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November 23, 2011

Army in pursuit of winged dream

(Times of India) : The Indian Air Force may crib all it wants, but the Army is pressing on regardless - with its plans to have its own air force, albeit a 'mini' one. Fighter jets may not be on its wish-list, but the 1.13-million strong force wants everything else, from attack helicopters to fixed-wing aircraft.

Army's long-term plans include a squadron each of attack/armed, reconnaissance/observation and tactical battle-support copters for each of its 13 corps. The three 'strike' corps, with HQs at Mathura (1 Corps), Ambala (2 Corps) and Bhopal (21 Corps) will get more 'air assets' in keeping with their primary offensive role, say sources.

To top it off, each of Army's six regional or operational commands will at least get 'a flight' of five fixed-wing aircraft for tactical airlift of troops and equipment. "Army Aviation Corps, which is observing its 25th anniversary this month and operates around 250 light helicopters, has plans till the end of the 14th Plan (2022-27)," said a source.

In the short to medium term, AAC plans to induct 259 light-utility and observation helicopters to replace its ageing Cheetah and Chetak fleets that service Siachen, Kargil and other high-altitude areas.

Army Aviation Corps also wants 140 multi-role tactical battle-support helicopters to provide 'integral tactical lift to its formations' and 114 light combat helicopters that are being developed indigenously.

Army is slated to get its first-ever attack helicopter squadron by February-March. These copters will be weaponized versions of indigenous Dhruv advanced light helicopters, called the Rudra, armed with 20mm turret guns, 70mm rockets, air-to-air missiles and anti-tank guided missiles.

Army and Indian Air Force have long been engaged in the bitter dogfight over 'air assets', which erupted even during the 1999 Kargil conflict. The persistent turf war forced defence minister A K Antony to call for a ceasefire, maintaining the two forces should work in synergy by reconciling differences.

Holding that IAF does not fully comprehend its operational philosophy and concepts like 'close air support' or 'nuances of the tactical battle area', Army says it wants 'full command and control' over 'tactical air assets' for rapid deployment.

IAF contends 'air assets' are 'scarce resources' that should be handled by a force with operational expertise and requisite 'air-mindedness'. But Army is unconvinced.

Itfeels the IAF can continue with its larger 'strategic role' and the 'tactical role' should be left to it.

For one, AAC aviators and engineers are drawn from Army combat arms, like infantry, mechanized infantry, armoured corps, air defence and artillery.

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