Attack helicopters are an essential platform in all types of terrain, especially when mechanised forces are fielded. Retrofitting gun systems on existing helicopter fleets does not lead to fully enabling these platforms to be of decisive value. The induction of the Indian Prachand and American Apache helicopters are certainly a very well thought out strategy, however, these platforms will be fully potent only when the Indian Helina and MBDA’s Mistral 2 missiles are fitted on these helicopters.
In a move that will greatly enhance the combat capability of the Indian Military, especially in high altitude warfare, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) gave its preliminary approval for the acquisition of 156 Prachand, Light Combat Helicopters (LCH). Indigenously designed, developed and manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) – 90 Prachand LCH are meant for the Army while 66 will go to the Airforce. Over the last two years HAL manufactured LCH approved under the Limited Series Production (LSP) in August 2017, have been handed over to the Airforce and Army (10 for the Airforce and five for the Army).
Since then both the Airforce and the Army have raised a Combat Helicopter Unit each based on the LCH. While the Army has based its LCH Squadron at Misamari in the East for deployment on LAC, the Airforce unit has deployed some of its assets in Ladakh. In October 2022 the LCH was also formally named as Prachand. The Prachand has been specifically designed and developed by HAL in conjunction with the armed forces to undertake combat operations at extreme high altitudes like the Siachen and Eastern Ladakh in order to fill a critical gap in our operational capability.
It would also be pertinent to mention here that the other attack/armed helicopters held in the armed forces inventory, like the Russian origin Mi-25/Mi-35, Apache and the Rudra (armed Dhruv helicopter), have severe limitations in operating at high altitudes and are best suited for operations in deserts, plains and to some extent in lower mountainous terrain. While the Airforce has about 15 serviceable Mi-25/Mi-35, 22 Apaches and about 20 Rudras in its inventory, the Army has about 70 Rudras and is looking forward to inducting six Apaches in its arsenal this year, even though initially 11 were approved.
Prachand LCH Design & Development
The true impetus and trigger for the development of Prachand LCH came from the 1999 Kargil War, which glaringly revealed that the Indian forces lacked a suitable attack helicopter capable of operating unrestricted in High Altitude Terrain. The Russian origin MI-25/MI-35 attack helicopters held with the Airforce were not capable of operating in such an environment. An attempt was made to overcome this critical operational requirement by employing Mi-17 helicopters, suitably modified with rocket pods capable of firing rockets at those altitudes.
However, these helicopters were extremely vulnerable to hand held SAMs due to their size and restricted manoeuvrability. When one of these Mi-17s was shot down, the entire gambit of employing them in an armed role was abandoned. It was with this background that the Government approved the development of the LCH by the State owned HAL in 2006 with the first prototype performing its maiden flight in March 2010. Thereafter the LCH went through extensive flight testing programme involving a total of four prototypes, during which it proved its high altitude operating capabilities by landing on helipads in the Siachen Glacier as well as in numerous other high altitude helipads.
As brought out earlier the LCH has already been inducted into the Armed Forces and the Government approval for another 156 Prachand LCH will give a boost to Indian military’s war fighting capability at high altitudes and will be a game changer in future conflicts. What is of significance is that the Prachand LCH is being developed with the active participation of the private industry. As per reports, more than 250 Vendors are involved in manufacturing of components, assemblies, tools and test equipment and preparation of technical documentation – an apt example of public and private sector partnership with the thrust on indigenisation.
The Prachand LCH is a multirole combat helicopter with the unique capability to operate at high altitudes –an advantage over other attack helicopters globally, today. The other two attack helicopters in this category with stated capability to operate at high altitudes are the Chinese Z-10 and the Turkish T-129 ATAK. However, even though their capability of operating in the mountains is confirmed, their claims of operating at extremely high altitudes is suspect, given the status of their underpowered engines. Reportedly, efforts are on by both the countries to produce more powerful engines for these helicopters.
Prachand LCH: Main Features
The Prachand LCH is a derivative of the weaponised version of the HAL manufactured Dhruv helicopter ‘Rudra’, which is already operational and in service with the Indian Army and Airforce. While the Rudra basically is an armed helicopter, the Prachand LCH is a dedicated attack helicopter. The LCH has a maximum weight of 5.8 tonnes, and service ceiling of 6,500 meters (21,300 feet). The design features a narrow fuselage with stealth profiling and armour protection. The helicopter is equipped to conduct day/night combat operations. The LCH has a two-crew tandem cockpit and is equipped with helmet-mounted targeting system, electronic warfare systems and advanced weapon systems.
Power Plant. The LCH is powered by two HAL-Turbomeca Shakti 1H1 turbo shaft engines (1430 shp each) derived from the Safran’s Ardiden turboshaft engine, driving a four blade main rotor and four blade tail rotor. The same engines are also fitted on the Dhruv and Rudra, and therefore have been amply tested for their performance in high altitude operations. The Shakti engine is being jointly developed by French Turbomeca and HAL.
Cockpit and Avionics. The Prachand LCH has a tandem seating glass cockpit with multifunction displays, a target acquisition and designation system with FLIR, laser rangefinder and designator. The cockpit has varying degree of armour protection and bullet proof glass. The helicopter is also equipped with a helmet mounted sight, an electronic warfare suite with radar warning receiver, laser warning receiver and a missile approach warning system. The LCH is also fitted with a data link for network-centric operations facilitating the transfer of mission data to the other airborne platforms and ground stations operating in the network, thereby facilitating force multiplication.
Armaments and Weapons. Due to its modular design concept the Prachand LCH can be armed with a wide variety of weaponry. These could be in terms of machine guns, cannons, rockets and missiles both air to ground and air to air. While the calibre and make of the weapon systems and armaments could be different, the Prachand LCH is capable of carrying all or a combination of armaments and weapons based on the task and operational requirement. The Prachand LCH has 20 mm Nose Gun integrated with the Helmet Mounted Sighting System, 70mm Rocket System, Helina Anti-Tank Guided Missile System, now renamed as Dhruvastra, and the French MBDA Air to Air Missile System, the Mistral 2. While the Helina integration is still an ongoing process there is currently a shortage of Mistral 2 missiles. The defining feature is the capability of air combat and engagement of UAVs.
The Prachand LCH will fill a critical void in the Indian Military’s arsenal and boost its operational capabilities at high altitudes. The Government’s approval for induction of additional 156 Prachands is a significant development and will ensure the availability of adequate platforms for deployment on both the LAC and LoC in future conflicts. However, an area which needs to be addressed on priority is the integration of the ATGM Helina/Dhruvastra and availability of Mistral 2 missiles. For an attack helicopter, without these two crucial weapon systems, it remains virtually a gunship and cannot be exploited to its full potential. The requirement of these weapon systems is equally imperative for both the Rudras and Prachands.
Lt Gen BS Pawar (Retd)