Left and Below: computer images of the final LCH design, produced by HAL's in-house integrated design centre.
Below: a mock-up of the LCH, which was displayed in Aero India 2007. As you can see, it is a lot more clunky and primitive than the final design
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 9th Sept 08
In the anarchy of the modern battlefield, the attack helicopter is the ultimate predator. Operating from a forward base --- usually a small square of synthetic material tacked down onto a clearing in the fields --- the attack helicopter flies missions against enemy tanks, which are spotted by friendly scout helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Flying barely 20 feet above the ground, the attack helicopters close in with the enemy, often with rifle and machine-gun bullets spattering against their armoured bodies. Then popping up from behind a tree line, they fire missiles and rockets to destroy their targets; meanwhile sophisticated onboard electronics confuse the enemy’s radars for the couple of minutes it takes to finish the job. Then it’s back to the base to refuel and rearm, patch up the bullet holes, and leave for another mission against another target.
This is the perilous, high-tech environment of the attack helicopter, where only the best armed, best protected and most high-tech survive. There are just a handful of successful attack helicopters in the world. That number could rise by early 2009, when Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) test flies the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), its first attempt at designing and building an attack helicopter.
Business Standard had an exclusive, and detailed, first look at the LCH project, which is coming off HAL’s design centre in Bangalore. And despite the long trail of failures marking worldwide attempts to design attack helicopters --- e.g. Boeing-Sikorsky spent US $6.9 billion on the Commanche attack helicopter before the programme was cancelled in 2004 --- HAL is remarkably confident that the LCH will be successful and on time.
The Chief Designer of the LCH programme, B Pandaji Nath Rao, spelt out the milestones: the LCH design was finalised and frozen this March; the first technology demonstrator (TD-1) will fly by March 2009, testing the LCH’s flying systems: by July 2009, the second technology demonstrator (TD-2) will fly, fitted with all the weapons and electronic sensors. By the end of 2009, the Indian Air Force (IAF), the primary users of the LCH, will be conducting flight tests on the TD-3.
HAL believes that it has overcome the biggest bugbear of new aircraft projects: long development times mean that technologies become obsolescent before the aircraft reaches the users. Mr Rao points out that most of the LCH technologies are already being validated in the new version of the successful Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH). Other technologies related to weaponry and sensors are being proven in the armed version of the Dhruv (called the Dhruv-Weapons Systems Integration, or WSI), a prototype of which is already flying. The military has 159 Dhruvs and 76 Dhruv-WSIs on order.
And so the LCH will benefit from the many commonalities between the Dhruv and the LCH. Both are about 5.5 tonnes, which means that the crucial dynamic components --- i.e. the main rotor, tail rotor, and the gearbox --- are similar. But the Dhruv’s greatest gift to the LCH is integration. The Chief Designer explains, “In the Dhruv, we added on systems one by one; but in the LCH, we knew all those systems would be needed, so we were able to integrate them from the beginning. So the LCH is a sleeker, faster, more integrated aircraft.”
But HAL Chairman, Ashok Baweja also points out the LCH’s many new features, which have made engineering a challenge. The two pilots in the LCH sit one behind the other, compared to side-by-side in the Dhruv. So all the flight controls, the hydraulics and the fuel system had to be redesigned for the sleeker, heavily armoured LCH. The LCH’s many stealth features also necessitated redesigning the fuselage. And the new crash-resistant landing gear allows pilots to survive even when the LCH smacks into the ground at more than 10 metres/second.
The performance of the LCH will have to match up with contemporary light attack helicopters like Eurocopter’s Tiger or China’s ultra-secret Zhisheng-10 (Z-10). But experts say the LCH’s flying performance will be hard to match, designed as it is for India’s high altitudes. It can take off from an altitude of 10,000 feet, operate weapons up to 16,300 feet, and engage targets like UAVs that are flying at altitudes of up to 21,300 feet.