Ending a decade of friction between the Army and the Air Force (IAF), the ministry of defence (MoD) has finally made a decision: the Army will hereafter operate the fleet of attack helicopters that provides crucial fire support to troops in battle.
"We have received a letter from the ministry and have been given the attack helicopters by the government," the Army chief, General Bikram Singh, said on Friday.
In a letter issued yesterday, the MoD had ruled the military's entire attack helicopter fleet would be owned, operated and maintained by the Army. This includes the 22 Apache AH-64D helicopters being procured from US company Boeing Defence, Space and Security (BDS); as also a new-generation fleet of combat helicopters that Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is developing. That will include 179 light combat helicopters (LCHs) and 76 Rudras, a weaponised version of HAL's Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH).
The IAF's existing fleet of rapidly fading Russian Mi-25/35s, for long the world's most heavily armed attack helicopter, will continue to be operated by the air force until they are retired from service.
The immediate effect of this decision will be that instead of IAF pilots, Army Aviation Corps pilots will be going to the US for training on the Apache AH-64D.
The MoD has also accepted the Army's long-standing request for Mi-17 medium lift helicopters to be located in Army camps in J&K, so that heliborne contingents can be launched into operations without delay. The Army says heliborne operations are invariably delayed because a cumbersome IAF hierarchy takes too long to sanction the use of its helicopters.
For the IAF, which has zealously guarded its turf, especially the two attack helicopter squadrons it has so far operated, this decision will come as a blow. On Monday, speaking at the 80th IAF Day celebrations in Hindon, outside Delhi, Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne pooh-poohed the idea of the Army having a dedicated combat support helicopter fleet, dismissively stating that "little air forces" cannot be allowed to sprout doing "their own things".
Ignoring the fact that almost every major army in the world operates its own combat support aviation fleet, Browne flippantly wondered whether the Navy would comply if the coast guard wanted its own submarines.
The IAF has opposed the Army's acquisition of an aviation wing ever since the Army Aviation Corps was established in 1986. At that time, in the Joint Implementation Instructions, 1986, it was mandated that the Army Aviation Corps would operate only helicopters below five tonnes in weight. The IAF has successfully cited this document to block expansion of the Army Aviation Corps.
The Army, however, has argued - ultimately successfully - that the pace of battle today demands dedicated weapons platforms and command structures, and aviation assets primarily designed for the land battle must be owned and operated by the Army.
For years, the MoD has vacillated, postponing any decision. Defence Minister A K Antony recently dismissed the issue as "a family problem."
For the Army, this has been a long-festering sore. Says Lt Gen B S Pawar, who headed the Army Aviation Corps from 2004 to 2006: "The MoD has consistently avoided a decision. Whenever Army Aviation sent up a proposal relating to aviation assets, the MoD would send it to the IAF for comments, knowing fully well that would effectively kill the proposal."
In the absence of MoD clarity, both Army and IAF were placing orders for attack helicopters. The Army has ordered 60 Rudra from HAL, while the IAF has ordered 16.