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Army gets choppers

New Delhi, Oct. 12: The government has decided in favour of the army in a row with the air force over the ownership of attack helicopters, three days after defence minister A.K. Antony described the turf war as a “family dispute”.

Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne had strongly opposed the move to assign attack helicopters to the army. The country cannot afford these “little air forces” he had said. The Union home ministry also proposes to raise its own air wing.

The minister had referred the dispute to national security adviser (NSA) Shiv Shankar Menon for a second opinion. The NSA sent his report to Antony earlier this week. On Wednesday, the ministry wrote to army chief Gen. Bikram Singh saying all future attack helicopters acquired by the armed forces would be assigned to the army.

Though the reasons for the decision were not spelt out, the army’s argument was that it wanted tighter command and control over the aerial asset tasked primarily to function jointly with land forces in combat.

The two squadrons of Mi 25 and Mi 35 currently with the air force are also required to operate along with the army. Attack helicopters are meant for close air support, in urban warfare and in high-altitude warfare, along with ground forces, the army had argued.

“We have received a letter from the defence ministry and we have been given the attack helicopters by the government,” Gen. Singh said today.

The letter to the army chief is also understood to have said that medium-lift helicopters — such as the Mi-17 V5 being inducted from Russia and are to be used in counter-Naxalite operations — will continue to be with the air force. However, there will be “a review of their operational prioritisation”, a source in the defence ministry said. This could lead to the army having a greater say in their use.

With the ministry settling in favour of the army, Boeing-made AH64D Apache Longbow Block III helicopters are also likely to go to the Army Aviation Corps, the force’s air wing. The air force selected the US’s Apache over the Russian Mil Mi 28 Havoc and the Ka-50 Black Shark after trials.

Air Chief Marshal Browne said the contract, with an estimated value of over $1.4 billion, would be signed by the end of the current fiscal.

The army has projected a requirement of 10 squadrons of attack helicopters, each to be assigned to three strike corps and seven “pivot” (defensive) corps. The helicopters would make the army more mobile.

Over the next five to 10 years, the army may have two types of attack helicopters — the Apache and the Hindustan Aeronautics (Bangalore)-made Light Combat Helicopter. The Army Aviation Corps currently operates Cheetah, Chetak and Dhruv helicopters.

When he was asked about the turf war, Antony had said earlier this week: “There is no tussle and there is no war. These are all family problems and we will find a solution. We are in the final stages of finding the solution amicably. Don’t go beyond that.”

But the decision has not gone down well with the air force, which sees it as an infringement on its area of responsibility. The air force is primarily responsible for securing the country’s airspace.

Last week, Air Chief Marshal Browne, who is also the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee — the most senior military commander in the country — said the air force had rejected the army’s demand for control of attack and medium-lift helicopters. “Tomorrow, the coast guard may say give us the navy’s submarines. How can we allow that?” Browne had said when asked about the army’s demand.


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