Last Friday, Hindustan Aeronautics’ (HAL) eponymous Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) successfully test-fired an air-to-air missile, engaging and destroying a fast-flying Banshee air target with a direct hit at a test range at Chandipur, Odisha.
This means LCH pilots can fire the heat-seeking Mistral missile, sourced from Anglo-French missile firm MBDA, allowing the heavily armed and armoured helicopter to shoot down enemy aircraft 6 kilometres away.
Last year, the LCH successfully test-fired the two other weapons it carries — a Nexter cannon mounted below the helicopter’s nose, which fires a thousand 20-millimetre steel bullets each minute, shredding enemy soldiers and even light armoured vehicles.
Also successfully tested last year was the LCH’s 70-millimetre Thales rockets, which are mounted on pods on either side of the helicopter. Now all that remains to make the LCH a full-fledged attack helicopter is the addition of an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). Towards this the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) is putting finishing touches on its helicopter-mounted Nag missile (HELINA).
“This is the first time in the country that a helicopter has carried out air to air missile engagement… With this, LCH has successfully completed all weapon integration tests and is ready for operational induction,” said HAL chief, R Madhavan, in an official release. The LCH will enable the Army to provide fire support to soldiers at altitudes of 15,000-20,000 feet, where the oxygen-depleted air prevents them from carrying weaponry heavier than their personal rifles and light machine guns.
For soldiers charging uphill at extreme altitudes to capture an enemy bunker, an attack helicopter in support, firing bullets and rockets to keep enemy heads down, could be the difference between success and failure, life and death.
Towards this, the LCH was especially designed to operate up to 20,000 feet. French engine-maker Safran (earlier Turbomeca) specially designed its Shakti engine to deliver outstanding high-altitude performance. The Shakti engine, which is now being built in Bengaluru, powers HAL troika of successful helicopters: the Dhruv advanced light helicopter, Rudra weaponised helicopter, and the LCH. “LCH is the only attack helicopter in the world capable of operating at altitudes as high as Siachen glacier,” HAL announced on Thursday.
The LCH will also be essential to Army mechanized offensives in the plains of Punjab and Rajasthan. The Army’s Cold Start Doctrine hinges on “integrated battle groups” (IBGs) striking across the border and rapidly overwhelming enemy defences. For that, heavy, accurate and flexible fire support is essential, using platforms like the LCH.
The LCH obtained “initial operational certification” (IOC) in August 2017. The Army has committed to ordering 114 LCHs and the air force 65 – totally 179 helicopters. But, so far, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has so far only approved the building of 15 “limited series production” LCHs for about Rs 3,500 crore.
On a visit to HAL’s helicopter complex in Bengaluru, Business Standard found that HAL had already begun building the 15 LCHs cleared for production, even though the Army and IAF were still to place orders. HAL executives said they are aiming for a production rate of 18-20 helicopters per year.
The LCH, with its Rs 231 crore price tag, is the most heavily armed and expensive of HAL’s successful helicopter lines. The Rudra, or weaponised Dhruv costs about half of that, while the Dhruv is currently priced at about Rs 70 crore each.
At current prices, the cost of building all 179 LCHs would add up to over Rs 40,000 crore and necessitate the building of a new assembly line in Bengaluru or Tumkur.
The 5.5 tonne LCH seats two pilots, one-behind-the-other, in an armoured cockpit that protects them from bullets and shrapnel. The LCH’s features include a hinge-less main rotor, a bearing-less tail rotor, integrated dynamic system, crashworthy landing gear and an intelligent, all-glass cockpit. HAL says the pilots have state-of-the-art helmet-mounted sights, which allow them to fire missiles at a target merely by turning their head and looking at it.