Warplanes: India Arranges A Truce Over Who Flies What


June 10, 2017: In May 2017 the Indian government finally approved the purchase of 39 American AH-64E Apache helicopter gunships. These will equip three army strike squadrons and comes after a prolonged battle with the Indian Air Force over who would control AH-64s. This was important for the army because the AH-64 is the most popular and combat proven helicopter gunship available. It is already used by Israel and several Arab nations. India has ordered 72 AH-64s with some of them going to the air force. This is all about politics. Air force leaders insist they should control everything that flies. But experience in combat has shown that some types of aircraft, especially those that spend most of their time supporting army operations should be controlled by the army.

The AH-64 was also opposed by politicians who wanted Indian firms to design and build a helicopter gunship. But commanders involved in combat operations all agreed that they needed the best available and they needed it as quickly as possible. That led to the AH-64, which entered service as the AH-64A in 1986. Numerous planned upgrades to the “B” and “C” standard were planned during the 1990s but stalled because of budget reductions after the Cold War ended in 1991. These upgrades were incorporated in the 1997 AH-64D Block I. The AH-64D Longbow (because of the radar mast, making it possible to see ground targets and flying obstacles in all weather) models began appearing in 2002. Mass production of the latest version (the E model) and conversion D models to E began in late 2013. The U.S. Army began receiving AH-64Es in 2012.

AH-64Es have more powerful and fuel efficient engines, as well as much improved electronics. AH-64Es also have Internet- like capabilities enabling these gunships to quickly exchange images, video, and so on with other aircraft and ground troops. Each AH-64E can also control several UAVs and launch missiles at targets spotted by these UAVs. The AH-64E radar has longer range and onboard computers are much more powerful than earlier ones. The electronics are easier to upgrade and maintain. The combination of improved fire control and Internet capabilities greatly increases the combat effectiveness of the AH-64. The 10 ton AH-64E carries a pilot and a weapons officer, as well as up to 16 Hellfire missiles (plus the 30mm automatic cannon). Sorties average three hours. The AH-64 can operate at night and has a top speed of 260 kilometers an hour.

India initially planned to get the AH-64D because back in 2015, when after three years of deliberation by the procurement bureaucrats and politicians, India approved the purchase of 22 AH-64s for the Indian Air Force. One side effect of this prolonged struggle was an agreement that the army needed helicopter gunships and two years were allocated to determine if the army should get its AH-64s. At this point India, like most foreign AH-64 users, wanted the latest model. The Indian Air Force paid $55 million per AH-64 (a price that included the helicopter plus training, spare parts, and tech support). The new army order will pay the same price.

Such delays are not unusual for India where decades of corrupt foreign arms purchases have been exposed in the last decade and the made those still involved in those decisions extremely cautious. It usually takes external events to move decisions forward. In the case of the American helicopters the primary motivators were Russian sales to Pakistan and a feud between the Indian Army and Air Force. The Russian aspect has to do with the growing hostility of India to Russian weapons. For half a century Russia has been the major supplier of imported weapons. But since the 1990s, as India freed up the economy (from fifty years of crippling state controls). Then there was weapons imports and India had finally reached the limit of tolerance for poor quality and support that characterized Russian weapons. India began to buy weapons from the West in the 1990s. Although more expensive the Western stuff was more effective, reliable and often cheaper to operate than Russian systems. Now Russia has made the situation worse by selling helicopters to Pakistan, the arch enemy of India. India seems content to let the Pakistanis have the Russian dreck while India proceeds to upgrade with Western equipment. Since 2001 India has bought over $15 billion worth of American weapons and military equipment. The U.S. is the largest source of foreign military equipment but Israel and several European defense companies are also major suppliers. The Russian arms salesmen are not amused.

Another factor in helicopter procurement is an ongoing feud between the Indian Army and Air Force about who controls AH-64s. The air force has long operated the helicopter gunships, arguing that these helicopters are crucial for certain air combat missions like attacking air defense radars and other helicopters. The army generals were furious over that misrepresentation and demanded that the government set the air force straight. The army was particularly anxious to get the 22 Indian AH-64s (the air force was claiming) as soon as possible, as these are generally recognized as the best gunships currently in service anywhere. Now those helicopters are on the way and apparently the army will have them.

Back in late 2012 the Indian Army thought it had won a major victory over the Indian Air Force when the government agreed to transfer most attack helicopters from the air force to the army. That was supposed to mean the army gets control of over 270 armed helicopters (22 AH-64s, 179 light combat models, and 76 armed Indian made transports). The air force would continue to operate a dozen or so elderly Mi-25 and Mi-35 helicopter gunships, until they retire by the end of the decade. These are export versions of the Russian Mi-24. Even then it was clear that Russia was not the preferred helicopter supplier anymore. But the air force would not give up and prolonged the debate.

The army had long complained that air force control of the armed helicopters, which were designed to support army operations, were sometimes difficult to get from the air force in a timely manner. Another aspect of this deal was a new agreement by the air force to station some transport helicopters at army bases in Kashmir, so that there will not be a delay when transport is needed for an emergency.

This sort of problem between the army and air force is not unique to India and is actually quite common. It all started back in the 1920s, a decade after aircraft became a major military asset. For example, at the start of World War I (1914-18), the British Royal Navy had more aircraft than the Royal Flying Corps (which belonged to the army). But at the end of World War I, it was decided to put all aircraft under the control of the new Royal Air Force (the former Royal Flying Corps). The navy was not happy with this and just before World War II broke out, the admirals got back control of their aircraft, at least the ones that operated from ships (especially aircraft carriers).

The British army expanded its Army Air Corps during World War II, to gain control over artillery spotter aircraft, gliders (for parachute divisions), and a few other transports for supporting commando operations. After World War II the Army Air Corps mainly controlled the growing fleet of transport and attack helicopters. The Indian Air Force has always refused to allow the Indian Army to do the same thing after modern India was created in 1947. The Indian armed forces was long led by men who started out as members of the British Indian Army and continued to note, and often copy, British practices.

Thus the Indian Air force, like its British counterpart tended to keep trying to control everything that flew. British Royal Air Force generals still demand control of everything that flies, believing that this is more efficient. The army and navy, not to mention the experience of many other nations, says otherwise. At the very least the army needs to control its helicopters and some small transports. In Russia the army always controlled ground attack aircraft, as well as some fighters. In the United States the Marine Corps controlled its own fighters, light bombers, and helicopters. It made a difference, especially to the marines on the ground, that the marine aircraft were being flown by marines.

Another problem with a unified air force is that it becomes, quite naturally, air force centric. This is understandable and the air force proceeds to develop strategies, and tactics that emphasize looking at military matters from an air force viewpoint. Before World War II this led to the doctrine of strategic bombardment. This was supposed to be a decisive weapon but it wasn't. When nuclear weapons came along the air force believed that it finally had a way to make strategic bombardment decisive. But it didn't, as ballistic missiles (another form of artillery) became the key delivery system for nukes. Nuclear weapons were so destructive that they became more of a threat than a weapon that you could use. In fact the very existence of nukes resulted in them not being used again since the first two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945. The fact of the matter is that wars are still ultimately won by the ground forces. As the army likes to point out, the ultimate air superiority weapon is your infantry occupying the enemy air bases. Everyone else (the navy and air force) is there to support the infantry in actually winning the war.




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