Able to provide direct fire support to ground troops and to engage enemy armoured vehicles, attack helicopters are rightly considered indispensable in modern warfare.

28th Jan 2011

Able to provide direct fire support to ground troops and to engage enemy armoured vehicles, attack helicopters are rightly considered indispensable in modern warfare. The 1990s could be seen as the attack helicopter’s coming of age as witnessed by the success of the Apache in Operation Desert Storm. All major military powers operate this potent asset in some form or other. The US Army, for instance, possesses approximately 740 AH-64 Apache helicopters built by Boeing, while the US Marine Corps (USMC) flies nearly 170 AH-1W SuperCobras manufactured by Bell.

Attack helicopters are also receiving more attention in Asia. Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation (CAIC) is desperately trying to bring to fruition China’s WZ-10 attack helicopter programme, although it is experiencing difficulties with its engines. In the interim China is relying on light attack versions such as the Z-9WA based on the license-built Eurocopter AS365N Dauphin. Singapore joined the Apache club when it signed up for 20 AH-64D Longbow craft in 1999-2001. Indeed there are approximately 1,200 Apaches in service worldwide, with South Korea and Taiwan both seeking to add them to their fleets. Since 2006, Japan has been license-producing the Apache AH-64DJP via Fuji Heavy Industries, but the initial order for 50 craft was downsized because of funding shortfalls. Japan also flies the AH-1 Cobra, as do the Asian nations of Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. Australia is part of the attack helicopter fraternity, too, and it will eventually field 22 Eurocopter Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters (ARH).

India’s current fleet

India has long realised the need to field a fleet of attack helicopters. For more than 20 years the Indian Air Force (IAF) has relied solely on Russian-built Mi-25 and Mi-35 Hind helicopters. The first Mi-25 Hinds arrived in 1984, and the upgraded Mi-35 in 1990. A number of refurbished Mi-35 helicopters were also reportedly received from Kyrgyzstan in 1995. The Mi-25/35s are operated by No.104 “Firebirds” Squadron and No.125 “Gladiators” Squadron.

Certainly these elderly craft from the Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant are showing their age, and the conflict in Kargil in 1999 revealed their shortcomings in terms of high-altitude performance. Weighing in at 8,500kg empty and possessing a compartment that can accommodate eight troops or four stretchers, the Mi-35 is large and cumbersome. A ceiling of 4,500m, as well as this lack of manoeuvrability, is a severe disadvantage in India’s unique topography. Hemmed in to the north by the Himalaya Mountains soaring in places more than 8,000m above sea level, and spanning desert plains in the west that reach a scorching 50ºC, such diverse geography places impositions on helicopter performance. The extremes of summer and winter exacerbate the amount of lift a helicopter can achieve.

To improve the effectiveness of its Mi-25/35 fleet and to give a better all-weather capability, India selected the Mission 24 upgrade package from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in 1998. This cost-competitive contract for 25 upgrade kits was worth USD20 million. Tamam, a division of IAI, integrated the Helicopter Multi-mission Optronic Stabilised Payload (HMOSP), which is mounted in a nose-mounted turret ball. The HMOSP’s forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR) incorporates a monochrome/colour CCD TV camera, as well as laser rangefinder, designator and auto-tracker. The HMOSP integrated the 9K114 Shturm-V antitank guided missile (ATGM) guidance system, completely replacing the original Raduga-F daytime optical tracking system. No changes were made to the airframe, engines, transmission or flight control system, but this Mission 24 upgrade was a quantum leap forward in giving Indian pilots the ability to operate at night and in poor weather.

IAI’s upgrade depends upon a MIL-STD-1553B data bus and new mission computer. The cockpit was made night vision goggle (NVG) compatible using IAI equipment. Self-defence equipment was upgraded with IAI chaff/flare dispenser units, plus Elta radar/laser warning systems. Such upgraded Mi-35 helicopters with the Mission 24 package were displayed publicly for the first time in 2003.

After modernising its attack helicopter fleet a decade ago, India needs to improve its capability again in this area. The need is especially urgent in light of enduring border tensions with its twin nemesis, Pakistan and China. India has come up with a twin-track solution to the problem of modernising its attack helicopter inventory by pursuing both high-end and low-end attack helicopters.

Dedicated attack helicopter

The process of acquiring a replacement for the Mi-35 Hind has been tortuous. At the end of May 2008, the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued a request for proposals (RFP) for 22 twin-engine attack helicopters. Contenders were to be in the 2,500+kg class, and needed to be capable of high-altitude operations. This deal, including associated weaponry, was initially flagged at an estimated USD550 million. Original competitors comprised a mix of Russian, European and American manufacturers including: AgustaWestland AW129 Mangusta, Bell AH-1Z Viper, Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow, Eurocopter Tiger, Kamov Ka-50 and Mil Mi-28 Havoc. However, as often occurs with Indian military procurements, the tender was abruptly cancelled in March 2009. The alleged reason was that India wanted to purchase directly from the manufacturer, but the USA only allows government-to-government sales of such sensitive military equipment. Thus to the dissatisfaction of the MoD, Boeing and Bell did not enter their respective contenders.

The RFP for 22 attack helicopters was reissued in May 2009, although this time Eurocopter did not enter its Tiger HAD. According to Rainer Farid, Eurocopter’s South Asia Regional Sales Director, the reason was that the finalised Tiger version would not have been ready in time, and the Indian MoD refused to grant a time extension. However, there was a widely held supposition that American craft were preferred, and this may have influenced Eurocopter’s decision. Mil entered its Mi-28N Night Hunter, and AgustaWestland a customised A129. Boeing lodged its entry in October 2009, the same time as it officially proffered the CH-47F Chinook for a separate IAF requirement for 15 heavy-lift helicopters. Reflecting the urgency and complexity of the attack helicopter requirement, India is not demanding offsets in relation to this procurement

The competition has since been narrowed to just two competitors – the American Apache and Russian Mi-28N Night Hunter. The IAF commenced trials of the Apache in July 2010, after delivery from the USA by C-17 aircraft. Testing took place at Jaisalmer (in Rajasthan in the heart of the Thar Desert), followed by high-altitude trials at Leh (in mountainous Jammu and Kashmir) in August. Associated maintenance and weapon trials occurred in the USA. The Apache proposal is offered jointly by Boeing and the US Army, and it constitutes a direct commercial sale. If declared the winner, Boeing will manufacture Indian craft at its facility in Mesa, Arizona. Dean Millsap, a spokesman for of Boeing Rotorcraft Systems, believes the clinching argument in favour of the Apache will be its AN/APG-78 millimetre-wave Longbow Fire Control Radar (FCR). Mounted atop the main rotor, the FCR offers maximum detection capability, plus the ability to share information with friendly assets. The latest Apache standard is the Block III, with the first US Army unit to be deployed by November 2012. Local reports stated Indian test pilots were impressed with the Apache’s firepower, as well as its situational awareness.

On 22 December 2010, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a possible Foreign Military Sale (FMS) of Apaches to India. Notification of the potential USD1.4 billion deal for 22 AH-64D Apache Block III craft in no way confirms the sale, but US governmental approval is a necessary step if Boeing’s proposal is to proceed. Early notification will also speed up the process should the Indian MoD opt for the Apache. The proposal includes 50 T700-GE-701D engines, twelve AN/APG-78 FCRs, twelve AN/APR-48A Radar Frequency Interferometers (RFI), 812 AGM-114L-3 Hellfire Longbow missiles, 542 AGM-114R-3 Hellfire II missiles, 245 Stinger Block I-92H missiles and 23 Modernised Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensors. The notification includes the preface: “This proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to strengthen the US-India strategic relationship and to improve the security of an important partner which continues to be an important force for political stability, peace, and economic progress in South Asia.”

Comparative trials with the Russian Mi-28N followed those of the Apache from August 2010 onwards. With design work commencing in 1980, the Mi-28 Havoc is optimised for the anti-armour role, and it is already in service with the Russian Air Force. The tandem-seat craft can operate in all types of weather, and a 30mm cannon is located in a chin-mounted turret. The Mi-28’s maiden flight was in November 1982, but it received a setback when the Russian Air Force instead selected the Kamov Ka-50 as its new antitank helicopter. The upgraded Mi-28N was unveiled in 1995, with “N” designating “Night”. It features a millimetre-wave radar station mounted above the main rotor, in similar fashion to the Apache. It also has a nose-mounted TV camera and FLIR. Eventually, its lower cost and all-weather capability allowed the Mi-28N to become Russia’s standard attack helicopter. The first Mi-28N Night Hunter reached the Russian Army in 2006, and 27 had been delivered by the end of 2010. A total of 67 are to be purchased by 2015. Russian craft employ a helmet-mounted display for the pilot, and apparently India is asking for a customised Mi-28 fitted with French and Belgian avionics. Venezuela ordered ten Mi-28N helicopters in April 2010, meaning India would not be the first export customer should it select the Russian offering. In its favour, the Russian company has a proven pedigree, with India already using large numbers of the Mi-8, Mi-17 and Mi-17V-5. Today, on average every fourth helicopter produced worldwide comes from Mil.

Comparative technical data for India’s two attack helicopter contenders

Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow Block III Mil Mi-28N Night Hunter

Crew 2 2
Length 17.73m 17.01m
Height 4.64m 4.7m
Weight (empty) 5,165kg 8,600kg
(combat) 8,000kg 10,700kg
Powerplant 2x General Electric T700-GE-701D turboshafts (2,000shp) 2x Klimov TV3-117VMA turboshafts (2,194shp)
Cruise speed 279km 270km/h
Maximum speed 293km 320km/h
Range 476km 435km
Ceiling 6,400m 5,700m
Typical armament - 1x 30mm M230 Chain Gun
- 8x AGM-114 Hellfire antitank missiles
- 4x ATAM
- 2.75-inch Hydra 70 rockets - 1x 30mm Shipunov 2A42 cannon
- 16x 9M120 Ataka-V antitank missiles
- 40x S-8 rockets

The USA is walking a delicate tightrope by supplying military equipment to archenemies India and Pakistan. However, there has been a clear rapprochement between the USA and India since the events of 9/11, and India finally sees the USA as a genuine reliable supplier of military arms. This marks a remarkable departure for a country that once relied almost exclusively on Russian/Soviet equipment. The US has already achieved aerospace success with the sale of six Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules aircraft to the IAF, and eight Boeing P-8I Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft to the Indian Navy (IN). This latter deal is significant as it constitutes Boeing’s first ever military sale to India. So far there has been no indication as to when the Indian MoD will declare the winner of this hotly contested duel, and no delivery schedule has been announced.  However, this is hardly surprising considering the way procurements typically go in India.

Light Combat Helicopter

With the passing of time, India’s need of capable attack helicopters becomes more pronounced. However, India has not put all its eggs in one basket, for it has pursued a parallel programme for a light armed helicopter. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) began development of the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) in 1984 to replace the elderly Chetak. Entering service in 2002, it serves in the Indian Coast Guard (ICG), Indian Army, IN and IAF. One important aspect of the Dhruv is its high-altitude performance, with Turbomeca helping develop the 1,400shp Shakti engine. First announced in 2006, India decided to base the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) on the Dhruv in order to utilise validated technology, and so benefit from reduced development cost and time. The twin-engine LCH is designed for anti-armour and anti-infantry missions. With a ceiling of up to 6,000m, it is also ideal for the armed scout role in mountainous regions. The IAF has already ordered 65 LCHs, while the army has ordered 114. The LCH was supposed to be inducted in December 2010, but a 2012-13 timeframe is now more realistic.

The tandem-seat LCH performed its maiden flight in Bangalore on 29 March 2010. The flight of the first technology demonstrator (TD-1) was twelve months behind schedule, but by mid-December 2010, TD-1 had logged 50 hours of flight. Carrying the same armament package as the Dhruv Weapon System Integrated (WSI) variant, it features a chin-mounted Nexter 20mm M621 cannon mounted in a THL 20 turret. The helicopter’s stub wings carry four twin ATGM launchers, four 70mm rocket pods, and a pair of twin air-to-air missile launchers. The ATGM concerned is the Helina with 7km range, an improved version of the Nag antitank missile being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). According to Mati Hindrekus, MBDA Marketing Communications Manager, Mistral 2 missiles and ATAM system are being delivered for the LCH programme. A second LCH prototype has been weaponised, and this is expected to make an appearance at Aero India 2011. To speed up its introduction, HAL is constructing another two prototypes. The LCH from HAL employs helmet-mounted targeting systems and a data-link enabling network-centric operations. Its defensive suite includes a radar and laser warning receiver.

Boeing and Mil are both awaiting the announcement of a winner in India’s protracted attack helicopter competition. At the same time, India is showing signs of maturity in its aerospace sector by undertaking the LCH project. Although it has met with delays, the future of the LCH seems assured. With its eventual local-international combination, India should end up with a modern and capable attack helicopter fleet.


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