The Indian army wants to expand its aviation corps and has asked the government to give it full control over all tactical air assets in the battlefield, including transport, observation and attack flights.

The request sets up a potentially explosive roles and missions battle with the Indian air force, which administers both the country’s attack helicopter squadrons and most tactical lift helicopter squadrons. But army officials feel their tactical flexibility is encumbered by this arrangement and are once again appealing to the government to change the balance of power.

If the army has its way, the fleet is likely to see the introduction of more helicopters across the board, as well as fixed-wing assets.

“The coming decade will see the first time that the army operates anti-armor and infantry support helicopters, so far exclusively the domain of the air force,” says an aviation corps officer currently deployed on an Alouette-II flight in Leh, the world’s highest airfield. “The thought process is simple,” he adds, “tactical battlefield assets need to be under the army’s operational command. It makes fighting the war more efficient.”

Even without the larger mandate, the army has a long aviation modernization agenda.

Army planners are close to finalizing a staff requirement for tactical fixed-wing transport, an effort that could be announced shortly. What is not certain is whether that process will yield to a procurement, since efforts in the past by the army to field such an asset have been blocked. However, army sources say that the case is stronger this time, with statistics showing that even the air force’s transport fleet is stretched, especially in the Northern and Eastern theaters.

Indications are that the army will look at light transports of the Dornier Do-228 class, license built by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) at its Kanpur facility. Sources indicated, however, that the army could look at larger aircraft as well.

More near term, the service plans to begin replacing its fleet of around 160 license-built Alouette IIs and IIIs with the winner of the ongoing competition for a light reconnaissance and surveillance helicopter. The army is currently in the final stretch of an exercise to choose between Eurocopter’s militarized AS550C3 Fennec and the Russian Kamov Ka-226.

The army will also receive an unconfirmed number of helicopters from HAL’s concept light utility helicopter program. The army has asked HAL to concurrently develop an armed version.

The service also is due to receive 150 indigenously developed Dhruv helicopters, a substantial number of which will be the weaponized Dhruv-WSI currently in trials. The army is putting pressure on HAL to accelerate the fielding of that version.

Furthermore, the army may become the second customer for HAL’s Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), also in testing. The air force is the lead customer, and HAL officials have been reluctant to discuss the army’s potential interest owing to the interservice rivalry. Indian army sources suggest, however, that the aviation corps will induct 25-30 of the rotorcraft starting around 2013-14.

A second prototype of the LCH has joined the flight-test program, and will be on display at the Aero India 2011 air show and defense exhibition outside Bengalaru.