HAL LCH Production model
-Sunit Sunil Mani
Aero India 2021 hasn’t started yet but a lot of photographs from the pre-preparation are surfacing. The latest one is the “Production Variant” of LCH. The helicopter can be seen in IAF’s tipnis grey. The first serial production LCH will have the Tail number “ZF 4831”.
The Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) is an Indian multi-role attack helicopter designed and manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). As of currently, it upholds fame for being the world’s lightest attack helicopter and helicopter with the highest flight ceiling. The LCH will be ordered by the Indian Army Aviation Corps (AAC), with a total of 97 units being planned on induction. The Air Force has currently taken in 2 prototypes for testing and has also plans to orders another 65 units to be inducted. HAL also appears to be on the lookout for export customers for the LCH.
Brief History of the LCH
The Kargil War, between India and Pakistan in 1999, revealed the Indian military’s lack of a suitable armed rotorcraft capable of operating unrestricted in high-altitude theatres. This gave HAL and the Indian Armed Forces a motive to invest time and effort into developing an armed rotary wing craft to support the troops in the region. There was considerable interest in not only acquiring a suitable contemporary rotorcraft for high-altitude operations but also to replace several aging types in Indian military service, such as the Cheetah and Chetak. In addition to that, there was also a significant motivation for such an aircraft to be domestically developed and manufactured in India.
On 29 March 2010, the first LCH prototype performed its maiden flight. During its testing phase, the LCH gained recognition for being the first attack helicopter to land in Siachen, having landed at several high altitude helipads multiple times, some of which being as high as 15,800 feet. Mid-2016, the LCH was recognised as having completed its performance trials, paving way for the certification of its basic configuration. On 26 August 2017, limited series production of the LCH was formally inaugurated.
Design and Development of LCH
The Dhruv, an earlier indigenous helicopter developed and manufactured by HAL, became the starting point of development for the LCH because it has been attributed as significantly reducing the cost of the programme. This can be clearly seen in the similarities shared between the LCH and the Dhruv. Shared elements between the two helicopters include the power-plant used, both being powered by a pair of co-developed HAL/Turbomeca Shakti-1H1 derived from Safran Ardiden turboshaft engines. The features that are unique to the rotorcraft include its narrow fuselage, a crashworthy tricycle landing gear arrangement, crashworthy self-sealing fuel tanks, armour protection, and a low visual profile. . Basing the LCH on the Dhruv provides an already existing base platform for HAL to develop the LCH on. In addition it is also expected to greatly reduce the associated costs of the programme, which was estimated to be roughly ₹376 crore (US$52.7 million) in 2010.
The design and development of the HAL Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) was done in-house, by the Rotary Wing Research and Design Centre (RWR&DC). The LCH is designed as a multirole combat helicopter, designed to perform various attack profiles, including relatively high altitude flight. It is equipped with a two-person tandem cockpit that accommodates a pilot and co-pilot/gunner. The primary task of the LCH is performing both the anti-infantry and anti-armour missions. Additionally, the LCH can also be reorganised to fit into a pool of operational scenarios, such as perform air defence against slow-moving aerial targets, participation in counter-insurgency operations and Counter Surface Force Operations, destruction of enemy air defence operations and wider offensive use during urban warfare conditions, escort to special heliborne operations , support of combat search and rescue operations, and armed aerial scouting duties.
Looking at the basic configuration of the LCH, it boasts a narrow fuselage and is equipped with stealth profiling and armour protection. This makes it more than suitable to conduct day-and-night combat operations. The helicopter also features an extensive arsenal of protective measures including a digital camouflage system, an infrared (IR) suppressor fitted to the engine exhaust, and an exterior covered by canted flat panels to minimise its radar cross-section. It also has hingeless main rotors and bearing-less tail rotor, which work in conjunction with an anti-resonance isolation system to dampen vibrations and further lowering the acoustic profile of the rotorcraft.
Avionics and Armaments
The LCH is furnished with a glass cockpit, harbouring an Integrated Avionics and Display System (IADS) which uses an array of multifunction displays in conjunction with the onboard target acquisition and designation (TADS) system. External protection of the LCH is through an extensive electronic warfare suite provided by the Saab Group. This suite comprises a variety of defensive systems to protect against multiple threats. These systems include a radar warning receiver (RWR), laser warning receiver (LWR) and a missile approach warning (MAW) system.
The LCH is also equipped with an integrated data link, enabling it to participate in advanced network-centred operations by facilitating the transfer of mission data to airborne and ground platforms. This capability improves operational cooperation and interoperability between units of similar mission profiles. The onboard sensor suite is Elbit CoMPASS, produced by Bharat Electronics Limited. It also consists of a CCD camera, a forward looking infrared (FLIR) imaging sensor, a laser rangefinder and a laser designator to allow for target acquisition under all-weather conditions and night-time operations.
HAL has selected the M621 cannon to serve as the gun armament of the helicopter. The M621 cannon is incorporated in a THL 20 turret by Nexter systems and integrated into a helmet-mounted sight. A significant variety of missiles can also be equipped on the LCH; these include a maximum of four 70 mm anti-tank guided missiles. The armament set up of the LCH also provides the users the options to include both foreign and Indian-built missiles, the latter in the form of the Helina anti-tank missile. In terms of air-to-air missiles, the LCH shall be capable of being armed with the MBDA Mistral 2 missile. Payloads of rockets are also available as offensive options for attacking targets.
A comprehensive list of the general design specification of the LCH is provided below:
- Crew: 2
- Length: 15.8 m (51 ft 10 in)
- Wingspan: 4.60 m (15 ft 1 in)
- Height: 4.70 m (15 ft 5 in)
- Max takeoff weight: 5,800 kg (12,787 lb)
- Payload: 700 kg (1,500 lb) weapons
- Powerplant: 2 × HAL/Turbomeca Shakti-1H1 turboshaft, 1,032 kW (1,384 shp) each
- Main rotor diameter: 13.2 m (43 ft 4 in)
- Maximum speed: 287 km/h (178 mph, 155 kn)
- Never exceed speed: 330 km/h (205 mph, 178 kn)
- Range: 580 km (360 mi, 310 nmi) with weapons
- Endurance: 3 hours 10 minutes
- Service ceiling: 6,500 m (21,300 ft)
- Rate of climb: 12 m/s (2,400 ft/min)
- Guns: 20 mm M621 cannon on Nexter THL-20 turret
- Hardpoints: Four with provisions to carry combinations of:
- Rockets: 70 mm FZ or Thales rocket pods
- Missiles: 2× Mistral-2 air-to-air missiles or 8× Helina anti-tank missile (planned)
- Bombs: Cluster bombs, unguided bombs or grenade launchers
- Elbit CoMPASS optoelectronic suite
- Missile approach warning system
- Saab radar and laser warning system
- Chaff and flare dispensers
Testing and implementation
On 23 May 2010, following the successful completion of the third test flight of the first LCH prototype, it was deemed to have fulfilled the desired parameters and thus enabled further armed tests to proceed. The second LCH prototype (TD-2) was now fitted with armaments and featuring a significant reduction in weight in order to generate a better resemblance to its usage in a combat theatre. It was publicly unveiled at Aero India 2011 during February of 2011.
The third prototype, TD-3, performed its maiden flight on 12 November 2014. Both TD3 and TD4 were extensively used to test the rotorcraft’s mission sensors and weapon systems, involving a series of live-fire tests. Development and structural integration of the fourth prototype (TD4) reportedly took up a total of ₹ 126 crore (US$20.2 million).
Operating enviornment, AFCS and production
In 2015, a number of cold weather trials of the third prototype (TD-3) were carried out at Air Force Station Leh. During these trials, engine start-up tests using internal batteries after long exposure to the cold without special protective measures proved satisfactory at the temperatures as low as −18 °C at an altitude of 4.1 km. In the same year, the LCH successfully completed hot weather flight trials at Jodhpur, during which the TD3 was exposed to temperatures ranging from 39 to 42 °C.
From 2016 through 2019, certification firing trials had commenced, LCH TD2 had flown with the new Automatic Flight Control System (AFCS) designed by HAL, LCH completed weapons trials with the successful firing of Mistral-2 air-to-air missile at a flying target and HAL announced that the LCH is ready for operational service after completing the required weapon integration tests.
On 21 February 2019, Thales announced that it was awarded a contract to supply 135 70 mm rockets for 15 LCHs alongside 18 Dhruvs. The LCH was finally declared ready for production in February 2020 with HAL’s Helicopter Division, based in Bengaluru, establishing a dedicated hangar for the LCH assembly line.
In 2006, the company announced that it had launched a development programme to produce such a rotorcraft, referred to simply as the Light Combat Helicopter. Originally, the LCH was anticipated to attain initial operating capability (IOC) by December 2010, however development of the type was protracted and subject to several delays, some of which having been attributed to suppliers.
Significance of the LCH in current theatres
Amidst recent developments of rising tensions with China in the eastern border of India, India has opted for the newer indigineous HAL LCH rotorcraft as compared to the tried and tested AH-64E Apache to be its main source of defense in the event of a large scale conflict with China. This raises many concerns among aerospace industries and defence analysts alike about whether the new kid on the block can fulfill the role of an effective attack helicopter to the same extent that the Apache did. However, it is with good reason that India has chosen to progress in this direction since “It [the LCH] is the lightest attack helicopter in the world, designed and developed by HAL to meet the specific and unique requirements of the Indian Armed Forces, reflecting the crucial role of HAL in Atma Nirbhar Bharat” said R Madhavan, Chief of Media Communications, HAL.
Atmanirbhar Bharat, the scheme introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for making India “a bigger and more important part of the global economy”, pursues policies that are efficient, competitive and resilient, and being self-sustaining and self-generating. It’s aim is to bring about an India that is less reliant on the international world for survival but rather on itself. It is not a scheme to make India self contained or isolated from the world but in contrast, the scheme’s purpose is to grow India into an economy that is a key pillar of support for the world, being a more significant producer of goods in the world as compared to a consumer of such goods.
This also plays out considerably in the defense sector, with India aiming to better allocate resources to local defence and aerospace systems as compared to spending more funding on procuring foreign systems. By choosing the LCH as the primary attack role helicopter in conflict with China, HAL is given the opportunity to attain international recognition for their products by testing them in real combat situations. This could be a crucial step for HAL in strengthening their position in the international market as a significant aerospace systems production company and reaching the levels of Lockheed and General Dynamics in terms of capability.
Comparison with Apaches
Considering the tactical side of the picture, the AH-64E Apache is designed and equipped with an open systems architecture including the latest communications, navigation, sensor and weapon systems. It has an improved Modernized Target Acquisition Designation System that provides day, night and all-weather target information, as well as night vision navigation capability. In addition to classifying air and ground targets, the Fire Control Radar has been updated to operate in the maritime environment. Apache also has Hellfire anti-tank missiles and Longbow fire control radar. The Indian AH-64E Guardian version features a more powerful engine, better data networking, and improved composite rotor blades. Therefore, technically, compared to the LCH, the Apache is faster, has more engine power, and carries far more weapons, though the LCH has a longer range.
However, the one critical area where LCH triumphs over the Apache is in the ability to perform at high altitudes, which is a challenge for most rotary-wing aircraft. The Ladakh region in the Himalayas, where India and China are engaged in a military standoff, has an altitude between 10,000 – 18,000 feet, which could pose a difficulty for operating the Apache. As mentioned above, LCH has proven its might in 2015 when several test landings were conducted on the Siachen glacier in Ladakh, at altitudes up to 15,800 feet while carrying a modest 500-kilogram load. While the AH-64E can theoretically fly up to 20,000 feet, experts have argued that the LCH is more suitable for the Himalayas.
“While the Apaches would do well in the plains, they would have limitations operating in the upper reaches of the Himalayas,” wrote Fali H Major (Retd.), Former Indian Air Chief Marshal. Even with such a disadvantage, LCH makes for a better choice in the mountainous regions as it is more important to have an armed helicopter that can fly above the mountains instead of destructive ones which may not stand the challenging terrain and weather conditions. That’s where the LCH fits in.
It has successfully been tested in altitudes over 13,000 feet and was the first attack helicopter to land at the forward landing base in Siachen. We can see that therefore, instead of opting to go with a generalised version of the Apache helicopters which is a jack of many traits, the Indian Armed Forces has chosen to cater to the specific needs of the armed forces personnel and their operations in high altitude regions. They have decided to ensure that they chose a system that is a complete master of few traits (although arguably the LCH is not significantly lacking to the Apache in other operational capabilities).
In personal opinion, HAL’s LCH would serve to be a better option for the Indian Armed Forces for their future engagements and endeavours mainly because the LCH, being locally made, is more fine-tuned to the preferences of the Army and Air Force and it can provide them with a platform that adapts to the operations and the users instead of getting the users to adapt to the platform like what was done with the Apache. On a side note, choosing the LCH over the Apache for potential engagements with China can also increase opinion for HAL as it proves to potential consumers that HAL can cater to the specific needs of their clients and provide a reliable platform based on the situation and context in which it would be used. This would in turn, help HAL to improve their stand internationally. Overall, the LCH allows India as a whole to follow through with being a self-sustaining nation whilst providing its patriots with an edge over adversaries in their area of operations.