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IAF gets its first Apache attack helicopter from Boeing, 21 more to come

Business Standard:  May 13, 2019

New Delhi: Boeing handed over to the Indian Air Force (IAF) on Friday the first of the 22 Apache attack helicopters that India had contracted to buy in September 2015 for about $3 billion at current prices.

Air Marshal A S Butola travelled to Boeing's helicopter production facility at Mesa, Arizona, to attend the handing over ceremony, alongside US government officials.

The IAF is buying the latest version of the Apache, designated the AH-64E (I) Apache Guardian. The first batch of four-six helicopters will be shipped to India in July, said the defence ministry.

The Apaches are being acquired through a hybrid contract. The helicopter itself has been contracted through a "direct commercial sale" with Boeing. However, the radar and assortment of weaponry including missiles, rockets and cannon bullets, are being acquired directly from the Pentagon through a "foreign military sale". The Apache is widely acknowledged to be the world's most lethal combat helicopter, having flown about a million mission hours in conflicts from the First Gulf War in 1991 to the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan.

It can operate by day or night with equal effectiveness, flying just metres above the ground and sheltering behind trees and sand dunes. Its advanced Longbow radar picks up enemy armoured vehicles and then destroys them with anti-tank missiles, air-to-surface rockets or a chain gun that sends 625 rounds per minute ripping into the targets.

Designed to operate as the airborne component of a highly mobile, armour-heavy strike corps, the Apache has been dubbed the "flying tank".

"The ability of these helicopters to transmit and receive the battlefield picture to and from the weapon systems through data networking makes it a lethal acquisition," said the defence ministry on Saturday.

Ground combat experts said the Apache should have been a straightforward buy of a premier tank-killing platform for the Army's three strike corps, instead of joining the IAF fleet. Former defence minister A K Antony, after deciding that the new "Army Aviation Corps" would fly the Army's tactical support helicopters, succumbed to IAF pressure and allocated them the Apache.

Consequently, the 22 Apaches, distributed between two IAF squadrons, will have the wartime role of "suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD)". This refers to the US doctrine of destroying enemy air defence radars and missile batteries near the border, allowing fighter aircraft to cross into enemy airspace undetected.

Army aviation specialists reject this notion, arguing that the relatively slow-flying Apaches would be quickly picked up by Chinese or Pakistani surveillance radars and then shot down by their dense defensive network of anti-air missiles, guns and fighter aircraft. They point out that the US Army could use Apaches for SEAD only in highly asymmetrical conflicts like Iraq, where the US enjoyed overwhelming air superiority.

Acknowledging the Army's need for the Apache, the defence ministry has kicked-off a separate procurement of six Apache Guardians for the Army's strike corps. Last June, the US Congress was notified about the proposed sale of six AH-64E Apache helicopters to India for about $930 million.

These are for the first of the three Apache units planned for the Army's three strike corps. Each squadron will have 10 helicopters and a 30 per cent reserve in depots to replenish losses caused by accidents or casualties. Separately, the IAF and Army are acquiring the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), designed and developed by Hindustan Aeronautics, which is now close to being operationally certified. The lighter LCH is optimised for providing supporting fire to infantry soldiers in high altitude combat. The heavier, bigger Apache is more suited to mechanised warfare in plains terrain.

There is no "Make in India" component or transfer of technology in the Apache deal. The helicopter is to be built entirely in the US, then defence minister Manohar Parrikar informed the Lok Sabha on November 28, 2014. However, the US Army is providing training at Fort Rucker, Alabama, to the IAF pilots and maintenance personnel who will operate the Apache fleet.

Disclaimer: This information has been collected through secondary research and IBEF is not responsible for any errors in the same.