India’s Prachand Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) is unique among modern combat helicopters in one significant way. From the outset, it was developed with air defense (AD) capability against slow-moving aerial targets, including adversary helicopters and drones, unlike other combat helicopters where AD capability was an afterthought!
Besides AD, Prachand LCH is very competent in traditional combat helicopter roles – SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense), escort to special heliborne operations, support of combat search and rescue operations, and anti-tank and anti-infantry operations.
Features – LCH ‘Prachand’ Helicopter
The Prachand is a 5.8-ton, Low Observable (LO) design with reduced visual, aural, radar, and infrared (IR) signatures. It features canted panels for lower radar cross section and an IR suppressor for low IR signature.
The helicopter has a maximum speed of 275 kmph (148kt). The helicopter has a combat radius of 500 kilometers and is capable of high-altitude warfare with an operational ceiling of 16,000 to 18,000 feet (5,490 meters).
Prachand stub wings/armament booms have four weapon attachment stations, two on each side. Each station can carry ATGMs or rockets, or air-to-air Missiles.
It has fixed armor plating on the sides and crash-worthy landing gear for better survivability.
The LCH Prachand contains approximately 45% indigenous content by value, progressively increasing to more than 55% for the Series Production version.
Operational Strengths – LCH Prachand
The Prachand is equipped with an Electro-Optical Pod consisting of a CCD camera, FLIR, Laser Range Finder (LRF), and Laser Designator (LD), giving the attack helicopter the ability to detect and acquire targets day or night.
The air-to-air capability of the Prachand has proved to be eerily prescient. The developers of the combat helicopter appear to have foreseen the advent and lethality of combat drones in the battlespace in a manner and to the extent that escaped IAF (Indian Air Force) and IA (Indian Army) leadership!
On January 17, 2019, the Prachand successfully engaged a moving aerial target with an air-to-air missile at the integrated test range at Chandipur, Odisha,
The air-to-air engagement was the first ever in the country by any helicopter. No other helicopter with the military services in the country has so far demonstrated such a capability.
Notably, the air-to-air missile capability is based on EO and Helmet sighting system.
HAL didn’t announce which air-to-air missile it had used for trials, but earlier reports had referred to the MBDA Mistral 2. However, since the missile is optically aimed and the weapon system computer source code is ours, any optically air-to-air missile with an optical seeker could be integrated. It’s just a matter of time before DRDO trials an indigenously developed air-to-air missile!
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The anti-tank capability of the helicopter is based on the Helina ATGM, which can engage targets between 500 meters to seven kilometers in range.
Helina features a 640x512px FPA (Focal Point Array) IIR (Imaging IR) seeker. In simple terms, that means the Helina seeker can image the target, not just detect it, giving the missile the ability to recognize a target and ignore other heat sources in the vicinity of the target!
The Helina always uses LOBL (Lock on Before Launch) tracking making it a “fire and forget” missile. Once the Electro-Optic (EO) system of ALH identifies the target, it automatically hands over the target to the missile.
For anti-infantry operations, the Prachand is armed with a chin-mounted 20mm turret twin-barrel gun, cluster bombs & 68mm rocket pods.
The M621 20mm cannon on the Prachand is known for its accuracy and high muzzle velocity. It is slewable with either pilot’s helmet-mounted sighting system, allowing it to look and fire at targets around the aircraft.
The 68mm rockets can be fired at targets up to six kilometers, even if not within the line of sight.
The LCH Prachand is fitted with a Self Protection Suite consisting of Radar/Laser Missile approach warning systems and Countermeasures (Flare/Chaff) dispensing systems. The suite was to be acquired from a foreign vendor.
Operational Shortcoming / Desired Growth Trajectory
Limited Engagement Range
In its current form, the Prachand is a capable platform for day or night operations in the uncontested or lightly contested battlespace. In many ways, the Prachand is better suited for counter-insurgency operations than regular peer-to-peer combat.
However, it’s a platform that can eventually be made formidable through the addition of the capabilities to operate in low visibility and engage adversary targets at stand-off ranges well outside the MANPADS envelope.
The presence of VSHORADS (Very Short Range AD Systems), including MANPADS, on the battlefield dramatically reduces the effectiveness of combat helicopters. High attrition from VSHORAD can reduce cost-effectiveness and erode morale.
Lessons From Russia’s Special Military Operation
During the initial phase of the Special Military Operation (SMO) in Ukraine, Russia very effectively used a tactic it had developed in Syria for rapid advances – it used combat helicopters as escorts for rapidly advancing columns of combat vehicles and convoys of logistic trucks.
However, very soon after the start of the special operations, NATO flooded Ukrainian forces with capable MANPADS – Stinger (US) & Starstreak (UK) – and stopped Russia’s use of combat helicopters as escorts.
The proliferation of MANPADS all along the line of contact made combat helicopter operations unviable, forcing Russia to withdraw its advancing columns.
Russian combat helicopters – Mi-28 & Ka-52 – have since started engaging targets from outside the MANPADS range using unguided long-range rockets aimed using ballistic computers or guided missiles such as the Russian LMUR (Product 305).
While the precision of unguided long-range rockets, fired using ballistic computers (which factor in inertial platform measured drift due to wind), is limited, the accuracy of a missile like the Product 305 is deadly.
The 15-kilometer range missile flies to its target using its inertial autopilot, periodically fixing its position using SATNAV. Approaching the target, the missile, equipped with an IIR seeker, transmits live video to the launching platform cockpit.
The pilot observes and selects the target during the flight of the missile. The target can be changed multiple times, literally, until impact. The pilot also has the option to abort the engagement commanding the missile to deviate off course and self-destruct
The 50-km range helicopter launched Israeli Spike NLOS is a similar stand-off weapon that requires live targeting information. Using such stand-off weapons requires real-time targeting information provided most effectively using drones.
Targeting & Networking Capability
Using stand-off weapons is only possible if target coordinates can be obtained in real-time. For this, the launch platform must feature reliable networking capability that allows target coordinates to be received by the weapon system computer in real-time from a ground-based observer or UAV.
In the days ahead, the DRDO would need to develop stand-off missiles with more than the seven-kilometer range of the Helina. Also, the IAF & Indian Army will have to deploy drones in large numbers for surveillance and targeting.
The drones and combat helicopters would have to be networked. It needs to be understood that these are not futuristic requirements. They are requirements that should have been addressed a few years back. Our combat helicopter crews will have to deal with many advanced MANPADS if the balloon goes up today!
Radar For All Weather Operations
In its current development, the Prachand is optimized for clear weather operations. The lack of radar limits its ability to operate in poor visibility because of rain, fog, haze, or smoke. Significantly, its air-to-air capability is also limited to good visibility conditions.
A radar, such as the Crossbow radar fitted on the Ka-52, can provide the crew with situational awareness in all weather conditions and facilitate target detection and engagement using air-to-ground missiles guided over a data link. The radar can also help with target recognition and prioritization.
For example, an onboard radar can identify a railway bridge from 25 kilometers away under all weather conditions allowing an attack from stand-off ranges.
The Indian Army has articulated the need for onboard fire control radar (FCR) to overcome the operational limitations of electro-optical sensors. The Army is open to acquiring the FCR from indigenous or foreign vendors.
In conclusion, it can be said that the operational induction of the Prachand LCH is a milestone event that should stoke innovative operational thinking amid the leadership of the IA & IAF.
It’s proof that the DRDO can deliver operational systems at par with what is available abroad. The military leadership must push the MoD & DRDO for follow-up development of long-range attack missiles, sensors (including radar), and networking capabilities for the Prachand.
The IA or IAF can acquire stand-off weapons from foreign OEMs. However, a good combat platform that relies on foreign weapons to become a potent weapon system makes little sense if self-reliance is the aim.
- Vijainder K Thakur is a retired IAF Jaguar pilot. He is also an author, software architect, entrepreneur, and military analyst.
- Reach out to the author at vkthakur (at) gmail.com
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