Thursday, April 18, 2013

Posted on 01 February 2013 by admin

The aviation component of the Indian Army came into existence in 1986, after a great             deal of procrastination and considerable opposition from the Indian Air Force (IAF). It continues to be a force that is unable to provide comprehensive aviation support to the army, as its current capabilities are severely limited.

The biggest reason for this is the opposition bordering on paranoia from the IAF.

Army aviation is a force multiplier, on account of its ability to quickly engage, disengage and regroup in the battle zone. Integral aviation assets enable field commanders to exploit fleeting opportunities. This is also true for sub-conventional operations.

Emerging challenges require major restructuring and redefining of the roles and the manner of functioning of this extremely important arm. This needs to be formalised in the context of the likely threats to the nation, keeping in view the changing nature of war and conflicts, and the impact of technology.

The Historical Context

Indian Army pilots had been flying both fixed wing aircraft and helicopters for air observation post duties since 1942. These were Air Force units manned and maintained by Air Force personnel except for pilots who were artillery officers.

The need to have its own aviation arm was apparent soon after the 1947-48 War in J & K, but in the 1950’s it was only flagged in-house within the army. Even though the IAF was not employed during the 1962 war with China, the need for an air arm for the army was acutely felt. Soon after the 1962 War, the proposal for an aviation corps for the army was mooted in 1963. However, it was only in 1986, after 23 years, that it saw the light of the day, after considerable opposition and great reluctance from the IAF. At that time, only light helicopters, already being flown by army pilots, were transferred to the army, while attack and utility helicopters remained with the IAF. Thereafter, the growth of army aviation has been slow and tardy.

Current Status   
In the 27 years of its existence, army aviation is still stuck in a changeless groove. As presently structured, it has a number of limitations in aerial platforms, manpower and organisational structures. It continues to be a force that is unable to provide comprehensive aviation support to the army, as its capabilities are severely limited.

The army wants its aviation component to grow but it has not displayed adequate vigour in pushing for a decision on account of a self-imposed policy of ‘staying of its hands’, being the senior and the bigger service! This false sense of not ruffling the feathers of smaller services even when it costs an arm and a leg has served the army badly, not only in ensuring the legitimate growth of army aviation but also in other important spheres!

The IAF is the biggest stumbling block in the growth of army aviation. Its obduracy and opposition are a meaningless and repetitious litany of excuses. The last player the MoD, is unconcerned and is blasé about the army’s requirements! A great pity indeed!

Presently, army aviation flies predominantly light helicopters. It has only about a dozen squadrons and less than 50 Reconnaissance and Observation (R&O) flights, equipped with about 200 Chetak and Cheetah helicopters of 1960 and 1970 vintages, as well as a few utility flights, equipped with the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH). The few armed light helicopters (Ranjit and Lancer) are now defunct, though plans exist to arm some ALH (Dhruv) with weapons. The irony is that the attack helicopters currently held have been paid from the army budget, but continue to be with the IAF, despite strong objections from the army. Army aviation does not have its own pilot’s cadre and the existing 460 officer pilots are all seconded from other arms/corps.

The Army Aviation Corps (AAC) needs to perform a variety of roles to be called a complete force, but the present structure of the AAC inhibits it from performing them. The roles it must perform are attack; combat fire support; electronic and visual surveillance; as well as aerial photography; tactical lift; logistical functions; communications; casualty evacuation; provision of airborne command posts; electronic warfare; and monitoring of the nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) environment. However, its present structure and aviation platforms inhibit it from performing all roles.

Unless army aviation starts growing rapidly, the army will not be able to exercise many operational options in future conflicts. The loser will be the nation, but the army will get the blame!

Stance of the IAF

The IAF still thinks that the growth of army aviation is a wasteful process, as the IAF is capable of providing all types of support to the ground forces. It also argues that all air components must be centrally controlled for optimum functioning, cost-effectiveness and best results. At one time they floated the absurd argument that any object that flies must be under the IAF, till it was pointed out that all projectiles of the army delivered from the lowly rifle to guns, rockets and missiles fly through the air! IAF also argues about the difficulties of air space management, forgetting that this is not a problem peculiar to only our air space; militaries of most important countries have found answers, which are efficient and fool-proof.
In actuality, these are mere excuses and the main reason for their inordinately rigid position is the misconception that the growth of army aviation will reduce the size of the IAF! Institutionally, this is anathema to them, as their aim has always been to grow bigger and bigger. It is of course a baseless fear; there is plenty of room for both to grow in their respective spheres.

The IAF had used the same approach earlier to stymie the establishment and later growth of naval aviation, but the navy stuck to its guns, like limpet mines on the hull of ships and did not accept any dilution in their visualisation of the size and shape of the naval air arm. The result is that it has a full-fledged air component, which has contributed immensely to the all round development of the Indian Navy.

While one can sympathise with the aspirations of the IAF to grow to a large and formidable force, it must not usurp the genuine operational requirements of army aviation. Diminishing the fighting potential of ground forces, on account of the grandiose turf considerations of the IAF is not only incorrect but is self-serving.

The army’s treatment of the IAF with kid gloves for maintaining inter-service harmony and not pushing hard enough was with the hope that better sense will prevail. In hind sight, although altruistic, it has been a wrong policy.

Aviation Corps of Selected Armies

All professional armies of the world have their own fully equipped aviation arm, because even the best air forces have severe limitations in carrying out many tasks which are intimately concerned with the land battle. While their organisations may differ, they all have a combination of reconnaissance; attack; utility; and medium lift helicopters, as well as a small proportion of fixed wing aircraft for meeting functional requirements of aerial command posts; communications; electronic warfare; casualty evacuation; and some logistics functions. They are thus immediately available to the land forces commanders for operational tasks of great importance that influence the outcome of battles.

Space does not permit a listing of the structures and organisations of the army aviation components of selected countries in detail. However, the following table not only lists the army aviation platforms of selected countries, but also juxtaposes them with the strength of their militaries and their holding of major equipment in terms of tanks, other armoured fighting vehicles (AFV’s) and aircraft: (Table 1)
INDIA             1,325,000      3,215         1,810            632              250 (-)
CHINA           2,285,000       7,550 (+)   5,150 (+)    2,554              522
PAKISTAN        619,000      2,640 (+)    I,266             376              550
USA               1,477,896       9,573       26,653         4,269           5,263
RUSSIA          I,200,000    23,000 (+)  27,190 (+)    2,080           1,700
UK                   2,24,500          420         4,347          1,300              350
FRANCE         3,62,485          406         8,468          1,330              424
GERMANY      1,48,496          408         1,794             780              568

It would be clear from the table that our army aviation is minuscule when compared to the size of our army and the long and geographically dispersed and varied borders we have to guard.

Rationale for Growth of Army Aviation

The question usually asked by persons who do not understand the intricacies of the land battle is why does the army, or for that matter the navy, need their own aviation arms, especially when we have a first class IAF. The answers are actually quite simple. First, there are certain operational and logistics tasks which are best performed by integral resources of the army or the navy, because of the intimate nature of support and the need for immediate application of aviation assets. It is not possible for air forces to carry out such tasks, however efficient they may be.

Secondly, it is only army pilots who can correctly read the ground and the actions taking place in real time on the ground by rival armies. Even the best air force pilots cannot do so, despite considerable practice. Consequently, the army aviation pilots must man the aerial platforms, which are going to support the operations taking place on the battlefield. Conflicts in various parts of the world have further reinforced this, as it is only integral aviation resources which would provide the field force commander real time battlefield flexibility and consequent enhancement in combat power.

The roles and tasks of army aviation in the coming decades need to be derived by looking at the battlefield milieu of the future. Proxy war, including terrorism by non-state actors are major challenges, which would increase in lethality and vigour. These are in addition to the ever present danger of fighting a conventional war, in the backdrop of a nuclear threat.

Army aviation gives additional tactical capabilities to the field commanders, as their areas of influence increases. It does so by a combination of reconnaissance, mobility and firepower, which enable commanders to exploit fleeting opportunities. Army aviation expands the ground commander’s battle space well beyond the effective range of ground manoeuvre forces at successive echelons of command and enables them to achieve the effects of mass without massing weapons systems.

Army aviation’s greatest contribution to battlefield success is the ability it gives the commander to apply decisive combat power at critical times, virtually anywhere on the battlefield. This may be direct fire from aviation maneouvre units or the insertion of major infantry forces or artillery fires, delivered into combat. This versatility is the very essence of army aviation.

Army aviation plays an important role in counter-insurgency operations too. Tasks include detection by sensors, raids by armed helicopters, quick positioning of infantry to seal escape routes, aerial assault where feasible, and movement of reinforcements speedily by utility and medium-lift helicopters.

Suggested Areas of Growth

Reconnaissance, attack, utility, and medium lift helicopters; medical evacuation platforms; and air traffic control units are all required to support the army. The Special Forces (SF) need dedicated aviation assets for the successful conduct of operations. Army aviation must also provide aerial platforms for command, control and communications, as well as for electronic warfare. In addition, intuitive and versatile leaders, staff officers and well-trained soldiers are also essential for future operations.

In the Indian Army, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) are presently grouped with the artillery. This needs to be changed. UAV’s are best grouped with aviation units, especially as UAV’s and manned attack helicopters have successfully conducted hunter-killer joint operations in the US and other armies. It is a logical and a cost-effective option, which is likely to give better pay-offs.

The operational diversities of the Indian Army, coupled with the variety of terrain; extensive deployment in mountainous and high altitude areas; need for over the crest line observation for reconnaissance by field commanders; direction of artillery fire; casualty evacuation from inaccessible areas; and speedy move of commanders to the forward posts which are difficult to access; make the need for a dedicated aviation unit for every infantry and mountain division and in some cases to independent brigade group levels too a necessity.

In plains and deserts, the integration of the third dimension with mechanised forces by way of attack and scout helicopters is essential. All armoured divisions need a dedicated attack helicopter squadron, in addition to a reconnaissance and observation squadron.

The following recommendations are made to enhance the combat potential of Army Aviation:

• AAC must have a mix of small fixed wing aircraft and a full complement helicopter fleet comprising attack, utility and light helicopters.
• Fixed wing aircraft are needed by AAC for communications duties, as airborne command posts, for reconnaissance and surveillance, for casualty evacuation and similar other tasks.
• The helicopter fleet should consist of attack helicopters; armed helicopters (gun ships); heavy, medium and light lift utility helicopters; observation helicopters; and helicopters for communications, electronic warfare and as aerial command posts.
• One or more composite squadrons specially dedicated for functioning with the Special Forces are essential.
• Headquarters Commands and Corps need to have aviation brigades and divisions should have aviation squadrons. Armoured divisions need to have attack helicopter squadrons in addition.
• UAV’s need to be integrated with the AAC for optimum results.
• All logistics functions need to be integrated within the AAC and the present system of control of logistics manpower by different corps needs to be dispensed with.
• Besides hardware, manpower  upgrade, to include a separate aviation cadre, increased intake of aviators; recruitment and training of technical as well as non-technical manpower; revision of war and peace establishments; and introduction of new trades are needed.
• Other changes include modernisation of aviation bases, raising of aviation brigades and logistics units; restructuring of training establishments; enhancement of air field support services; dedicated communication systems; and the upgrade of the Army Aviation Directorate, which is now manned by an additional director general level officer.


The strength of army aviation is in its ability to deploy quickly, conduct reconnaissance and surveillance, manoeuvre rapidly, and apply tremendous combat power for the land forces commander.

Army aviation’s mobility and firepower make it a dominant force, as it gives the commander a force that can rapidly build devastating firepower at any point on the battlefield. Army aviation’s strength is its versatility to deploy quickly, see the battlefield, manoeuvre rapidly, and focus maximum combat power at decisive points.
Army aviation needs to develop organisations that enhance capabilities to support the concepts of operations of field commanders. The force structure should be tailored to meet evolving operational requirements. In addition, aviation organisations should include appropriate maintenance and logistical support elements required to sustain the force. Aviation leadership development should be expanded to prepare aviation leaders for the diverse challenges that this versatile force requires.

The writer, Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS).

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