The US army lost more than 3,300 of its 7,000 helicopters deployed in the Vietnam war. During Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in 2002, it lost several heavy-lift Chinook helicopters, along with their pilots and special forces troops on board. The Indian Air Force, on the other hand, lost just one Mi-17 helicopter in the Kargil war. That, too, because the Army had pressured the Air Force to use choppers to attack Pakistani troops.
These stats were salvos fired by the Air Force at a recent meeting chaired by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. Their target: the Indian Army. Their intent: to establish the Air Force's superiority over the Army in aerial combat capability.
For a while now, the Army and the Air Force have been locked in a battle over the control of transport and attack choppers, such as the Russian-made Mi-17 V5 and the soon-to-be-procured AH-64D Apache. The Army says Air Force pilots do not understand battles fought on ground and, hence, lack skills to provide effective air support. It points out that major armies, like that of the US, have their own air wing that operates helicopters and fighter jets.
The tug-of-war between the Army and the Air Force has reached such a point that the two services now waste no opportunity to one-up each other. During relief operations in earthquake-hit Nepal, Army and IAF pilots were seen racing each other to land at difficult mountain tops and rescue people.
The fight for helicopters started soon after the Modi government came to power last year. The Army said it should be allotted 22 Apaches, all armed with Hellfire and Stinger missiles, which India is planning to buy from the US for $1.5 billion. The Army says its case is bolstered by a 2012 ruling by Shivshankar Menon, who was national security adviser to the UPA government. Menon had decided that all “future attack helicopters” procured by India would be put under the control of the Army.
At the time of the ruling, though, it was thought that the matter had been settled. The Air Force, which was negotiating the Apache deal, thought the choppers were its due. The Army, however, believes that the word “future” in the ruling is open to interpretation, as the Apaches have not yet been procured.
In 2013, at the peak of the rivalry between the services, then Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne ridiculed the Army's demand for attack helicopters, saying the Coast Guard cannot be given submarines. The Army, however, was undeterred. It asked the Modi government for control of not only attack helicopters, but also Mi-17 V5 transport choppers, which are under the Air Force. The recent attacks by the Air Force, however, have so stunned the Army that, in a recent meeting headed by Lt Gen Philip Campose, it decided to drop the claim over transport helicopters for the time being.
The Army has major plans of expanding its air wing. Apart from creating a permanent cadre for the Army Aviation Corps, it is raising “aviation brigades” for each of its four strike corps and ten other corps deployed along the borders with Pakistan and China.
The Air Force, however, is far from impressed. An air marshal told THE WEEK that it would be “very expensive” if the Army duplicated the Air Force's capabilities and resources by getting its own “little air force”. On the Army's reasoning that the US army has its own air wing, the officer said India does not have expeditionary forces and that the Indian Army is not deployed in isolation in foreign lands. Also, the Army already controls two squadrons of Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters, even though they are flown by pilots wearing Air Force uniforms.