Rotorwings | Another example of Indian military diverse fleet of firepower!

By- Rishav


Defence Matrix


The introduction of air wing for military purposes has drastically and positively affected the operational capabilities of defence forces around the world. Offering ability to explore the unexplored and access the states which were inaccesible by other means of transport. The early military operated aircrafts were restricted for reconnaissance roles and limited scale bombing. However, with their huge production and utilisation in wake of World War 1, combat optimised aircrafts soon became a significant part for modern warfare, by offering huge range of mission profiles like Close Air Support, Strike, reconnaissance and most importantly, air defence.

However, as soon as first helicopter was pitched into military service, slowly and consequently, adopted as a necessary addition in every military air wing. While many early concepts were provided and also succesfully tested in 20th century, the first to lay the foundation of effective rotorwing was Sikorsky R-4 "Hoverfly", designed by Russian-American Igor Sikorsky in the late 1930s. The R-4 was first aircraft, while belonging to the classification of helicopters, to enter mass production stage and serve on World War 2, extending support services for ground troops by providing Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR). The examples from Great Britain and other powers remained marginal due to immature systems, unsatisfactory for military use. However, the Germans managed to attain the adequate skills to design rotorwing aircrafts that could be introduced for military roles.

Modern Examples

It is an obvious truth that the technological gap between early models and modern era helicopters is huge. While retaining the roles, the rotorcrafts of today now are now offers more radius of operations with addition of new systems. Dedicated types for Transport (Mi-17 "Hip") , Search and Rescue (Sea King HAR.3A), Attack (T-129 ATAK) , Anti-Ship/Submarine (SH-70 "Seahawk") and Reconnaissance (OH-1 "Ninja") are available while variants performing multirole ops are also being produced on large scale.

Types Of Helicopters

As we already discussed the state of helicopters, it is now necessary to study this classification of the military rotorcrafts based on their roles


These helicopters provide low-medium-long range troop transfer and cargo supply provision, with seating capacity, depending on the model, extend from minimum 4 passengers to 50+. The internal bay has enough size to accommodate essential supply crates/utilities as well. The largest military helicopter in service, the Russian Mil Mi-26 "Halo" offers seating for 90 passengers and nearly 20,000 kgs of payload capacity!

Transport helos are also the most common type of helicopter to enter service with military forces around the world due to high significance, but easy and low cost operation for long run.


Search And Rescue

While Transport helicopters also perform the role, a dedicated Search and Rescue helicopter comes with additional systems for easy and precise handling during missions, that includes rescue hoist, onboard life support system, and various other systems required to save souls struck by various calamities. The examples of such type are widely utilised in maritime missions, where it retrieves victim of disaster while hover the sea surface. Coast Guard units around the world are the common operators of SAR helicopters.



The realisation of attack helicopters wasn't too late, however, the ones that were actually effective adoption were introduced under unprecedented situations. The Vietnam War allowed witnessing how modifications could turn out to be a major rise in aircraft's survivability in missions. Various UH-1D helicopters deployed in the conflict featured external hardpoints, that could be mounted with guns, rocket launchers and grenade launcher. These utility helicopters turned "Gunships" provided US Army a compatible Close Air Support solution while also acting as escort for air assets, ensuring safe passage of critical mission supply and infantry.

Today, every modern attack helicopter can do the job effectively with expanded armament package, that includes air to ground rockets, anti-armor(tank) guided missiles, as well as air-to-air missiles, something that was once possessed by jet aircrafts only


A lightweight helicopter with limited systems integrated, a scout generally performs the role of reconnaissance and when installed with rockets or gun pods, serve as a light scale close air support platform. These helicopters are abundantly available as a low-cost alternative to dedicated attack helicopters. Events like Gulf War and Bosnia conflict saw scout helicopters like MD AH-6 turning out to be an effective asset and even today in Afghanistan, MD-530, successor of OH-6 is widely recognised platform to perform regular combat missions against insurgents spread across the country.


While quite less known, the helicopter based Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) platforms does exist and offers sufficient airspace surveillance and airborne command and control solution to the operators.

Indian Air Force's History with Helicopters

The first every rotorcraft solution to be procured for Indian military service was US origin Sikorsky S-55 "Whirlwind". With availability of the helicopters in two variants: 3 standard and 2 "C [Charlie]", the No.104 "Pioneer Rotarians" squadron was operationalised in 1958 as first Helicopter unit in the Indian Air Force. The helicopter served for a wide range of roles, that were cargo airlifting, troop transport, search and rescue, and as well as VIP transport tasks

With time, more modern examples were acquired, including Russian built Mil Mi-4 "Hound" that turned out to be India's mainstay airlifting solution during conflicts with China in 1962 as well as with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971

The Modern And Diverse Fleet of Indian Rotor Arm

The Indian Armed Forces today operates 11 types of 4th generation rotorcraft, with availability of examples from Russia, US, Britain, France as well as home-made. However, for the following detailed write-up, the helicopters which are yet to enter service are not covered intentionally to reflect the capabilities of primary units

Mil Mi-17 "Hip" - Russia (Transport Helicopter)

Most abundantly available, approx 230 units, the Mi-17 is the workhorse of Indian rotorwing. With provision of both armed and unarmed options, Mi-17 offers multipurpose capabilities to counter variety of threats. The Kargil War saw Mi-17 deployed for combat role. Nicknamed "Rana", the helicopter flew multiple strike sorties, deploying salvos of 57mm rockets supressing the enemy bunkers. Even after suffering one loss, the helicopters, after a temporary suspension due to SAM threat, credited with their valiant performance in Kargil
The "Version 5"(V5) in service today is capable of all-weather operations with much more enhanced survivability in hostile environments, unlike its preceding variants which were vulnerable to the changing scenario of modern combat.

Mil Mi-35 "Hind" - Russia (Assault Helicopter)

Locally nicknamed after one of most popular emperor from Indian history, the Mi-35 "Akbar" is another widely recognized and trusted weapon in service. The helicopter is known for its combat duties in UN peacekeeping missions in Africa as well as deployment in Ceylon to provide combat support to friendly Indian peacekeeping forces during Sri Lankan civil war.

Originally arrived in 90s as original Mi-24/25, the majority of the helicopters in modern day fleet are upgraded to Mi-35 standards with technical assistance from Israel. Dubbed as "Mission 24", the upgrade package added 25 upgrade kits  new systems on the platform, covering cockpit enhancements to software update. A clear visible difference before and after upgrade can be identified with IAI Tamam Helicopter Multi-mission Optronic Stablised Payload (HMOSP) Forward Looking Infra Red (FLIR) sensor integrated on the nose, that offers day/night operational capability. The un-upgraded Mi-24/25 airframes are reportedly handed over Afghanistan defence forces.


The external payload capacity of 1,500 kgs allows the platform to carry everything requires to subdue the adversary and hence live the reputation of "The Flying Tank".

Mil Mi-26 Halo - Russia (Transport Helicopter)

Introduced in service in 1986, the "mammoth" size of Mi-26 is still unmatched by any other helicopter inducted till date. Approx 20,000 kgs of payload can be carried internally while having seating capacity for 90 passengers in total makes it an ideal choice for airlifting heavy equipment that also include lorries. Another feature is its sky crane ability and hook almost every type of load, including supply crates, heavy artillery guns, and even airframes of fighter jets.

However, the major concern while operating the type is high maintenance and unsatisfactory service life. On multiple occasions, the airframes suffered with temporary grounding that left IAF with no heavy lifting solution. Out of 4 units procured from Soviet Union, one written off in 2010 crash. Today, the choppers are facing similar lack of availability and in process of overhaul in Russia after it was approved by cabinet in 2019

Kamov Ka-31 - Russia (AWACS)

Only one of its kind helicopter in service with Indian military, and with Navy to be precise. The Ka-31 "Helix" is equipped with E-801M "Eye" planar array radar providing 360° view radius via mechanical measures. The radar can simultaneously track up to 40 airborne or surface threats, can detect fighter-sized aircraft from a range of 100 - 200 km and surface ships at a horizon of 200 km. The integrated data link allows it to the network with assets of Indian Navy and direct them according to mission requirement.

Kamov Ka-28 "Helix" - Russia (Maritime Strike)

An Anti Submarine Warfare variant based on Ka-27, the Ka-28 is capable of deploying about 2000 kgs of armament carried in a lower-fuselage weapon bay, that generally comprises two torpedoes or depth charges against submarines. The sensor suite also comprises of "Splash Drop" search radar, VGS-3 dipping sonar and sonobuoys systems optimized for operating in Indian territorial waters and also commence surveillance missions when necessary

Westland Mk42B/C "Seaking"- United Kingdom (Multipurpose)

The british origin platform is tailor made for Indian Navy and serve as the backbone for the organisation due to flexible radius of roles, ranging from ASW/AShW to CSAR, depending on variant. The Mk42B sports a MEL Super Searcher radar, an Alcatel HS-12 dipping sonar and a Chelton 7 homer system to precisely conduct ASW/AshM missions with torpedoes, bombs, mines and Harpoon Anti-Ship Missile (AShM).
The Mk-42C is Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) variant of Seaking offers sufficient life support systems onboard and integrated with Bendix RDR-1400C radar for proper navigation during flights The helicopters are in full-fledged service since mid 80s and needs a replacement soon by various alternate and more modern options

AH-64E Apache - America (Attack)

Undoubtedly the "brawny brute" of Indian rotor arm. The newly acquired AH-64E continues the legacy of Apache family of heavyweight attack helicopters serving around the world since 80s and today is no way matched by any counterpart from other countries. The helicopter introduces Beyond Visual Range (BVR) combat capability with rotowing in Indian military that is not possessed by any other platform in service till now. The AGM-114 "Hellfire" missiles, when coupled with Modernized Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor (M -TADS/PNVS) and AN/APG-78 Fire Control Radar (FCR), turns out to be highly lethal weapon to precisely target multiple hostile fortifications and armors without facing visual contact.

The customized Electronic Warfare suite consisting modern radar warning receivers, laser warning receivers and missile approach warning system allows high survivability, and data linked glass cockpit with pilot equipped with Integrated Helmet And Display Sight System (IHADSS) to attain complete situational awareness. The helicopter's capability was also evaluated when it was deployed in Ladakh and frequently spptted while commencing sorties in the region

CH-47F "Chinook" - USA (Transport Helicopter)

Another legacy platform acquired recently, the Chinook directly complements the fleet of Russian Mi-17 choppers of the Indian Air Force and undertake medium-to-heavyweight airlifting duties alongside. The helicopters' top-notch payload capacity and special mission suitability makes it a formidable platform to achieve desired objectives related to quick troop and supplies transfer, by deploying effective self-defence measures when facing threats

HAL ALH Dhruv - India (Transport Helicopter)

The Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) was India's major leap in indigenous manufacturing sector. Designed and developed in assistance with German company MBB, "Dhruv" is a lightweight utility helicopter with enough endurance and capacity to transport 12 passengers upto a range of 450 kms. Also successful in export market, the ALH is also in service with 3 foreign operators, that includes Mauritius Police, Nepal Army Aviation and Maldives National Defence Force.
With more than 300 units produced till date in variety of standards, including search and rescue, transport and special mission variants, ALH Dhruv is Indian military's "go-to" platform suiting most of the mission profiles demanded by Army, Navy, Air Force as well as Coast Guard.

HAL ALH Rudra - India (Scout Helicopter)

Though officially designated under attack helicopter classification, ALH "Rudra", a Weapon Systems Integrated (WSI) variant of ALH "Dhruv", fits more under a multipurpose scout helicopter due to its lightweight feature and base of original utility helicopter. The rotorcraft comes equipped with modern 4th generation sensor suite, allowing it to sustain the combat profile in multiple mission scenarios, from swarm of surface-to-air threats to heavy electronic jamming environment.
The main highlight of the helicopter is said to be its full-package Electronic Warfare suite integrated by Swedish SAAB. Dubbed as Integrated Defensive Aids Suite (IDAS), the system sports RWS-300 Radar-Warning Receiver (RWR), LWS-310 Laser Warning Receiver (LWR), MAW-300 UV-based Missile-Approach Warning Sensor (MAWS) and BOP-L Directional

The all-weather, day/night ability of the helicopter gives no liability to its operator while pitching it to conduct strike sorties against hostiles.

HAL LCH - India (Attack Helicopter)

Took its first flight in 2010, the Light Combat Helicopter is famed for having highest service ceiling in the league of attack helicopters. However, there is still no compromise with its combat capability as the helicopter is capable of firing Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs), air to ground rockets as well as air-to-air missiles. Furnished with Integrated Avionics and Display System (IADS), the glass cockpit of the helicopter is also networked with the Target Acquisition and Designation System (TADS), a sensor suite guided by Elbit CoMPASS Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR) imaging sensor, a laser rangefinder and a laser designator to facilitate target acquisition under all-weather conditions, including under nighttime conditions. The integrated EW suite allows the pilot to attain full situational awareness while having enhanced visual aid with a Helmet Mounted Display and Sight (HMDS).

Though yet to receive official Final Operational Clearance (FOC) certificate, the LCH is still looked upon as a trustworthy platform for Indian military forces. This is indicated by the fact that LCH was temporarily pitched for operational duties in high altitude region of Ladakh amid military conflict between India and Chinese People Liberation Army.

The fleet of lightweight workhorses

The Indian air arm is not just about having dedicated platforms for dedicated service, there is also a wode range of lightweight single engine examples which are mostly license produced models, that are HAL Chetak and HAL Cheetah, based on Aérospatiale Alouette III and Aérospatiale SA 315B "Lama", both of French origin. Today, both Cheetah and Cheetah are serving on frontlines, carrying a wide range of responsibilities, from Search And Rescue (SAR), transport, troop transfer, etc. Even today, the rotorcrafts are in production with much more enhanced systems including glass cockpit and self defence suites, and regularly ordered for procurement by the respectives services to meet the requirements under low cost.

The Wonder Of Availability

One of the main arguments by critics state that having such a fleet of weapons with examples from multiple nations often leads to "logistical nightmare", when all the platforms are not able to gain sufficient availability rate and hence, fails to meet the operational requirements during conflicts. However, the situation in Indian subcontinent is different and the armed forces have managed to pitch almost every platform to combat lines
While being a significant component of combat ops, the helicopters also turned out to be a lifeline during humanitarian assistance. The Indian armed forces have been utilising rotorcrafts since decades to conduct sorties during calamities in the region. Jungle Fires, Earthquakes, Tsunami, Flood and various other calamities witnessed helicopters on front while deploying supplies and airlift the victims.

The Road Ahead

The approach is now shifted to choose indigenous solutions while also keeping foreign alternatives in the list for few cases. The Indian Air Force is ready to receive new limited series production Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) after series of trials triumphed by the prototypes. The Indian Navy has only few months left to procure state-of-the-art Sikorsky MH-60R "Romeo" helicopters. Indian Army Aviation Corps is also in line to receive its share of new generation attack helicopters, Boeing AH-64E "Guardian" Apaches and LCH as well. The Coast Guard, quite silent but significant branch of Indian military, is highly satisfied with ALH Dhruv helicopters and looking forward to acquire additional units to meet the demands of SAR.
With multiple indigenous developments in progress and various acquisition projects expecting approval in future, the 4th strongest airpower is going to have a capable rotorwing to maintain the future of the airspace.