Murphy's Law: India Sends A Message

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September 7, 2020: In mid-2020 India found itself in an armed confrontation with Chinese troops in Ladakh. This is a high-altitude region of northwest India and the contested area is on Pangong Lake, which is 4,250 meters (14,000 feet) above sea level. Part of the Indian reinforcements were helicopter gunships. Instead of sending some of their recently acquired American AH-64E helicopter gunships, the Indian-made LCH (Light Combat Helicopter) was sent. India said this was because the LCH could operate more effectively at high altitude than the AH-64E. The service ceiling (highest altitude it will operate at) for the LCH is 6,500 meters (21,300 feet) while for the AH-64E it is 6,100 meters (20,000 feet). The AH-64 performed well in Afghanistan at similar altitudes as Pangong Lake. The AH-64 has also been in service for several decades while the LCH just entered service in 2020 with the Indian Air Force obtaining the first two. It was apparently the air force which sent the LCHs to Ladakh. The air force also has 22 AH-64Es.

The Indian Army also has LCH and AH-64E helicopters on order but has not received any yet. The army and air force have had disagreements over who should control the helicopter gunships. In most countries the army has all the helicopter gunships. There is also the problem with Indian industry being unable to produce a lot of locally developed and manufactured helicopters and combat aircraft. The army insisted on obtaining the proven AH-64E rather than the LCH. Politics prevailed and the army and air force were compelled to obtain both LCH and AH-64E.

The American gunship can use laser guided missiles while the LCH cannot, at least not yet. Both helicopters have an autocannon (20mm for LCH and 30mm for the AH-64). The LCH only carries 70mm unguided rockets and light unguided bombs. It appears the LCHs were sent to Ladakh more for political than practical reasons. This is not unusual in India when it comes to locally made and imported weapons.

The LCH made its first flight in 2010 and in 2011 was declared ready for service. Orders were not placed by the army air force until 2016 because of misgivings about the capabilities of the LCH. The air force plans to eventually have 65 LCH while the army will order 97. India has ordered 72 AH-64Es with the air force and army both getting some. So far only the air force has some (22) while the army has six on order.

In 2011 the Indian Air Force has supposed to order 65 LCH which were supposed to be delivered in 2012. That did not happen because the LCH had problems passing the qualification tests. Changes in the LCH had to be made it was not declared fit for service until 2018. Mass production of the LCH was not authorized until 2020. LCH is a 5.7-ton helicopter gunship that cruises at 260 kilometers an hour and has a max speed of 275. Endurance is about five hours per sortie and max altitude was initially 5,500 meters (17,000 feet) until complaints from the military got changes made and altitude increased. There is a crew of two, with armament consisting of an 20mm autocannon and about 2.5 tons of rockets, bombs and missiles. Electronics carried will allow for night attack operations. The twin-engine LCH is similar to the twin engine version of the AH-1 (like the U.S. Marine Corps AH-1Z) and European Tiger.

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 of D models to E began in late 2013. The U.S. Army began receiving AH-64Es in 2012 and this is the model India is receiving.

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.

 


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