The Kargil war of 1999 was one of the most difficult wars fought in the history of the world, with the Indian Army (IA) having to literally fight an uphill battle against a well dug in enemy that had the advantage of both the element of surprise as well as topography. Despite the IA’s victory the war served to highlight some critical deficiencies in Indian preparedness. One such critical deficiency was the lack of dedicated attack helicopters which could perform missions at very high altitudes.
As such, the Indian Air force (IAF) initially tried to use Mi 24/35 attack helicopters but these aircraft failed to cross the Srinagar area (due to service ceiling limitations) following which it was decided to use Mi 17 transport helicopters, armed with rocket pods to attack the heights of Tololing & on May 28 1999. Unfortunately, this too proved sub-optimal with one Mi 17, that was a part of a 4-gunship formation, getting shot down by an enemy FIM-92 Stinger MANPADS, leading to the tragic demise of its four crew members.
Image: Light Combat Helicopter (LCH)
After the end of the Kargil War it was clear that India required an attack helicopter which was fast and agile even at high altitudes. In 2006, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), declared an intention to develop a dedicated attack helicopter meant to operate at very high altitudes derived from the HAL Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv, which had itself been introduced in 2002 and proved its worth in the Himalayas. The new attack helicopter mean for operations in the Himalayas was called the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH).
Now, as with every new design there were delays in the development of the LCH. Despite being based on the Dhruv, the LCH was after all a new design. Be that as it may, the delays meant that the Indian Military decided that a faster solution would be to develop an attack helicopter version of HAL ALH without comprehensive modifications to the structure of the helicopter itself. This version came to be known as the HAL RUDRA or ALH MK IV. The Rudra received initial operational clearance (IOC) with the IA in 2012, with production commencing in 2013.
Image: IAAC Rudra Night Flying
Now the advantage of this development was that instead of having just one, India today has two indigenous attack helicopters in the form of the Rudra and the LCH. But this in itself is also an issue. Today when the LCH has already entered limited series production and is even being used by the IAF in Ladakh, HAL is still awaiting mass production orders for the LCH. This, even though a total 179 units of the LCH were envisioned, shared between the IA (114) & the IAF (65), when the project was first conceived back in 2006. The hesitation on the part of the services to actually come good on their initial projections, stems for various factors but one major factor is the presence and wide acceptance of HAL Rudra in both IA & IAF service. Between the two services, some 90-plus Rudra units are already operational with more on order.
One major factor for the Indian Military’s dithering on placing major orders for the LCH, given the existence of both helicopters, is apparently cost. The Rudra costs about Rs 140 crores or $20 million per unit, while the LCH somewhat more. On the flip side, however, large orders for the LCH may actually allow HAL to bring down the flyaway cost of the LCH. And then, even with HAL adding sensors such as a radar mast or aides such as a missile air warning system (MAWS), a fully-equipped LCH would only be a third more expensive than a Rudra. This is additional expense would be well worth-it given the significant jump in capability and survivability. Indeed, despite both design sharing many critical components and sub-systems, the fact remains that the LCH in any case has certain advantages over the Rudra, on account of it being designed as an attack helicopter from the ground up despite its overall Dhruv lineage.
Eliminating similarities and capabilities, let us delineate some of the advantages the LCH has over the Rudra
- The LCH has higher a chance of survival against hostile enemy action due to its sleeker design which was possible because of tandem cockpit configuration.
- The LCH has superior infrared & acoustic signature management as compared to the Rudra making it less prone to enemy detection and more survivable to heat-seeking MANPADS. The radar cross section of the LCH is also lower than that of the Rudra.
- The LCH is more agile than the Rudra which itself is has impressive agility. The former’s agility is maintained even at high altitudes where the LCH is actually unmatched even if one were to consider the rest of the world’s attack helicopters.
LCH showing its agility during Aero India
- The LCH is armoured and has a crash resistant tricycle landing gear which minimizes the chances of pilot fatalities in the case of a crash.
- The fuel tank of the LCH is self-sealing, which eliminates the chances of fuel leaking or ignition in case of penetration by a projectile.
- LCH prototype TD-2 was the first Indian helicopter to sport a digital camouflage pattern which combined with its sleek fuselage profile makes it difficult to spot using electro-optical systems or enemy eyeballs.
Listed above are just a few of the advantages the LCH has over the Rudra.
So, even if the final contractual price of the LCH were to be a third higher than that of the Rudra, it is important to understand that the former’s overall effectiveness exceeds that of the latter by a considerable margin. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, if ordered in adequate numbers the price of the LCH will decline further, thereby closing the acquisition cost gap with the Rudra which has enjoyed a quite large order size thereby enjoying economies of scale.
At the end of the day, the Rudra & the LCH are sibling aircraft and not rivals. They can actually complement each other in various theatres of operation. Though the Rudra is a great platform which has been inducted & ordered in sufficient numbers & is serving India well, given that the LCH has matured, the Armed forces would do well to support the further growth of this platform as well. After all, if produced in numbers, the LCH can serve as an attractive offering on the export market as well, since not all countries can afford something in the class of the latest Apache helicopter variants. In any case, the Apache was never designed to operate at the altitudes the LCH claims as its own.
Hitesh Adhikari is a mechanical engineer by training and has worked in the automotive sector in the past. A long-time defence watcher, he started DEFENCEGLOBE in 2015 to help those aspiring to join India’s Armed forces learn about military systems and the associated strategic issues.
© Delhi Defence Review. Reproducing this content in full without permission is prohibited.