China-India Deadlock: India Clears Purchase Of Additional Apache Helicopters

Ahn Young-joon / AP

This Thursday, the Defense Acquisition Council of India has cleared the purchase of six more Boeing AH-64E Apache combat helicopters, according to the Indian Defense Ministry. This acquisition is worth over $650 million, or 42 billion rupees, and comes after a previous package of $3 billion that included 22 other Apaches and 15 Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters that was signed back in 2015, Reuters reports.

These procurements come at a time when India is undergoing an important reform of its Air Force and Army Aviation Corps assets. These include the replacement of older fighters, like the MiG-21, for decades the backbone of the Air Force, by newer models, like the locally-designed HAL Tejas, while also expanding on the existing numbers of airframes to reach parity with China.

At the same time, New Delhi is also revitalizing and expanding its helicopter squadrons. According to India Defense Review, this plan envisions the acquisition of 1,200 helicopters, including over 100 combat models.

The reason for this emphasis on rotary-wing aircraft resides on the perceived need for quick response times and flexibility in the deployment of unified army battle groups in the case of war. This is what is defined as the “cold start” doctrine, intended mostly as a method to make war with Pakistan in such a way that there will be no time or need to use nuclear weapons before the conflict is decided in India’s favor.

Because of this, New Delhi has been procuring advanced combat helicopters to form the fire support component of these battle groups.

AH-64D attack helicopter during exercise in South Korea.
The Boeing AH-64D Apache is still the most powerful attack helicopter in the world. [Image by Lee Jin-man/AP Images] Lee Jin-man / AP

The Indian Army Aviation Corps was created back in 1986 when it was realized the need to provide the Army with its own tactical transport assets to improve flexibility. Nevertheless, it would take another 26 years for the Corps to procure the much-needed specialized attack assets.

For now, the main combat helicopters at the Indian Army’s disposal are the Russian-made Mil Mi-24 and Mi-35 helicopters, The Hindu reports. They were conceived for the dual role of transport and attack, being molded to the Cold War era Soviet doctrine. India has around 20 of such helicopters in service.

Contrary to the Mi-35, the American AH-64 was conceived from the onset as a pure attack helicopter. Still considered the most powerful attack helicopter in the world, it entered service in 1986.

The AH-64 can reach a top speed of 227 miles per hour, is equipped with a 30mm autocannon under the nose, and can use a combination of rocket launchers and missiles slung under the stub-wings. The crew is comprised of two men, a pilot and a gunner, a usual arrangement in this type of helicopter.

New Delhi will get the most recent model, the AH-64E, also known as Apache Guardian. It represents a complete overhaul of the AH-64, with new rotor blades and more powerful engines. It also has an upgraded Longbow radar and an enhanced communications suite.

The U.S. Army will upgrade 634 Apaches of the previous generation to this standard, and India signed a deal to buy 22 new ones (11 for the Army, and 11 for the Air Force). The contract signed today will add six more units to this number, and there is the possibility that as many as 39 helicopters can be acquired.

HAL Light Combat Helicopter during Aero India 2013.
The HAL LCH will become the backbone of the Indian Army’s aerial fire support component. [Image by Aijaz Rahi/AP Images] Aijaz Rahi / AP

In addition to the Apache, the Indian Army is also undergoing an acquisition program for 114 HAL Light Combat Helicopters, with 65 more to be bought by the Air Force. Compared to the Apache, the LCH is a smaller machine, optimized for anti-infantry and anti-armor roles.

It is also capable of high-altitude warfare, with a 21,000 ft. operational ceiling. This is especially important for India, given that the country has contested land borders with countries like Pakistan and China, where an asset capable of performing armed reconnaissance and providing fire support to the ground units would be invaluable.

Moreover, the AH-64, with its higher firepower and longer range, will have an important role as an escort and as a vector able to deploy decisive firepower where and when needed.

The inclusion of American-made aircraft represents an important paradigm shift for India. Historically, New Delhi has relied on Soviet-made aircraft and still has important partnerships with Russia. However, with Beijing becoming more assertive in its intentions to dominate the region and assuming its role as a global superpower, India feels threatened.

The current situation in the Sikkim region, where Indian and Chinese troops stand just a few yards away from each other in the Doklam Plateau, clearly shows just how hot India’s borders can be. This situation has remained tense ever since India intervened to stop the construction of a road to Bhutan by the Chinese, and the strong rhetoric used by both sides brought concerns that it could escalate into an actual shooting war.

A relationship with the U.S. is, thus, important for New Delhi.

In addition to this, it also means that India should not rely on just a few sources of weapons and gear. This way, if the access to one supplier is cut for some reason, there are always other sources available. It should be noted that India is also acquiring Dassault Rafale jets from France, a country that has supplied New Delhi with several weapons systems in the past.

With the acquisition of more Apache helicopters, India is one step closer to fulfill its perceived needs for the Army’s warfighting and deterrence capabilities.

[Featured Image by Ahn Young-joon/AP Images]