Army Aviation augments combat power while ageing Cheetah, Chetaks await replacement 

The Air Force is also scheduled to raise its first LCH squadron shortly.

July 10, 2022 11:07 pm | Updated July 11, 2022 10:24 am IST - NEW DELHI

A view of Chetak helicopter. Photo used for representation purpose only.

A view of Chetak helicopter. Photo used for representation purpose only. | Photo Credit: G. Ramakrishna

The Army Aviation Corps is in the process of a major augmentation of its fire power with the induction of the indigenous Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) underway, and Apache attack helicopters from 2024 onwards. However, its fleet of ageing Cheetah and Chetak helicopters, which are a lifeline for high altitude areas, are in dire need of replacement. Of the 190 Cheetahs and Chetaks in service, around 134 helicopters or over 70% of them are over 30 years old.

“While combat potential has increased manifold and is on an upswing, reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities are going to take a hit unless induction of Ka-226T and indigenous Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) take place simultaneously to replace the ageing fleet,” a defence official said on condition of anonymity.

The LUH, designed and developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), has come up well, but it will take time for sufficient numbers to come in, the official stated.

The Air Force is also scheduled to raise its first LCH squadron shortly.

However, the deal with Russia for 200 Ka-226T utility helicopters has been stuck for several years over indigenisation issues and is now on the verge of cancellation with the availability of the LUH and the global situation compounded by the war in Ukraine, two defence officials independently confirmed.

The Indian Army and Indian Air Force (IAF) together have a requirement of over 400 helicopters of this class.

LCH squadron

On June 1, 2022, the Army raised its first LCH squadron at Bengaluru. “It will move to Eastern Command on completion next year,” the official stated adding that, in all, seven LCH units are planned, each having 10 helicopters for combat roles in the mountains.

The Army has three Aviation Brigades at Leh, Missamari and Jodhpur. It operates around 145 indigenous Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH), 75 of which are the Rudra weaponised variants. Another 25 ALH Mk-III are on order and will be inducted within two years, another official said.

The Cabinet Committee had sanctioned the procurement of 39 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters from the U.S. Following this, the IAF procured 22 Apaches under a deal signed in September 2015. The government has decided that any further Apache procurements would go to the Army. In line with this, India signed a deal for six more Apaches to cost around $800 million in February 2020. “There is a delay in the deliveries of these due to the COVID pandemic. They are now scheduled to begin deliveries in early 2024,” the first official said.

In August 2021, Army Aviation got control of the Army’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), which were earlier under the Artillery. The Army has over 30 Herons UAVs procured from Israel and a major upgrade plan for weaponisation and facilitation of satellite communication for them at an estimated cost of over ₹6000 crore has been delayed, officials said.

This is part of a comprehensive upgrade of all Israeli drones with the three Services that is in the works and estimated to cost ₹21,000 crore, officials stated.

In addition, with the deal for armed Predator drones from the U.S. stuck, the Army is looking at procuring long range Hermes 900 UAVs from Israel, which are manufactured in India by Adani Group.

Ageing fleet

Army Aviation currently operates around 190 Cheetah, Chetak and Cheetal helicopters, with five of them, the oldest, being over 50 years old. A bulk of the fleet, close to 130 of the 190, are between 30 to 50 years old, an official in the know said.

This fleet is the lifeline in transporting supplies and for evacuations in high altitude areas, including the Siachen glacier. In addition to the Army, the Navy and IAF too operate these helicopters. For instance, the IAF has around 120 Cheetah and Chetak helicopters, and around 18 of the more recent Cheetals.

As reported by The Hindu earlier, the total technical life of these helicopters will start ending from 2023 onwards, which will only further exacerbate the existing deficiencies.

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