakes do not have to be endured in perpetuity.