Is Indian Military Aviation Reorienting?
(Source: Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis; issued May 07, 2019)

By Kishore Kumar Khera
Aviation has been a part of military kinetic capability for over a century now. Exactly 100 years ago, for the first time, an independent military aviation wing was established that later was rechristened as the Royal Air Force of the United Kingdom.1 Based on the basic configuration of the lifting surface, aviation assets are broadly classified as fixed wing (aircraft) and rotary wing (helicopters).

A further sub-classification in each category is based on their primary role. Fixed wing aviation assets include fighter aircraft of small size, with one or two crew members and primarily employed for weapon firing. The other subcategory of fixed-wing aircraft is the wide-bodied large aircraft capable of carrying passengers or cargo or special equipment like sensors or fuel. Training aircraft, another subcategory, includes normally very small and low-cost aircraft used for training pilots. For the rotary wing platforms, subclassification is blurred as each platform is normally capable of carrying out almost all tasks to varying degrees. In the last three decades or so, unmanned aircraft (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)) have gradually created a space for themselves as a special subcategory in military aviation.

In most parts of the world, air forces are the primary custodians of military aviation assets, but land and maritime components of the armed forces also have aviation assets to meet their immediate operational requirements. In the Indian context, the Indian Navy (IN) and the Indian Army (IA) have sizeable aviation wings. The Indian Air Force (IAF) and the IN have assets in all subcategories (Fighter Aircraft, Wide Bodied Aircraft, Training Aircraft, Helicopters and UAVs), but the IA operates only helicopters and UAVs.
Expanding Hover Power

In the last two decades, the debate about Indian defence aviation has centred on the procurement of fighter aircraft for the IAF. Discussions in Parliament, arguments and counter-arguments in the Supreme Court, IAF strike at Balakot terrorist camp in Pakistan and reference to all these in the ongoing election campaign has kept the fighter aircraft for the IAF as the focal point. While the induction of Rafale in the IAF is still awaited after almost a two-decade-long procurement process,2 a substantial change has taken place in the rotary wing fleet of the Indian Armed Forces. In the last two decades, while the fixed wing assets of the three arms of the Indian defence forces have remained nearly static, their rotary wing strength has grown by over 80 per cent (see Figure 1).

Further, for the first time in the history of military aviation in India, the number of helicopters with the Indian Armed Forces exceeds the number of fighter aircraft (see Figure 2). There has been practically no change in the number of training aircraft and wide-bodied aircraft in the last two decades, but the fighter aircraft strength has been depleting. With the planned induction of more helicopters and the scheduled phasing out of several fighter aircraft on completion of their Total Technical Life/Calendar Life, this gap is likely to widen.4

The fighter aircraft share in military aviation assets has declined from 43 to 32 per cent since 1998 and during this period the share of helicopters has increased from 23 to 36 per cent (Figure 3). This indicates a lop-sided growth in military aviation assets.

Helicopters are a part of all three wings of the Indian Armed Forces. The helicopter fleet of the IN is primarily utilized on board ships for Anti-Submarine Warfare, logistics and communication. For the IA, the prime role of helicopters is observation and communication. However, the service has also been seeking a larger fleet with multiple capabilities including airlift and attack. Currently, Attack Helicopters on IAF inventory are under the operational control of IA. After a prolonged debate on the issue of control of helicopters, a decision was taken by the then Defence Minister A K Anthony authorizing IA to procure Attack Helicopters.7 However, medium and heavy lift helicopters remain under the sole control of IAF as of now.

In the last two decades, the helicopter fleet has expanded in all three Services albeit at different rates. The least expansion of about 20 per cent is in the IN. The IA helicopter fleet expanded by over 70 per cent. But the most significant expansion in the helicopter fleet, over 126 per cent in the last two decades, has taken place in the IAF (Figure 4). As far as the inventory mix is concerned, like other aviation assets, helicopters continue to pose a major challenge.

There are some commonalities between the three services in terms of older Chetak/Cheetah/Cheetal fleet and indigenous Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH), but overall the Indian military is already operating 12 different types of helicopters. 9 This number will go up with the various planned inductions. A wide variety and sources of helicopters will turn out to be a logistician’s nightmare for provisioning and result in huge financial outlays for spare stocking and setting up and operating maintenance facilities.

Whys and Wherefores

Operationally, helicopters play a vital role in communication, mobility, logistics and fire support. After the Kargil War in 1999, there has been a renewed focus on military capabilities that are essential for conflict in mountainous terrain. (end of excerpt)


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