By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 13th Oct 12
Ending a decade of friction between the army and the air force (IAF), the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has finally made a decision: the army will hereafter operate the fleet of attack helicopters that provides crucial fire support to army troops in battle.
“We have received a letter from the defence ministry and we have been given the attack helicopters by the government,” Army Chief, General Bikram Singh told PTI today.
In a letter that was issued on Thursday, the MoD has ruled that the military’s entire attack helicopter fleet will be owned, operated and maintained by the army. This includes the 22 Apache AH-64D helicopters that are being procured from US company, Boeing Defence, Space and Security (BDS); as also a new-generation fleet of combat helicopters that Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is currently developing. That will include 179 Light Combat Helicopters (LCHs) and 76 Rudras, which are a weaponised version of HAL’s Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH).
The IAF’s existing fleet of rapidly fading Russian Mi-25/35s, for long the world’s most heavily armed attack helicopter, will continue to be operated by the air force until they are retired from service.
The most immediate effect of this decision will be that, instead of IAF pilots, Army Aviation Corps pilots will be going to the US for training on the Apache AH-64D.
The MoD has also accepted the army’s long-standing request for Mi-17 medium lift helicopters to be located in army camps in J&K, so that heliborne contingents can be launched into operations without delay. The army says that heliborne operations are invariably delayed because a cumbersome IAF hierarchy takes too long to sanction the use of its helicopters.
For the IAF, which has zealously guarded its turf, especially the two attack helicopter squadrons that it has so far operated, this decision will come as a blow. On Monday, speaking at the 80th IAF day celebrations in Hindon, outside Delhi, the IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne pooh-poohed the idea of the army having a dedicated combat support helicopter fleet, dismissively stating that “little air forces” cannot be allowed to sprout doing “their own things”.
Ignoring the fact that almost every major army in the world operates its own combat support aviation fleet, Browne flippantly wondered whether the navy would comply if the coast guard wants its own submarines.
The IAF has opposed the army’s acquisition of an aviation wing ever since the Army Aviation Corps was established in 1986. At that time, in the Joint Implementation Instructions, 1986, it was mandated that the Army Aviation Corps would operate only helicopters below 5 tonnes in weight. The IAF has successfully cited this document to block the expansion of the Army Aviation Corps.
The army, however, has argued --- ultimately successfully --- that the pace of battle today demands dedicated weapons platforms and command structures, and that aviation assets that are primarily designed for the land battle must be owned and operated by the army.
For years, the MoD has vacillated, postponing any decision. Defence Minister AK Antony recently dismissed the issue as “a family problem.”
For the army, this has been a long-festering sore. Says Lt Gen BS Pawar, who headed the Army Aviation Corps from 2004 to 2006: “the MoD has consistently avoided a decision. Whenever Army Aviation sent up a proposal relating to aviation assets, the MoD would send it to the IAF for comments, knowing full well that would effectively kill the proposal.”
In the absence of MoD clarity, both army and IAF were placing orders for attack helicopters. The army has ordered 60 Rudra from HAL, while the IAF has ordered 16.