Thursday, May 19, 2022


Lt. Gen. PJS Pannu (r.)

Heptrs, those are most steadfast gun ships and efficient force multipliers or, Mean being the machines, efficient force multipliers

At times also attributed as Gunships, the Attack Heptrs (Attack Helicopters – AHs) are the most versatile fighting rotary wing support at the battlefields, who can very quickly enter the Tactical battle Area (TBA), remain available at the nearby Forward Operating Bases (FOB), fly into combat zones, attack tanks, vehicles, formation of soldiers, bunkers, bridges, or any hard target and quickly move back to the FOB or return to deeper bases.
AHs are also referred to as flying Battle Tanks or the third dimensional armour support. When the tempo of combat operations is high, there is a need for greater maneuverability and fire power. A side which can out-maneuver the other side and cause precise attrition with speed on the adversary is considered superior. The AHs, if employed well, can be a major decisive factor in the TBA and therefore considered as one of the deadliest Force Multipliers for the armed forces.

AgustaWestland Apache fires rockets in Afghanistan 2008

AHs are well known for their high speeds, agility, and protection abilities. They are armed with a mixed arsenal of weaponries such as guided missiles, rockets, cannons, and guns shooting at rapid and cyclical rates. They possess excellent surveillance, navigation, protection, and communication systems on board. The arsenal is mounted on mounts called hardpoints. More number of hardpoints in the AH means better lethality and fire power.
AHs traditionally have two pilots usually seated echeloned or in tandem i.e. seated one behind the other for better orientation and control. These pilots are highly skilled in flying and trained to ‘fly and fight’ at the same time. It means they can make combat engagements along with making flying manoeuvres at ease. The pilots must have very high situational awareness and orientation to live on the battlefield. Even though they are flying, they are fighting ground operations completely integrated with the ground manoeuvres. World over, they are usually Army than Airforce pilots as they are real time connected to the TBA for close contact battle in conjunction with the on-ground troops i.e. armour in plains and now in mountains too. The AHs make a real time impact to warfare.
In the 1980s, The Iran-Iraq War saw ” intensive use of the heptrs” in a conventional war ever, as well as the only confirmed helicopter engagements in history; in particular, AH-1J SeaCobras Iranian Army Aviation  engaged with Mi-24 Hind  and Mi-8 Hip Helicopters of the Iraqi Army Air Corps.. The Iranian Cobras also attacked advancing Iraqi military formations, destroying numerous armoured vehicles and impeded the Iraqi advance.
The 1990s saw the emergence of the U.S. attack helicopters. During Operation DesertStorm, AH-64 Apache used Hellfire missiles to destroy Iraqi early warning radar and Surface to Air Missile (SAM) sites from stand-off ranges of over 6 Kms. They were successful in both, direct attack against enemy armour and ground troops. The accurate Hellfire missiles could achieve high hit probability and along with cannon attacks by Apaches where numerous enemy tanks and armoured cars were destroyed. The “deep attack” on the Karbala gap in the 2003 Gulf War by independently operating attack helicopters came into question after a failed mission. A second mission coordinated with artillery and fixed-wing aircraft was more successful. In October 2014, Apaches participated in the air strikes on Islamic state northeast of Fallujah. In June 2016, these were used in support of the Iraqi Army’s Mosul offensive, sometimes flying night missions supporting Iraqi operations.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) inducted the first Attack Helicopter Squadron in Nov 1983, equipped with Mi-25 helicopter Gunships. Later, in 1990, the Mi-35 was inducted, which is a twin engine turboshaft, assault, and anti-armour helicopter capable of carrying 8 men assault squads. Mi-35 has four-barrel 12.7 mm rotary gun in nose barbette and carries up to 1500 Kg of external ordnance including Scorpion anti-tank missiles. It has a max cruise speed of 310 km/hour.

The IAF Attack Helicopter fleet was deployed in IPKF operation in Sri Lanka, under the UN at Sierra Leone and Democratic Republic of Congo under Chapter 7 of the UN for Peace Enforcement.
During the Kargil conflict in 1999, Mi-35 was found unfit for high altitude and super high-altitude Areas. Limitations in terms of both high payloads and manoeuvrability of the Mi-35 fleet reportedly contributed to India developing indigenous rotorcraft, such as the HAL Light Combat Helicopter and HAL Rudra to perform multi-role high-altitude combat operations. The HAL Rudra was a modified version of HAL Dhruv (Advanced Light Helicopter frame and fuselage) free of any major modifications to the airframe to quickly create an armed variant for the Indian Army. HAL Rudra is equipped with Forward looking infrared (FLIR) and thermal Imaging Sights, 20 mm turret gun, 70 mm rocket pods, Anti-Tank Guided missiles, and air to air missiles.

                     Mi-35 Hind

The HAL Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) is a purpose-built Attack Helicopter, fundamentally designed to overcome several operational shortcomings earlier experienced.  During February 2020, the LCH was declared ready for production, the final assembly line was established at HAL’s Helicopter Division in Bangalore. The rotary wing capabilities of the IAF are poised to undergo a paradigm shift. The planned induction of Apache Attack heptrs is yet another instance of the shift in the technology and capability level of the rotary wing fleet by IAF.

                  Light Combat helicopter HAL

Apache AH-64E (I) helicopters have been recently inducted into the IAF at the Pathankot front line air base. The IAF got a major boost with the induction of Apache helicopters known as the world’s most advanced multi-role combat helicopter. It is suitable for reconnaissance, security, peacekeeping missions, and lethal attack, in both land and littoral environments, without reconfiguration. AH-64 has the fastest rate of climb making it more agile in the battlefield with the ability to fight in Altitudes upto 21000 ft. Suitable to be employed against China’s WZ-10 which has a slower rate of climb, a disadvantage in steep mountain ranges of Aksai Chin – Eastern Ladakh area. Kamov 50/52 is more suited for lower hills/ plains with marginally higher speed and range than AH-64.

The AH-64 Apache has been used by the U.S. Army and a growing number of international defense forces, India is the 16th nation to induct the Apache(s). In 2020, Boeing signed an agreement with the Government of India for the acquisition of six AH-64E Apache helicopters for the Indian Army. The AH-64E is an advanced multi-mission helicopter with the latest technology insertions, maintaining its standing as the world’s best attack helicopter. It is the only available combat helicopter with a spectrum of capabilities for virtually any mission requirement, including greater thrust and lift, joint digital operability, improved survivability and cognitive decision aiding.Tata Boeing Aerospace Limited (TBAL), a joint venture between Boeing and Tata Advanced Systems Ltd. (TASL). 

TBAL’s Hyderabad facility has been delivering AH-64 Apache fuselages since May 2018. The advanced manufacturing facility will eventually become the sole producer of AH-64 fuselages in the world, with 90% parts sourced from Indian suppliers. The nearest comparable AH with AH-64E(I) is the Russian Ka 52 kamov.  Russia has embarked on the development of a new type of attack helicopter called ‘Airborne Combat Vehicle,’ which will feature special weapons and more power. The Russians have also developed a new version of the Mi-8AMTSh-VN Special Forces helicopter with enhanced weapons. The Mi-8AMTSh-VN rotorcraft is a bridge between the Mi-8 family and a promising helicopter: the Airborne Combat Vehicle for the “new type” of airborne units.

                Ka-52 Kamov ‘Alligator’

The expeditionary group of Russia’s Air and Space Force (VKS, formerly the Russian air force) started using two new types of attack rotorcraft—the Mil Mi-28 “Night Hunter” and Kamov Ka-52 “Alligator”—in Syria. The Syrian army also released a video showing Ka-52s from the Russian VKS shelling Islamic State positions with unguided rockets.The first image of a Ka-52 at the Hmeymim air force base (formerly Bassel al-Assad International Airport) in Latakia province appeared on Russian television on March 16.

It provided evidence to reports of VKS upgrading its earlier deployed rotorcraft fleet with more modern types. According to the Russian MOD, in the period from March 7 to 27, the VKS performed more than 500 combat missions in support of Assad troops fighting for Palmyra, during which 2,000 air strikes were conducted against the Islamic State. The ministry did not break out the number between fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.The Ka-52 has been in squadron service since 2011, with 140 on order. Meanwhile, evidence of Ka-52s using their missiles—notably, the 9M127 Vikhr from Tula KBP (NATO AT-16 Scallion).

Pakistan was supplied with the Huey Cobra AH-1 by the US between 1984 and 1986, a year after India acquired Mi-25 from the USSR.  The Bell AH-1 Cobra is a single-engine AH developed and manufactured by the American rotorcraft manufacturer Bell Helicopter.  AH-1 is also referred to as the HueyCobra or Snake. It is a dedicated attack helicopter, featuring tandem cockpit, stub wings for weapons, and a chin-mounted gun turret.

An initial batch of 20 AH-1S gunships were supplied by the US in 1984, and these were later upgraded with the C-NITE thermal imaging package, suitable for night fighting. Operated by Pakistan Army Aviation, Cobra was used overseas in Somalia during the United Nation Operations in Somalia II, where a single squadron was deployed in 1994. Pakistani Cobras subsequently saw action in Sierra Leone. By 2013, Pakistan reportedly operated a fleet of
35 AH-1F helicopters.

Maintaining these aircraft has been difficult, but possible through commercial channels. The US government ostensibly funded upgrading the existing AH-1F/S Cobra fleet. However, there has been a controversy over how much of this funding has been spent. Turkey has also become a key supplier of spare parts for the Cobra, often free of cost to Pakistan. During the 2010s, Pakistan lost a total of three aircraft in separate incidents.

                                Huey Cobra AH-1

Pakistan repeatedly sought the Bell AH-1 SuperCobra from the US to supplement and replace its current AH-1 Cobras. Attempts to acquire the AH -1Z or AH-64 Apache from the US were rejected. Pakistan has been exploring buying the Turkish T 129, the Chinese CAIC Z-10, and the Russian Mi -35 Hind. In November 2014, Russia approved the sale of Mi-35M helicopters to Pakistan. In April 2015, China delivered three CAIC Z-10s to Pakistan. During the same month, the US Department of State approved the sale of 15 AH-1Zs and associated equipment to Pakistan.

The Chinese military countered large Vietnamese armour formations in 1979. They concluded that the best solution was to use attack helicopters. By the mid-1980s, the Chinese decided on a dedicated attack helicopter. At the time, they used civilian helicopters converted for the military; these were no longer adequate in the attack role, and suitable only as scouts. Following this, China evaluated the Agusta A129 Mangusta. Due to Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, agreement with the US to purchase AH-1 Cobra in 1988  was cancelled, resulting in the arms embargo. The colour revolutions prevented the purchase of attack helicopters from Eastern Europe in 1990 and 1991; Bulgaria and Russia rejected Chinese offers to purchase the Mil Mi-24.

About the author: Lt Gen PJS Pannu, is the former Deputy Chief of IDS. He has raised the Special Forces Division and has held the appointment of Additional Director General of Military Operations ( Special Operations) . He was also Director General Infantry, before the General Officer went on to command 14 Corps in Ladakh in 2016-17. As the deputy Chief IDS he also raised the Defence Cyber and Space Agencies. He is a Distinguished Fellow at the United Services Institute.


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