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Surya Gangadharan
Monday , October 15, 2012 at 12 : 17

The high cost of the 'mini' Air Force


The bi-annual Army Commanders Conference kicked off in Delhi on Monday with the focus on issues ranging from operational and security to modernization and procurement. All this in an atmosphere of quiet jubilation among the assembled brass after last week's major victory when the Defence Ministry decided in favour of attack helicopters for the army. So why does the army want helicopters and how many? The army is looking at 10 helicopter squadrons (10-12 helos per squadron) to be built up over a decade plus. The squadrons will be divided between the Pivot Corps and the Strike Corps.

The Pivot Corps are located close to borders (Jammu, Pathankot etc), the tasking is defensive, to hold ground when the enemy attacks. The Strike Corps located deeper in the Indian hinterland (Ambala, Mathura etc) are tasked with crossing the borders and seizing enemy ground. The buzz now is that the Pivot Corps will get the Light Combat Helicopter Rudra presently under development at HAL (prototypes are flying). These will be in addition to the Dhruv ALH and the Chetaks for supply and casualty evacuation. The Strike Corps will also get the LCH but may prefer more numbers of the Apache and the Russian built Mi-17V5.

The army's argument in favour of "integral" air support flows from the experience of many foreign armies (notably the US), where timely air support to infantry and armoured formations was deemed critical to the land battle. Although the Indian practice is for the IAF attack helos to be under the army's command and control, the army hasn't been too happy with the arrangement. "What is the IAF's role in the tactical battle?" asked a senior army officer. "They should focus on depth areas, strategic targets, enemy supply movement and lines of communication."

There are complaints of IAF pilots' reluctance to fly in adverse weather conditions (in contrast to the "commitment" displayed by army pilots in places like Siachen), air force pilots are faulted for insufficient understanding of army requirements, that time taken getting permission for an IAF sortie (where the requirement is urgent), is unaffordable. The army says its own helicopters will be available 24x7, guaranteeing flexibility in operations. Airlifting of Quick Reaction Teams in conflict situations will be faster and since army pilots transition to helicopter cockpits after tenures in the infantry, armoured and artillery regiments, they are deemed to have a better insight into the ground battle than air force pilots.

The air force is incensed. The men in blue say the army seems to have forgotten the IAF's role in successive wars (1962, '65, '71, Kargil), the Siachen operation which continues to this day, also air support to the army from Ladakh to the jungles of the east. Looking at it from the outside, it's clear the air force has been forced to surrender turf. The cost of this "mini air force" (the Air Chief's own words) should be considerable. The wisdom of spending so much more money when there's no discernible conflict or enemy on the horizon can be debated. Will the army's "aerial vision" now expand to include fixed wing aircraft? Watch this space.


More about Surya Gangadharan

Surya Gangadharan is International Affairs Editor at CNN IBN and was in Egypt to cover the anti-government movement. He has covered wars in Afghanistan, the UN intervention in Somalia and Rwanda, elections in Pakistan and the civil conflict in Sri Lanka where he interviewed the top leadership of that time. He has worked for the Straits Times Group in Singapore and also for PTI, the Indian Express and India Today in India.