India’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) declared on March 30 that the prime minister-led Cabinet Committee on Security had cleared the first-ever contract for the production of 15 indigenously designed and manufactured Light Combat Helicopters (LCH) for the Indian armed forces. The contract has been awarded to the Jewel of India, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.
The total revenue generated by the HAL will be Rs 4264 crore. The cost includes Rs 3887 crore for war machines and Rs 377 crore for infrastructure development of the helicopter division for production lines. Ten LCHs will be allotted to IAF and five of these wonderful Flying Tigers will form a new army aviation unit. This project will be a major boost to the Atma Nirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) drive.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has said that India will stop importing weapons in the coming years. Sanjay Jaju, additional secretary for defence production, highlighted in a seminar organised by PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, that MOD has scrapped proposed foreign deals related to arms and equipment worth Rs 70,000 crore under Buy Global in favour of the Make in India initiative to promote Indian manufactures. The defence minister informed that MOD has banned 351 defence items from import under three lists, including short-range missiles, towed artillery, light tanks and helicopters, and patrol boats.
The HAL-built Light Combat Helicopter is an indigenously designed and developed twin-engine multi-role all-terrain all-weather attack helicopter. The first technology demonstrator flight was undertaken on March 29 in 2010. So far, eight LCHs have been built. They have gone through extensive extreme summer, cold weather and high altitude trials. During OP Snow lion, two LCHs operated in the Eastern Ladakh battle Zone along with Apache attack helicopters. Final operational clearance was given in 2020 and declared operational in 2021.
The helicopter has a crew of two who sit in tandem, powered by two HAL/Turbomeca Shakti engines. It has a takeoff weight of 5800 kg, can carry a payload of 700 kg, can cruise at speed of 290 kmph, has a range of 550 km, and operates for 3 hours and 10 mins. The LCH has the highest ceiling limit in the world and can operate at a height of 18,500 feet. It has already landed at the highest Indian posts at Siachen and Soltoro ridge in 2021.
Equipped with the latest avionics such as glass cockpit, compass optoelectronic suite, missile approach warning radar, Saab radar and laser warning system, it has also been fitted with chaff and flares dispensers to confuse Air-to-Air Missiles (AAM) and Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM). It has four hardpoints to carry the following weapons either, 16xFZ275 Rockets or 8xAAMs or 8xHelina Dhurvastra ATGMs or a combination, along with a 1x20mm M621 Turret mounted Cannon and also can carry cluster bombs, glide bombs and the grenade launcher as well. LCH is basically an armoured derivative of HAL Dhruv.
There were no attack helicopters in IAF until November 1, 1983. India had a small fleet of unarmed light helicopters, basically, HAL manufactured Chetak and Cheetah. IAF procured Russian origin MI4 helicopters as troop carriers and the helidrop missions in the early 1960s. They were replaced by medium-lift MI8 (HIP) again of the USSR origin in 1975, which could carry 20 armed troops. We never had an attack helicopter during the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars.
A study group visited the USSR after the 1971 war for trials of MI24 (Nato code HIND) and recommended its procurement for IAF. The first squadron (Gladiators) was raised on November 1 in 1983 with MI24 and the second squadron (Firebirds) was born on April 1 in 1990 with an export version of MI24, now called MI35. These huge birds could fly at speed of 330 kmph, the crew of three, could carry eight troops and be armed with 30mm cannon and eight Rockets or four ATGMs. These attack helicopters were used by the Russians in the Afghanistan invasion. Later, four MI35 Gunships were handed over to Afghan National Army by India for ops against the Taliban in 2019 but in 2021 were captured by the Taliban at Kunduz Airbase once US Army abandoned Afghanistan.
Later, IAF carried out ad-hoc modification on Cheetah Lancer and Chetaks with mounted 7.62 MMG and MI17 V5, an improved variant of MI8, were modified with Rocket pods during Op Pawan and Op Vijay but were not successful as they were not custom-built for offensive combat mission and could not operate in high altitude regions. One MI17 modified as Gunship was hit fatally operating under Operation Safed Sagar by a hostile stinger SAM.
The Kargil War review committee recommended custom-built attack helicopters for IAF and Army Aviation. The road map was prepared for the production of Indigenous attack helicopters in a phased manner and go for immediate procurement of off-the-shelf attack helicopters available in the world market. An inter-government deal was finalised with the USA Boeing for the purchase of 22 AH 65f Apache attack helicopters for IAF. Apaches have replaced the old MI35 Hind of 125 HU Gladiators of IAF as Apaches joined IAF in 2020-21.
Simultaneously, the Light Combat Helicopter project was launched in 2006. LCH was based on a platform of HAL Dhruv, the old warhorse of HAL. Dhruv has achieved final operational clearance and was already in service. HAL has already developed an armed helicopter version of ALH named Rudra in 2007 and inducted it into service in 2012. Rudra is fitted with Turret mounted 20 mm cannon, 70 mm rocket pods, two mistral AAMs and four Helina ATGMs. Currently, 91 are in active service with the Indian Armed forces.
First maiden flight
The first maiden flight of the LCH TD prototype was conducted successfully on March 29 in 2010, four LCHs were produced until 2014 and underwent tough trials on all terrains (desert, plains and mountains) and in all weathers (hot conditions up to 50 degrees Celsius and cold weather up to minus 40 degrees. The trials were completed by July 2016. Four more LCHs were manufactured under limited series production LSP). FOC was issued on August 26 in 2017 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally handed over the first fully operational LCH to Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari, Chief of Air Staff, on November 19 in 2021 and approved full-scale production. The production line for LCH has been set up at HAL Bengaluru to produce 30 units per year.
ARMY Aviation Corps AAC of the Indian Army has forwarded the demand for 114 LCHs to the MOD with an aim to raise six attack helicopter units for each command. The MOD has allotted five LCHs from the first lot and one LCH of LSP has already been supplied to AAC. The Indian Air Force has been allotted 10 from the first lot. Three LCH LSP have already been inducted. IAF planned the induction of 65 LCHs to upgrade its combat helicopter squadrons. MI35 are almost on its last leg and will be obsolete by 2023. Apache and LCH will jointly guard the Indian horizons.
Light Combat Helicopter will make an extremely potent platform for Anti-Armour Operations in deserts, plains and even in high altitude areas such as Aksai Chin for the destruction of enemy pillboxes, bunkers and emplacements, anti-helicopter operations, counter-insurgency missions, cross-border covert heliborne assaults and also search and rescue missions. HAL has assured that LCH has been integrated with the requisite agility, sharp manoeuvrability, extended range, all-weather capability, and stealth technology for high altitude performance and lethal weaponry to accomplish high-risk combat assignments.
Flash news is that on April 11, LCH successfully fired Helina, also called Dhurvastra, a three-generation anti-tank guided missile and destroyed armour targets at a 5 km range at Pokhran Ranges, developed by DRDO. LCH is fondly called the Flying Tiger by the HAL test pilots. It is a true force multiplier in the war zone.
-The writer is an Indian Army veteran and a defence analyst. He has keen interest in Geo-strategic affairs and writes regularly on internal and external affairs issues related to India and neighbours. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda.