“On 26th October 1987, Flight Lieutenant Atanu Guru flew in a mission ex-Jaffna to search and destroy militants’ vehicles operating on the Jaffna Karaitivu causeway. Five vans were located on the causeway while attempting to flee towards Karaitivu. With extraordinary accuracy and commendable professional calmness, he destroyed these vehicles and killed all the militant personnel aboard these vehicles.”
This was the first mentioned incident on Ft Lt Atanu Guru’s Vir Chakra citation.
The Mi 25s of No 125 Helicopter Squadron were flown into Sri Lanka, under the command of Sqn Ldr Rajbir Singh, around October 23, 1987, in the aftermath of the disastrous Jaffna Helidrop Operation.
The first strike mission on 26 October was flown by Ft Lt Atanu Guru in a single Mi 25. 5 LTTE heavy transports carrying ammo and explosives were moving on the Jaffna Karaitivu causeway, the concentrated fire by Ft Lt Atanu Guru’s Mi 25 resulted in the death of over 100 LTTE cadres and an explosion that could be heard 30 km away. The gunships were particularly effective in their role, immediately restricting LTTE’s movement to only nighttime. It is said that LTTE feared the Hinds of IAF the most, giving them the nickname Mudhalais (“alligator” in Tamil) (Subramaniam ).
Indian Air Force wasn’t new to the idea of offensive helicopters, as in the 1960s Indian Air Force when it was first being equipped with Chetak Helicopters (SA316B), IAF received Chetaks equipped with the AS11 ATGMs (A2S version of SS11 ATGMs), with No 116 Helicopter Unit being one of the first ones to receive Chetaks in an offensive role, and getting the nickname ‘Tank Busters’. The AS11 gave new capabilities to the Indian Armed forces, but early generation ATGMs still lacked in range, accuracy, and efficiency, the need for a dedicated Attack helicopter with newer ATGMs arose (Sachdev). Thus enters the picture, Mil Mi 25s, Crocodiles procured amidst the biggest modernising drive of Indian Armed forces in the 1980s.
The Crocodiles of the Indian Air Force are mysterious beings, with not a lot of literature to track their journey with the Indian Air Force. In this piece, I hope to track their history with the Indian Air Force to the best of my abilities.
a. Development of the Flying Tank
Although not the first one to use Helicopters in an Air Assault role, the United States was definitely the one that shaped and matured the concept. The US was amidst a very intense war in Vietnam in the 1960s. As the transport helicopters kept getting shot while landing, modified Huey gunships were used. When they couldn’t satisfactorily perform in the face of the emerging threat against infantry landing, the first AH1 was developed.
In the eastern theatre, the USSR was also tip-toeing the same line. Initially arming Mi 8s with rocket pods in limited armed roles, but as they would also go on to realize the need for a dedicated attack helicopter, the first Mi 25 would be born. Mikhail L Mil, of which the Mil OKB bore the name, would pitch his ‘flying IFV’ concept to the Soviet leadership, having gained some experience with armed helicopters in the form of armed Mi 4s and 8s. Initially reluctant, with even then Defence Minister of the USSR, Rodion Yakovlevich Malinovsky, against the concept (Gordon).
In 1966, approximately 1 year after the first flight of what would become AH1 Cobra, Mil OKB had released a mockup called V24 (V = Vertolyot = Heptr) based on the utility V22 design. It shared a lot of visual similarities with the armed UH1 and was nicknamed ‘Hueyski’. In 1967, Mil through a lot of effort convinced the Defence Minister’s First deputy Marshal Andrey A Grechko, to establish a committee to study the concept. By March 1967, the Military-Industrial Commission of the USSR, or VPK issued an RFP to Mil to design a battlefield support helicopter (Gordon).
After getting clearance in 1968, the OKB started work on a mockup called “Yellow 24”, or the internal designation ‘Izdeliye 240’. Mil OKB decided to speed things up by taking components like engines, main & tail rotors, swashplate, parts of the powertrain from Mi 14, which was itself developed from the Mi 8 family. Thus the first true attack helicopter of the East started taking shape. The helicopters much like AH1 would come out a lot different than their Utility counterpart, with the OKB focusing on reducing drag and changing the fuselage, getting fully retractable landing gear, etc. A lot of attention by the OKB was focused on the survivability of the aircraft and crew protection, with bulletproof windscreens, armour plating, single pressurised cells for crew and troop cabin (Gordon).
The helicopter’s development was completed well ahead of the development of its weapons package, so during the initial testing, the Izdeliye 240 was tested with K4V weapons systems, which had service with Mi 4V and Mi 8TVs, consisting of 4 9M17M Falanga M ATGMs, which were a contemporary of the SS11 ATGMs. The nose gun was an Afanasev A-12.7 on a NUV-1 gimballed mount taken from a Mi 4V.
Flight tests of the type began in September of 1969, which included 2 initial prototypes and 10 from a pre-production batch. Testing went as expected, except for a hiccup in the form of a crash of a frame in front of higher command while showing the agility of the new type. The crew, the Pilot, test engineer, and flight engineer were all killed. The State acceptance trials began in 1970, going on for the next year and a half. Testing resulted in lessons learned and some major changes to the helicopter were made before the production of Mil Mi 24A or Izdeliye 245 (Gordon).
While changes needed were observed on the Mil Mi 24A, the OKB would start working on the development of Mi 24B, with a new gun, sighting system, and 9M17P Falanga P SACLOS ATGMs. Izdeliye 241 as was the internal designation would go on to complete the OKB’s trials but would be abandoned and the development used for what would go on to the feared Flying Tank, in the form of the Mil Mi 24D and Mi 24V (Gordon).
Suffering from cockpit visibility issues in Mi 24A, which was in service with VVS, a new redesign of the frontal fuselage happened in 1971. The cockpit was now divided into two, separate ones for pilot and WSO (Gordon).
Amongst the other structural and electronic changes made to the type, one thing that was lacking was still the original weapon systems envisioned in the form of the 9K114 Shturm ATGMs. So the OKB decided to fit the weapons package developed for Mi 24B onto this new airfare and designated it Mi 24D. Two prototypes were converted to the type in 1972 from Mi 24A and state acceptance trials began soon in 1973 concluding in 1974. Mi 24D entered production at Plant No 168, Rostov Helicopter Factory (Gordon). It was Mi 24D’s export version which was offered to the Indian Air Force in the late 1970s and early 80s, and it would be this version only, designated Mi 25, which would be inducted in the Indian Air Force in 1984.
The next step in development came in the form of Mi 24V or Izdeliye 242, whose export version would be designated Mi 35, which would again be inducted with the Indian Air Force later (Gordon).
It was in 1972 finally that the weapons package planned for the Mi 24 family finally became available. The missile was designated 9K114 Kokon was being developed by Kolomna OKB which had and was working on a lot of missile systems for the USSR. The availability of 9K114 resulted in Mi 24V finally coming out. Trials of 9K114 were completed in 1974. The newer version differed from Mi 24D in having a newer uprated engine TV3-117V, a new ASP- 17V gunsight, new communication equipment amongst other things. Mi 24V would complete its acceptance trials in 1975, yet both Mi 24D and Mi 24V would be inducted in the VVS at the same time in 1976, although quite some Mi 24Ds had already been delivered till then, and Mi 24V started production in 1976 (Gordon).
A trainer version was made for Mi 24D in the form of Mi 24DU or Izdeliye 249, which would appear in 1980, quite sometime after both Mi 24D and 24V had already been inducted. Visually it differed from the Mi 24D/Mi 25 in having a very smooth nose instead of the USPU 24 gun barbette. The trainer version of Mi 24V/Mi 35 however did not even exist for the VVS, yet when the Indian Air Force ordered Mi 24V/Mi 35, the order consisted of newer trainers as well. The trainer version seems to be custom-built for the Indian Air Force and was ordered in 1990 with 20 frames including the Mi 24VU/ Mi 35U (a designation that doesn’t exist per se), and Mi 35s were supplied (Gordon).
b. Akbar comes to India
The Mi 25’s story with the Indian Air Force, technically begins in the late 1960s with the induction of Armed Chetaks. But after that prelude was over, it was in the late 1970s, around 1979, that the Mi 25 was first offered to the Indian Air Force. Indians would take up on the offer, and the first evaluations of the type would go on to happen in 1981, and the type was promptly ordered in 1983 for 12 frames (Gordon)(Singh).
It was on November 1, 1983, that the first Mi 25 dedicated attack helicopter unit was raised with the Indian Air Force, No 125 Helicopter Squadron ‘Gladiators’, now boasted some of the most impressive firepower in the subcontinent, carrying loads somewhat equivalent to the fighter planes that the skies of the subcontinent saw approximately a decade ago. The first Mi 25 would then go on to land at Pathankot AFB, home of the No 125, in mid-1984 (Singh).
The first teams of technicians and pilots would go on to leave for the USSR for training in 1983. Much like their fighter brethren, they went to Frunze close to Logovaya, Kyrgyzstan SSR. Indian Air Force had been here before, as early as 1962, when the first batch of 8 pilots had left to convert on the legendary MiG 21F13s that the Indian Air Force had then procured.
Another source claims that the Mi 25s were actually tested only after having already been inducted in the Indian Air Force and only 8 Mi 25s were ever ordered (Roy).
First, the technical tradesmen along with 5 Technical officers went for training. Pilots – initial message to 10 officers to be on standby, they were received in April 1983. Thereafter they were attached to Air HQ for briefing and finally departed for the USSR in mid-September, around 15-16 September 1983. Training for both technical tradesmen and pilots at Frunze close to Lugovaya where the Mig 23 pilots were trained. 6 months of training for the technical tradesmen and 3 months of training was parted to the pilots. Three Indian Air Force training teams were simultaneously present in the USSR at the time, training for the upcoming inductions of An 32s, Il 76s, and Mi 25s (Roy).
On the morning of October 8, 1984, the Indian Air Force was celebrating Air Force Day, and in New Delhi were displayed two of the most recent acquisitions of the Indian Air Force. An-32 transport plane, and 2 Mi 25s in yellow-green drab that it became famous with. During the subsequent parade, then COAS ACM LM Katre remarked the Indian Air Force had entered “combat helicopter age”.
Due to the absence of any attack helicopter experience and SOPs, in 1984-85 9 Mi 25 pilots were sent to TACDE (Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment, Indian Air Force’s version of Top Gun) for the first ‘Attack Helicopter Course’. As even TACDE lacked any attack helicopter pilots, the instructors were pulled from the fighter pilot stream, and through trial-and-error, working with the student pilots they developed the first SOPs for the Abkars and any other future attack helicopters (Roy).
No 125 was also pitched in one of the largest exercises ever conducted by the Indian Army, Operation Brasstacks in 1987, within 4 years of its inception. The Mil Mi 25s of the Indian Air Force were purchased in coordination with the Indian Army. While the ownership remained in the hands of Indian Air Force and Indian Air Force pilots flying the type, the helicopters were meant to serve the Indian Army and hence were under their operational command (Ganapathy).
c. Firebirds join the fray
As the Mi 25s of No 125 were in the heat of the field, honing their skills in actual combat, another batch of pilots was leaving India to train for the incoming Mi 35s.
As the Mi 25 was integrated with the Indian Army and Indian Air Force, the need for more attack helicopters was felt. Around 1987-88, it was announced that the Indian Air Force was looking for more attack helicopters and had already evaluated Augusta A 129 Mangusta, MBB Bo 105, and Mi 28, and although the Indian Army prefers the Western offers, the Soviet offer might be chosen due to economic constraints (From Vayu Aerospace Review Issue V/1988). The Mi 28 had completed acceptance trials in 1984 and entered production in 1987 (Gordon).
It might be the case that it was actually the Mi 35 that was trialed by the Indian side, since there was initial media confusion on believing Mi 35 to be an export version of Mi 28, instead of Mi 24V.
The existence of the Mi 24V’s export version, Mi 35 was apparently revealed to the Indian side around 1988 and an order for 20 Mi 35s (including trainers) was secured by the USSR during a visit of Soviet Defence Minister Marshal Dimitry Yazov in October of 1988 (40 Years of VAYU)(From Vayu Aerospace Review Issue V/1988).
Another source claims that the order for Mi 35s came as a normal follow-on after the experience of Mi 25s, and there was no competition held to acquire newer attack helicopters (Singh).
After the collapse of the USSR, the breakaway republics had Mi 35s in stock that either was redundant to requirements or simply were not economically feasible. A few of them were pitched to India. Teams from the Indian Air Force did visit the ex-USSR states like Belarus to take note of the conditions of the Mi 35s and determine air-worthiness. Although they wouldn’t be procured to operate with the Indian Air Force, IAF looked at them for spares.(Ganapathy).
In April of 1990, No 104 Helicopter Unit (then a unit, later converted to a helicopter squadron in 1992) was formally inducted with the newer Mi 35s. In June 1990, after the induction of the type with No 104, No 125 which was still operating the Mil Mi 25, was supplemented with the newer Mi 35s as well.
No 104 Helicopter squadron is the only active squadron in the Indian Air Force with the modernised Mil Mi 35s. No 125 squadron has been fully converted to AH 64E since 2019.
The flying tanks of the Indian Air Force saw combat pretty early on in their career, while the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army were still trying to figure out how the piece filled into the larger picture. India had lacked any dedicated attack helicopters till now, and SOPs needed to be developed at various levels before they were pitched to the field. Aside from the conflict on India proper, Mi 25s/35s have been pitched on a lot of major operations in the subcontinent and beyond.
Mil Mi 25s were baptized with fire pretty soon after their induction. No 125 was already trying to develop joint mechanisms to work with ground-based forces in a conventional field war setting with Operation Brasstacks, and they were called upon into combat in an unconventional guerilla type war with Operation Pawan in 1987.
As already mentioned it was under Wg Cdr SC Malhan that the No 125 was deployed in Sri Lanka to participate in Jaffna operations, quickly after the Jaffna Heli drop. Initially, it is believed that 6 helicopters were deployed in operations, with the squadron rotating on stations later. The number of frames deployed very well depends on the number of Mi 25s inducted, 8 or 12, which shows the level of confidence of the Indian Army and Indian Air Force in the type.
Their induction in the theatre of war provided much-needed air support to the troops. Their roles throughout the war also changed from recon and suppressive fire to bombing to armed escort to CAS.
Mudhalais in their search and strike role during the initial phase of the operations were particularly effective, limiting the movement of LTTE road and water transports to nighttime conditions. Later as the war converted to an insurgency, the utility of Akbar started waning (Pillarisetti).
Nevertheless within two and a half years, from October 1987 to March 1990 withdrawal, the No 125 Squadron earned two VrCs and two YSM for its contribution to Operation Pawan as the sole attack helicopter squadron (Pillarisetti).
b. UN Ops
The HInds of the Indian Air Force had a taste of foreign soil very early in their journey and would keep having it multiple times. Due to the close coordination with the Indian Army, they have been deployed at least twice in UN-supported missions, once in Sierra Leone and later in Congo.
UNAMSIL was one of the largest peacekeeping deployments by the Indian armed forces with 3000 personnel in the mission. While initially deployed with Mi 8s and ground troops, by May 2000 it became clear that air support would be required. Promptly on 2nd June 2000, 3 Mi 35s were loaded on An 124 and shipped to Sierra Leone (Peacekeeping in Sierra Leone).
They would go on to participate in the famous Operation Khukri to liberate the peacekeepers kept hostage by the RUF rebels. The Mi 35s undertook armed action, providing accurate suppressive fire, which allowed troops to be inducted from Mi 8s, while Chetaks acted as mobile command posts directing both Mi 8s and Mi 35s (Peacekeeping in Sierra Leone).
Around 2004, the Indian Armed Forces Contingent with the UN mission in Congo, MONUC was supplemented with 4 upgraded Mi 35s No 104 Firebirds for CAS and recon missions. They were based at Goma and proved immensely valuable in the region to peacekeeping forces.
They were deployed in various roles over the course of deployment from CAS, recon to escort duties. One of the highlights of the deployment of the Mi 35 in the region was when a rebel group named CNDP tried attacking Goma, where the unit was stationed, twice, once in 2006 and again in 2008. Both the time, Mi 35s proved invaluable in repelling these attacks by determining exact locations of rebels and providing air support in form of rockets and concentrated machine gunfire.
The sensors aboard the Mi 35s, like the FLIR, also helped in targeting and relaying targeting locations to the ground troops for coordinating a response (Dorn).
The unit was nicknamed ‘Vipers’ while deployed in Congo. The unit also when deployed in the Goma region first in 2006, logged an astonishing 1000 flight hours within 10 months of their induction in the region.
At least 1 Mi 35U/24VU was also stationed in the region, Tail no Z3129.
Entering the 21st century
Mi 25s and Mi 35s although very capable in their duties suffered from limitations. As Gp Cpt Pradeep Mulay mentioned that “It would’ve been an ideal aircraft if it had night vision”. The Hinds of the Indian Air Force suffered from the lack of navigational aids and night vision. This need was noted and when the Hinds entered the 21st century, plans to modernise were put in place (Ganapathy).
In 1998, the Indian Air Force signed a $US20 million contract with IAI to further upgrade 25 of the newest frames of Mi 25/35s with the Mission 24 upgrade package.
It was based on Tamam’s helicopter multi-mission optronic stabilised payload (HMOSP) and weighed around 30kgs. The upgrade package provides day/night observation capabilities and targeting through TV and FLIR sensors with variable FOV (between 2.4º and 29.2º on the FLIR) and in-built automatic tracking. Other changes included pilot NVGs with flight data and map projected on one eyepiece, an integrated self-protection suite, and data handling systems. The navigation equipment got an upgrade by including a GPS system that works in parallel to the doppler navigation. The HMOSP and the chin-gun were slaved to the pilot’s line of sight, and a new mission computer (Chauhan).
Post Balakot, the Indian Air Force wanted to equip its Mi 35s, now with No 104, with the latest ATGMs and hence ordered an undisclosed amount of 9M120 Ataka ATGMs. The contract was reportedly worth Rs 200 Crore. 9M120 is a development of the original Shtrum ATGMs. The exact variant of Ataka ordered remains unknown.
Hinds have been in the subcontinent since the 80s, and have served the Indian Air Force for approximately 4 decades, although not the same airframes. With even the Mi 35s having served for 3 decades now. The space left by retiring Mi 25s was filled with the induction of a much more advanced type in the form of the AH 64E Apaches. The Indian Army and Indian Air Force have already inducted ALH-WSI Rudra in an attack helicopter capacity. The forces are already looking to induct another dedicated attack helicopter in form of the LCH, whose LSP models in both Indian Army and Indian Air Force livery have been spotted as the time of writing.
The first true combat helicopter of the Indian Air Force has had an amazing legacy of operations and roles, and is surely aging a lot faster and would be replaced. The quagmire of control of such CAS assets still is a point of contention between the forces. The problem was initially tackled by having ownership by one arm and operational control by the other, but it seems both arms are diverging on the issue seeking to procure their own armed helicopters.
About the Author: Shwetabh Singh is a military observer with a special interest in aviation. He is a Senior Editor at Indian Defence @IndianDefenceRA His Twitter handle is @singhshwetabh71 The views expressed are the author’s own.
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