The Dark Knight Rises: India’s Light Combat Helicopter

 V1.0 January 1, 2013


Neeraj Kakar


This article originally appeared at and was sent to CIMH by the author



On May 28th 1999, at the height of Kargil war, a four ship formation of Mi-17s flew close to point 5140 on the Tololing ridge to destroy enemy bunkers. It was fired at with multiple Stinger SAMs in a coordinated attack, downing one Mi-17. The helicopter was not equipped with chaff pods and IR sensors for automatic dispensation of flares.  Even these countermeasures would not have ensured the survival of the helicopter in an attack by multiple SAMs, because the Mi-17 is a bulky helicopters, not maneuverable enough to evade the heat seekers in every scenario especially when operating at the limit of its flight envelope. The Mi-17 is not designed as a combat helicopter. It is primarily a transport helicopter, though it can be armed with rockets for ground suppression.  

All four crew lost their lives and the morale of IAF which had already lost a MIG 27 and a MIG 21 in Batalik plummeted. More than that, the Mi-17 loss  exposed a major shortcoming in India’s helicopter capability and weaponry. The Mi-17s were removed from frontal offensives, forcing changes in India’s strategy for the worse.

Before the Mirages could be deployed for Operation Safed Sagar, it had become increasingly frustrating for the IAF as it lacked the means of attacking enemy bunkers at a height of 20,000 feet. The Mi-35 had been battle tested by the Russians in Afghanistan only to 10,000-feet. And among st the fighter fleet, only the Mirages were equipped with laser designator pods capable of delivering LGBs. It was quite late in the war that the Israelis helped with 1000-pound Paveway-II LGBs. Moreover a fighter air-to-ground operation at such heights is extremely cumbersome as it needs careful planning based on analysis of extensive reconnaissance footage. Conversely, a heliborne search and destroy mission needs only the  bare minimum intelligence and groundwork.

The mutual confidence between IAF and the Army, built out of many well-coordinated close air support missions during the 1971 war was shattered. Army top brass openly accused the IAF of being incapable of taking out enemy bunkers before ground assault,  forcing the Army to depend on its howitzers and Pianka batteries which were delivering moderate results. On the other hand the IAF termed the Army’s expectations as its naivety in understanding the environment in which airborne assets operate and the manner in which they need to be preserved.

In the days to come this was to become a major bone of contention between the Army and IAF. Consequently, a-fter years of deliberations a decision has been made to allow the Army its own combat helicopters.  By 2022, the Army’s all three strike corps (1, 2 and 21) will have an aviation brigade having two squadrons with 12 attack helicopters each. The upcoming mountain strike corps may have an aviation brigade as well.

The Kargil War ended in a victory but not without heavy casualties. During post Kargil analysis it was realized that India needed a helicopter gunship that could operate at heights of 20,000-feet and beyond, to fend off any Pakistani misadventure in the future and pose a deterrent to China in Ladakh and the northeast.

In 2006 the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) program was launched. The ASR defined a 5.5 ton tandem seat helicopterg helicopter with a service ceiling of 6500m, primarily for High Altitude Warfare but also capable of Anti-Infantry, Anti-Armor, COIN and other special operations like defense against enemy UAVs. The project picked up steam under ACM Fali Homi Major who was the first helicopter pilot Air Chief Marshal.

A-fter  40 months, the LCH TD1- ZP 4601 took off on its first flight  on 29th March 2010. The nimble machine immediately grabbed the attention of international defense watchers as it was unique in many ways and most of all, beyond the perceived capability of HAL. It was flown by test pilots Wg Cdr Unni Pillai and Gp Capt. Hari Nair. At Aero India 2011, they stunned the audience with a spectacular flying display, confidently flaunting maneuvers as if flying a mature machine. TD 2 with a pioneering digital camouflage flew a year later on 28th June 2011. TD1 will primarily to check maneuverability and performance in the flight envelope whereas TD2 will be used for weapons integration tests.

What makes the LCH unique: The best thing about an indigenous piece of equipment is that it is tailored for the needs of our armed forces. There is no other combat helicopter in production in the world that can fly to 20,000-feet fully loaded with guided munitions. There has been a lot of productive reuse from the ALH Dhruv and Rudra programs. It has the same transmission box, Integrated Defense Suite and Automatic Flight Control System as the Rudra. It also uses the ALH’s proven hingeless composite rotor that makes it extremely agile. The LCH also uses the same Turbomeca Shakti engines (2 x Ardiden 1H1) which provide it the highest power to weight ratio in its class. The LCH has an extremely low disc loading of 41.01 kg/m2 as compared to Super cobra – 50 Kg/m2 and the Apache at 62 kg/m2. A low disc loading provides the LCH with an awesome high altitude hover capability while compromising marginally on its speed. But the LCH has already done 220-kmph in forward flight and designers are confident of achieving the target of 275-kmph .

The LCH has a redesigned convoluted exhaust facing upwards to reduce IR signature and an indigenous IR suppression system. The tail rotor is bearingless, negating the chances of an in-flight failure. Push-pull cables have been used instead of rods to reduce weight and for better maintenance. Its two stage crashworthy undercarriage and composite fuselage has a better crash survivability of 10.5m/s vertical velocity that translates to 85% survivability. To add to its survivability, its fuel tanks automatically seal in case of a crash. It also has radar absorbing composite armor protecting the crucial areas. The LCH can operate during the night as well and has a pressurized cockpit allowing it to operate at heights beyond 15000--ft. The test pilots have claimed that the LCH has excellent straight line stability which is essential for weapons delivery and provides an extremely agile and crisp flying experience.

The Electro-Optical pod located on the chin of LCH comprises a day time CCD camera, a forward looking IR camera for night operations, a laser range finder and a laser designator. These are coupled with a dedicated target acquisition and designation system integrated with helmet mounted sight. The LCH is armed with 20mm cannon on a Nexter Turret, 70 mm rockets and MBDA air-to-air guided missiles. The LCH is extremely stealthy at just half the RCS of ALH Dhruv, and has the latest EW suite from SAAB. Avionics have been developed indigenously with help from Israeli consultants. Directional IR sensors and missile approach warning system is being sourced from DRDO. DRDO will also provide a tactical two way Datalink for network centric operations in tandem with UAVs and AEW&C in the long run. There is more exciting news, the LCH may be equipped with an anti-radiation missile for SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense) roles. HATSOFF simulation courseware for the LCH is also in the offing. HELINA or another ATGM may also be integrated in the future. To top it all, the total cost of the program is pegged at 70 million dollars; this is a small fraction of  comparable  western programs. The LCH has a hover capability beyond 15,000-ft.

TD1 has already been test flown beyond a height of 20,000-ft. TD2 has been flown to 10,000-ft with an all-up weight of 4900 kgs. The armament boom on TD 2 has been redesigned to reduce drag.  Nonetheless, there are some unknowns.  There is little clarity on the standards of armor, considering that an AUW weight of 5.5 ton may have been achieved by compromising on the armor. It is uncertain if the LCH  will be able to take 12.7 mm hits without rupturing its hydraulics and cables. Though there have been improvements in TD 2, the rear pilot’s view may still be a concern. Without an active Vibration Control System, weather the metal sandwich composite panels will hold together in the long run is yet to be seen. All these aspects have to be looked into before operational clearance can be granted.

Nonetheless,  CEMILAC and DGAQA have been praiseworthy of the quality processes being followed by HAL. Earlier this year the LCH was moved from Yelahanka to Chennai for sea level trials which included calibration, performance and handling tests. Next are hot and cold tests in Rajasthan and Leh and then the weapon tests before operational clearance can be granted. In all, 620 hours of flight testing is required for operational clearance, out of which roughly 130 hours have been clocked till now.

Meeting the IAF’s requirements has never been easy; something that can operate in icy cold Leh as well as the extreme heat of Thar, in the marshes of the Rann of Kutch as well as the heights of the Siachen glacier. So like most indigenous efforts, it has had its own set of challenges. At 3 tons, TD1 was roughly 500 Kg heavier in empty weight than the prescribed ASR, it is believed that the IAF has accepted TD2 at 2700 kgs. This may however have reduced the payload or the service ceiling marginally. The Chinese WZ-10 has been struggling with its crash worthiness; their prototypes are still using foreign engines as they struggle on their indigenous engine with help from Ukraine.  A Turkish T129 crashed in Italy delaying the program by a few years. And the Tiger has had serious issues with its electrical wiring as Eurocopter struggles to find buyers in a weak EU economy to be able to fund future enhancements. As a result furthe Tiger development has been stalled. .

If all goes well, production of LCH will start somewhere around 2015. In all 65 (5 squadrons) have been ordered by the IAF and 114 (9 squadrons) by the Army. Eventually, India will have close to 400 attack helicopters. This includes 179 LCH, 76 Rudra, 22 AH 64D Apache Longbows Block III, 139 Mi-17 V-5 which are coming in the weapons configuration and 25 odd upgraded MI-35s.

Even though Kargil turned out to be a political blunder for Pakistan, militarily it was indeed a superb plan hatched by General Musharraf.  Without a fight Pakistan gained the heights overlooking the vital Srinager-Leh road. The LCH negates the possibility of another such adventure.  Considering that most of the terrain along the LAC and LOC is mountainous, the LCH will become a game changer for high altitude warfare in the times to come. It is as big an achievement and a deterrent as the Agni V. It puts India in a select club of countries that can produce a sophisticated state of the art attack helicopter. The LCH can also be a great export candidate.

The success of LCH program also proves that acquiring indigenous technologies may have a longer learning curve, but once a technology threshold is achieved, subsequent derivate platforms can be materialized much faster as the rate of technology absorption progresses exponentially. Many critics have pointed out the high percentage of foreign components in our indigenous programs; we must keep in mind that these analyses are purely based on the cost of components, which may be misleading in many cases. It is time we had faith in our indigenous programs and the organizations that execute them.