It is not the Ministry of Defence-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) that has screwed up, but it is the Indian Air Force (IAF) that has deliberately sabotaged the development of what was originally envisaged as India’s homegrown light attack helicopter (LAH) by, on one hand, vehemently opposing the induction of such a weapons platform by the Indian Army’s Aviation Corps (AAC), and on the other by drafting a ridiculous ASQR that has now permanently changed the helicopter’s design/performance parameters from those of a LAH to those for a Light Combat Helicopter (LCH). The MoD-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), which has been associated with the tedious and long-drawn process of designing, developing and series-producing the ‘Dhruv’ advanced light helicopter, had all along believed that the ‘Dhruv’ 5-tonne multi-role light medium twin-engined design does not represent a zero-sum game, that it is possible to wrap a slim, tandem-seat fuselage around the existing twin-engined powerplant, transmission and rotor systems of this proven helicopter and derive two distinct derivatives: a multi-task LAH; and a single-engined armed aeroscout-cum light utility machine (LOH/LUH) capable of operating in the plains (for operating in tandem with fast-moving mechanised and armoured formations) and over jungle terrain in support of special operations forces, and also taking part in combat search-and-rescue operations. Yet, since early 2003, the IAF kept insisting that the AAC’s requirement for LAHs was unjustifiable (since the IAF already operated a fleet of attack helicopters like the Mi-35P and Mi-25) and its views ultimately prevailed over the MoD, which ruled that not only would the LAH option be axed in favour of the LCH, but the AAC’s existing and projected fleets of LOHs would have to synchronise their flight operations with the IAF’s existing and projected attack helicopter fleets. When Army HQ protested to the MoD, a face-saving compromise was arrived at, this being that the AAC was authorised to acquire 76 ‘Dhruv Mk4’/’Rudra’ helicopter gunships that would, in essence, entail the needless modification of the ‘Dhruv’ utility helicopter into an armed machine capable of housing no more than four anti-armour guided-missiles (this being the DRDO HELINA, which remains elusive till this day and may eventually be replaced by either the Spike-ER from RAFAEL of Israel, or the PARS-3LR from MBDA), or an alternate armaments package comprising a chin-mounted 20mm THL-20 cannon supplied by Nexter Systems, twin rocket pods housing 2.75-inch rockets supplied by Belgium’s FZ, and four Mistral ATAM air-to-air missiles from MBDA. Needless to say, the decision to develop the ‘Rudra’ was not only financially unwise, but it is also unlikely to translate into any operational gains for the Army. All this could have been easily avoided had the MoD mandated that both the Army and IAF HQs formulate a joint services staff requirement (JSQR) for HAL to develop two tandem-seat attack helicopter variants: the LAH for the AAC and LCH for the IAF.
The LCH programme took off on October 3, 2006 when the MoD sanctioned a sum of Rs.376.67 crores for HAL to design and develop the LCH over a 24-month period. Powered by twin Ardiden 1H (1,200shp TM333-2C2 Shakti) engines, the LCH was then envisaged as a 2.5-tonne machine with a service service of 6km (19,685 feet), and which would take off from altitudes of 3km (9,800 feet), loiter and operate at altitudes of up to 5km (16,400 feet), and engage targets like unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that are cruising at altitudes of up to 6.5km (21,300 feet). The ASQR originally prepared by the IAF for the LCH states that the helicopter’s HOGE ought to be 3,500 metres, or 11,482.939 feet when it has an all-up weight of 5 tonnes. The LCH’s first prototype made its maiden flight on March 29, 2010 and two more prototypes have since been fabricated for flight certification purposes. Like the ‘Dhruv’, the LCH too adheres to the following FAR/MILSPEC standards:
· US Army Aeronautical Design Standard-33E (ADS-33E)
· Flaw-Tolerant Rotor System: FAR/JAR 29.571, AM 29-28
· Crashworthy Fuel System: FAR/JAR 29.952, AM 29-35
· Flaw-Tolerant Drive Train with Over Torque Certification: FAR/JAR 29.952, AM 29-28
· Turbine Burst Protection: FAR/JAR 29.901, AM 29-36
· Composite Spar Main & Tail Rotor Blades with Lightning Strike Protection: FAR/JAR 1309(h), AM 29-40
· Engine Compartment Fire Protection: FAR/JAR 29.1193
· Redundant Hydraulics & Flaw Tolerant Flight Controls: FAR/JAR 29.571, AM 29-28
· Aircraft-Wide Bird Strike Protection: FAR/JAR 29.631, AM 29-40
· Crashworthiness Standard: NATO’s MIL-STD-1290
· Crashworthy Seats Conforming to MIL-STD-1472B
· Cockpit Instrumentation Lighting Conforming to MIL-STD-85762A
· Avionics Databus: MIL-STD-1553B or ARINC-429
· Autopilot Accuracy: MIL-F-9490D
· Embedded MIL-STD-188-141B ALE Link Protection
· Embedded MIL-STD-188-110B data modem
To make the LCH a survivable platform, HAL has designed its own impact absorbing landing gear and will improve on the Dhruv ALH’s ballistic tolerance with up to 100kg of composite-/ceramics-based modular armour, whose positioning is based on an IAF study of the areas most likely to suffer bullet damage. The tandem-seat cockpits will each have twin side-by-side AMLCDs, will be NVG-compatible, will provide NBC protection to the crew, and will have a ‘JedEyes’ helmet-mounted targetting system co-developed by HAL and Israel’s Elbit Systems. The LCH’s armaments suite will comprise a THL-20 chin-mounted turret containing a 20mm Nexter Systems-built M-621 gun firing at a rate of 800 rounds per minute, four stub-wing-mounted Forges de Zeebrugge-built LAU-FZ-231 launchers carrying 2.75-inch rockets, or a combination of four MBDA-built Mistral ATAM air-to-air missiles and twin 2.75-inch rocket launchers, or a combination of twin 2.75-inch rocket launchers and four 6km-range anti-armour guided-missiles (HELINA, or PARS-3LR or Spike-ER). A nose-mounted FLIR pod produced by the MoD-owned Bharat Electronics Ltd will be used for for target acquisition. The LCH’s four-axis auto-hover and digital automatic flight control system have been developed in-house, while the DRDO’s Bangalore-based Defence Avionics Research Establishment (DARE) is developing the defensive aids suite, which includes a combined radar/laser warning system (this being SaabTech’s MILDS AR-60V2) and Bharat Dynamics Ltd-developed countermeasures dispensers. DARE has also developed in-house the digital mission computer and pylon interface boxes. The flight control actuator system has been co-developed by HAL and the UK-based APPH. The SAGEM subsidiary of France’s SAFRAN Group, which has had a presence in India since the 1960s, has supplied the piloting inertial reference system (APIRS), more than 100 of which are already on board the Dhruv ALH. The APIRS uses new-generation inertial technologies like fibre-optic gyroscope (FOG) and silicon accelerometer. Other SAGEM-supplied items on board are the digital autopilot (which is also on the ‘Dhruv’), and the Sigma-95L RLG-INS. SAGEM is also offering its family of integrated cockpit display systems (ICDS) for the LCH.
Elbit Systems, which in May 2007 joined forces with HAL and MerlinHawk Associates Pvt Ltd to create HALBIT Avionics Pvt Ltd (HALBIT) as an India-based joint venture company, is presently proposing four items for the LCH: integrated AMLCD-based glass cockpit, the 25kg C-Music directional infra-red countermeasures (DIRCM) suite, Tadiran SDR-7200AR multi-bandwidth software-defined radio, and the QuadEye panoramic night vision goggle. The IAF has also demanded that the LCH be equipped with anti-missile defence system like BAE Systems’ ‘Boldstroke’, which uses modular open-system architecture and non-proprietary standard interfaces that support interchangeability, technology insertion, and diminishing manufacturing sources resolution. It allows for direct and fibre-coupling between the laser and pointer/tracker, providing installation flexibility to meet the size, weight, and power requirements of both light and heavy rotary-winged platforms. It is much lighter, has fewer moving optical parts and uses mirrors instead of a physical ‘light pipe’ to shoot its laser. The entire unit is housed in one box. A helicopter with ‘Boldstroke’ mounted on either side would have 360 degrees of assured protection from IR-guided anti-aircraft missiles.
Despite all these, as of now, the IAF has made only a verbal commitment to procure 65 LCHs, and no firm contract exists to translate this assurance into reality. This then brings us to the inherent design/performance flaws of the LCH, especially when comparing it with the Harbin ZW-19 attack helicopter. Firstly, there is the issue of optimising the LCH for its primary function, which is to ensure air defence against UAVs and slow-moving aircraft, be it at any altitude. If that’s what the IAF desires, then why employ a twin-engined tandem-seat LCH? Why can’t a single-engined LOH/LUH like Eurocopter’s AS.550C3 Fennec, armed with a THALES-built FLIR turret and a solitary 20mm gun-pod from Nexter Systems, which has already flown to altitudes of 22,000 feet, be tasked with such a mission? Secondly, if the LCH is tasked with a hunter-killer mission, i.e. seeking out and destroying UAVs, then can this be done with only a solitary nose-mounted FLIR sensor? Wouldn’t it be much better if instead of the FLIR sensor, a nose-mounted search radar capable of broad area surveillance was mounted on the LCH’s nose, and the FLIR turret be mast-mounted atop the main rotor hub purely for optronic fire-direction purposes? A nose-mounted search radar is also a prerequisite for the LCH to engage in anti-tank warfare from standoff distances that would keep the LCH away from hostile VSHORADS/MANPADS. In fact, this is exactly what AVIC has achieved with the ZW-19. Then there’s the peculiarly engineered rear landing gear attached midway to the LCH’s tail section, which is outright dangerous when the LCH is flying nap-of-the-earth flight profiles over urban or jungle terrain. Another design compromise concerns the LCH’s twin stub-wing armament booms, each of which can carry only two ATGMs, instead of an appreciable four (totalling eight ATGMs, as is the case with the ZW-19). And last but not the least, the ZW-19 comes equipped with a weight-saving fly-by-wire flight control system, while the LCH does not.
In conclusion, it does appear that the IAF’s ASQRs were drafted in such a manner that the LCH would be acceptable more as a platform for engaging in aerial combat—and by consequence being IAF-commanded and -operated--than for engaging hostile ground-based armoured/mechanised formations, something the AAC would have loved to get its hands on. Instead, a needless inter-services turf war has ensured that the LCH remains the sole property of the IAF and never morphes into the more-urgently needed LAH, with the AAC being forced to accept an inferior platform—the ‘Rudra’ armed with a mere four ATGMs and devoid of a nose-mounted search radar capable of detecting and engaging hostile armoured/mechanised formations from distances that are beyond the reach of hostile VSHORADS/MANPADS.—Prasun K. Sengupta