Aero India: Indigenous combat helicopter set to bare fangs

LCH missile firing The Light Combat Helicopter test-firing a Mistral air-to-air missile | Twitter handle of HAL

The Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) is at striking distance from being inducted into the armed forces. The designers and test crew at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (LTD) vouch for the LCH's might, with four prototypes having completed the pre-induction trials as mandated by the users—the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian Army.

During a recent visit to the Rotary Wing Research and Design Centre (RWRDC) of HAL, Onmanorama was briefed by the officials about the future flightpath of the combat helicopter programme.

The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had cleared the proposal to induct an initial batch of 15 LCHs. Notwithstanding the final orders to formally come, HAL had gone ahead and began the process of manufacturing the limited series production (LSP) platforms.

Of the 15 LSPs, 10 are for the IAF and the remaining five for the Indian Army. There’s an additional projection of 65 LCHs for the IAF and 97 for the Indian Army. The LSP of LCHs was launched in August 2017 by Arun Jaitley, when he was holding the additional portfolio of defence.

Post-completion of all trials, HAL officials now say that they are confident of the LCH becoming one of the most resourceful and potent helicopters for high-altitude missions. The programme has already got initial operational clearance (IOC).

The officials said that during firing trials, the LCH performed excellently, meeting accuracy requirements.

“This is the first attack helicopter with us, which has aerial combat capabilities. A moving UAV can be taken on easily with an air-to-air missile or with the front gun. This was a capability gap the services had and LCH will fill it now,” an official said.

When asked about the ‘many firsts’ the LCH offers the user, the HAL official said, “LCH has an efficient navigation system that enables delivery of weapons with accuracy measured in milliradians.

Be it day or night, you can rely on LCH autopilot, while the optical devices ensure you pick up the target with ease.”

Last month, the LCH had successfully fired the Mistral-2 air-to-air-missile (ATAM), hitting a moving aerial target, during the weapon trials held at the Integrated Test Range at Chandipur in Odisha.

LCH is the only attack helicopter in the world capable of landing and take-off with considerable payload at high altitudes such as the Siachen Glacier.

The need for a dedicated combat helicopter, which can operate effectively at high altitudes with considerable payload, in terms of weapons and ammunition, was an immediate fallout of the Kargil War in 1999. Subsequently, the requirement for a dedicated combat helicopter was provided by the IAF in August 2003.

At present, the Indian armed services have dedicated weapon platforms of Russian origin, which have limitations for operations at the high altitudes and LCH is expected to fit in that role.

7 LSPs getting ready

Seven LSP platforms are at various stages of manufacturing at the assembly hangars of HAL currently.

“This is the new thought process as we are sure to get the orders and our idea is to deliver the choppers at the earliest. We are confident to hand over the first LCH well within the contractual schedule,” the official claimed.

He said LCH, with the versatile features built in for combat missions, had tremendous export capability.

“We have the capability to customise and integrate systems and weapons as per the customer requirement. HAL has now obtained the NOC (no objection certificate) from the ministry of defence to explore the possibilities to export LCH to Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Angola, Egypt, Indonesia, Ecuador and Nigeria,” the official added.

The designers have learnt many lessons from the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) programme of HAL that came in handy for the LCH project as well. Today, the ALH Dhruvs are being used widely by the Indian Army in addition to the IAF and the Indian Navy.

“The development issues and resolutions for integration of critical systems—such as rotor, transmission, engines and controls system—all were lessons from ALH. Even the implementation of schemes for vibration reduction and enhancement of handling qualities too came from our past experience. The knowledge of weapon system integration and maintainability optimisation too were chapters from the past,” the official said.

The LCH has a narrow fuselage with tandem seating, crash-worthy fixed tricycle type with tail wheel landing gear, reduced infrared(IR) and radar signature, armour protection, aerofoil-type armament wing and directional control by push-pull cable and is capable of day/night operations. It is the first helicopter to have NVG III-equivalent standard for night flying in India.

To make the LCH meaner, based on user inputs, the designer had worked on shaping and sizing of the platform, including making the fuselage sleek, reducing the frontal area with aerofoil-type armament wing and embedding stealth features by reduced visual, aural, IR and radar signatures.

To up the lethal capability, the weapons and mission systems have now been provided self-protection systems. Presently, the LCH is integrated with a 20-mm turret gun, 70-mm rockets and air-to-air missiles. Plans are afoot to integrate the LCH with air-to-surface missiles, iron/cluster bombs and anti-radiation missiles.

Advantages galore

To a specific query on what advantages the LCH offers pilots during combat, the HAL official said that the high manoeuvrability with use of hinge-less rotors and nap-of-the-earth flying capability will make the platform lethal. Nap-of-the-earth flying or NOE is a very low-altitude-type flying to avoid enemy detection. In such flights, the pilots use the geographical surrounding to their advantage.

“With sleek fuselage and crisp controls, we have made a chopper that is really swift and sure. With the increasing threat from low-flying aerial weapons, the Indian armed forces have been in search of an effective weapon platform to counter and ensure protection of military formations. Equipped with HMDS (helmet-mounted display system) and FLIR (forward-looking infrared) and augmenting the onboard weapons, LCH pilots can now detect and destroy any target on ground or in air,” the official said.

LCH is capable of operating from dispersed locations and at ultra-low levels, proving a protective umbrella from all aerial threats. “LCH guarantees mission success,” the official added.

At Aero India 2019, the near-production version of LCH (TD-4) will be doing the flying duties, while another one will be on the static display. LCH is a ‘Make in India’ product and would generate employment in the country including MSMEs and service sector, thereby ensuring public-private industry participation. It is a matter of time before LCH would fly in large numbers for service, similar to its elder sibling the Dhruv.

Anantha Krishnan M. is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake.

-Via onmanorama