New Delhi: The Army has now strongly revived its old quest for a “mini air force” of its own, in a move that has been bitterly opposed by the IAF in the past.
The force wants three squadrons of heavy-duty attack helicopters, among other choppers, for its three primary “strike” corps geared for rapid armored thrusts into enemy territory.
For starters, the 1.3-million strong Army is seeking the government’s approval for acquisition of 11 Apache attack helicopters from the US as “a follow-on contract” to the earlier Rs 13,952 crore deal inked for 22 such choppers for the IAF.
“The procurement proposal is likely to be considered by the defence acquisitions council (DAC) in its meeting to be chaired by defence minister Arun Jaitley on Saturday,” said a defence ministry source.
The Army is in a hurry because the “50% repeat order option”, with the same terms and conditions, can be exercised only till September 28 since the original contract was inked on that date in 2015.
One part of that “hybrid” deal had been inked with Boeing for the choppers, while the other for its weapons, radars and electronic warfare suites was signed with the US government. Apart from the 22 Apaches to be delivered to IAF from July 2019 onwards, the contract also involves acquisition of 812 AGM-114L-3 Hellfire Longbow missiles, 542 AGM-114R-3 Hellfire-II missiles, 245 Stinger Block I-92H missiles and 12 AN/APG-78 fire-control radars.
Even during the procurement process for the 22 Apaches, the Army had demanded their “ownership and control” because helicopter gunships are used as the “air manoeuvre arm” of ground forces to target enemy infantry and tanks the world over.
The Army believes it should have “full command and control” over “tactical air assets” for rapid deployment along with its strike corps, while the IAF should concentrate on its “larger strategic role”.
The IAF, in turn, had contended it should retain all attack and medium-lift helicopters because it would be “very expensive” if the Army duplicated efforts and resources by getting its own “little air force”.
The then UPA government had ruled that the first 22 Apaches would go to IAF to add to its two existing, but ageing, squadrons of Russian-origin Mi-25/35 attack helicopters. But it also held “future” procurements of attack helicopters would be for the Army, granting “in principle approval” to its case for raising three squadrons (13 choppers each) for the strike formations – 1 Corps (Mathura), 2 Corps (Ambala) and 21 Corps (Bhopal).
“Army Aviation Corps, raised in 1986, has over 250 Chetak/Cheetah light choppers and Dhruv advanced light helicopters. It should also get attack helicopters now since their control by IAF is a sub-optimal arrangement,” said a senior officer. The Army’s long-term plans include three helicopter squadrons (armed/attack, reconnaissance and tactical lift) each for all its 14 corps as well as “a flight” of five fixed-wing aircraft each for its six regional or operational commands.