Following the crash of a Cheetah helicopter on 5 October 2022, the second such helicopter to crash this year (the earlier one was in March 2022), the Indian Army Wives Agitation Group (AWAG) wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing anguish over the continued use of the outdated Cheetah and Chetak Light Utility Helicopters (LUH), which have claimed many lives of experienced and young officers.
It was during the heightened confrontation in Kargil, in 1999 that the need for a lightweight assault helicopter that could strike with precision in all full-scale Indian battlefield conditions, including hot deserts, very cold high altitudes and also in counter-insurgency situations became obvious. At long last, in October 2006, the government sanctioned the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) project to be implemented by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which had already produced the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruva and its weaponised version ALH Rudra.
The indigenously designed and developed ALH-DHRUV, a twin-engine, multi-role, multi-mission new generation helicopter in the 5.5-ton weight class, has been produced in wheeled and skid versions. Dhruv is type–certified for military operations by the Centre for Military Airworthiness Certification (CEMILAC) and civil operations by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
Certification of the utility military variant was completed in 2002 and of the civil variant in 2004. The deliveries of production series helicopters commenced from 2001-02 onwards. A total of 228 helicopters were produced by March 2017 including 216 for the Indian Armed Forces. The major variants of Dhruv are classified as Dhruv Mk-I, Mk-II, Mk-III & Mk-IV.
The twin-engine LCH, designed and developed by HAL, is a 5-8 tonne class dedicated combat helicopter. It is the only attack helicopter in the world that can land and take off at an altitude of 5,000 m (16,400 ft) with a considerable load of weapons and fuel significantly augmenting the firepower of the IAF and the Indian Army in high-altitude areas. The helicopter has a combat radius of 500 km and goes up to a service ceiling of 21,000 feet which makes it ideal to operate at high altitude areas of the Siachen glacier. Reportedly, this attack helicopter is the only such machine in the world in its weight class which can not only land but also take off from an altitude of 16400 feet.
The first prototype of the LCH took its first flight on 29 March 2010 and has since then undergone extensive testing and evaluation. The LCH is designed to be armed with a 20 mm nose gun in a moveable turret, 70 mm rockets, an anti-tank guided missile ‘Dhruvastra’ and an air-to-air missile ‘Mistral-2’ of MBDA which has a maximum interception range of 6.5 km.
The LCH is equipped with requisite agility, manoeuvrability, extended range, high altitude performance and round-the-clock, all-weather combat capability to perform roles of Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), Destruction of Enemy Air Defence (DEAD), Counter Insurgency (CI) operations, against slow-moving aircraft and Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs), high altitude bunker busting operations, counter-insurgency operations in the jungle and urban environments and support to ground forces, the Defence Ministry had stated. State-of-the-art technologies and systems compatible with stealth features such as reduced visual, aural, radar and infrared signatures and crashworthiness features for better survivability have been integrated into the aircraft. More than 200 vendors were involved in the production of sub-systems and components, apart from 70 vendors involved in indigenisation.
In June and July 2022, a squadron of each of the ALH MK III MR (maritime rec) developed and manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was inducted into the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) and Indian Navy respectively. The Navy’s ALH unit, Indian Naval Air Squadron (INAS) 324 and named Kestrels (meaning birds of prey), was commissioned at Visakhapatnam on 04 July 22, is the first one on the Eastern Seaboard operating the ALHs.
In addition to their primary roles of MR (maritime reconnaissance) and SAR (search and rescue), these helicopters can also be deployed for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Operations as well as special operations with Marine Commandos. The helicopter also has an airborne Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) for use in the Air Ambulance role to facilitate the medical evacuation of critically ill patients.
In a major boost to further strengthening the Northwest Region of the ICG, its 835 Squadron of ALH MK III was commissioned at ICG Air Enclave, Porbandar on 28 June 22. So far, 13 ALH MK-III aircraft have been inducted in ICG in a phased manner and four of them are positioned at Porbandar. Since induction, the squadron has conducted numerous operational missions including the maiden night search and rescue mission off the Diu coast which will give a major fillip to the abilities of ICG in the security-sensitive Gujarat region.
The IAF operates the older Mi-25 and Mi-35 Russian attack helicopters which are in the process of being phased out and has inducted 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters from the US. The Army will also start receiving the Apache attack helicopters from early 2023 onwards, six of which have been contracted from the U.S. in February 2020. In all, the IAF operates a wide mix of around 500 rotary platforms which includes around 90 Mi-17s, over 130 Mi-17V5s, over 70 ALH including the weaponised variant, 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, one squadron of Mi-35 attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters. The Army Aviation currently operates utility helicopters but does not have dedicated attack helicopters in its fleet, though it operates the weaponised version of the Advanced Light Helicopter.
Use of outdated helicopters
While good and long overdue progress has been made in the LCH and ALH categories but it is the light utility helicopters (LUH) used by all the armed forces which of 40 to over 50 years of vintage are much overaged and must get replaced. The Army Aviation currently operates around 190 Cheetah, Chetak and Cheetal (re-engineered version of Cheetah) helicopters. Five of these are over 50 years old and the bulk of the fleet, around 130 of the 190, is between 30 to 50 years old. The Navy and the Air Force also operate these helicopters. The IAF has around 120 Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. The Indian Navy’s Aviation Squadron INAS 561’ also operates Chetak helicopters.
Following the crash of a Cheetah helicopter on 5 October 2022, the second such helicopter to crash this year (the earlier one was in March 2022), the Indian Army Wives Agitation Group (AWAG) wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing anguish over the continued use of the outdated Cheetah and Chetak Light Utility Helicopters (LUH), which have claimed many lives of experienced and young officers. The letter stated that 31 military pilots have died, not by fighting the enemy, but in accidents involving both types of helicopters since 2017, for no fault of theirs. They asked in the letter, “Can the PM possibly safeguard the nation’s soldiers by making them operate these two six-decade-old helicopter types that first joined service in the early 1960s and had now become “flying coffins”, but still comprised the rotary-wing backbone of the three services.”
Lt Gen B.S. Pawar (retd), former Director General, of Army Aviation who interacted with this writer, stressed two aspects. One is that the mainstay of Army Aviation, the Alouettes/Chetak/Cheetah, is very old and needs to be replaced. The other is that the LCH and ALH are incomplete in their capabilities without the armaments that they have been designed for because, in both these helicopters, the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons have not yet been fitted.
(The author is a former spokesperson of the Defence Ministry and Indian Army. Views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)