The combat helicopters can be classified into two categories i.e. the armed helicopters/ gun ships and the modern day dedicated attack helicopters (AH). Both are military helicopters, wherein the armed helicopters are normal utility, cargo or reconnaissance modified with weapon mounts for defence against and attacking targets on the ground. The purpose of modification could be field expediency during combat as well as the need to maintain helicopters for missions that do not require weapons. In fact these are basically the Multi Role Helicopters (MRH) which can transport troops as well as carry basic armaments in terms of machine guns /rockets/ missiles depending on the type of mission required to be undertaken.
The AH on the other hand is specifically designed and built to carry weapons for engaging targets on ground and air with special emphasis on anti-tank role. Its weapons include machine guns, cannons, rockets and guided missiles for air to ground and air to air engagement. Modern day AH have two main roles of providing direct and accurate close air support for ground troops and anti-tank role to destroy enemy armour. Specialized armed helicopters flying from ships at sea are equipped with weapons for anti submarine and/ or anti shipping operations. A number of countries are today looking at acquiring MRH for their armed forces due to the changing nature of conflict, specially related to counter insurgency and counter terrorist operations. A befitting example is the successful employment of modified Black Hawks by the Americans in Operation Neptune Spear (Geronimo).
Combat Helicopter ConceptThe concept of combat helicopters evolved with the French during the Algerian and first Indo China wars (1954-62) in the form of modified armed helicopters. The first use of armed helicopters by USA in large scale combat operations was in Vietnam. Until Vietnam conflict, military helicopters were mostly used for troop transport, observation and casualty evacuation. These helicopters while flying missions often came under heavy fire resulting in the need for arming them. The Huey UH-IC troop transporter was modified with stub wings attached to its fuselage and kitted with machine guns and rockets. The other helicopters modified as armed helicopters were the Sikorsky and Chinook CH-47. This was a quantum jump from the manned door fitted machine guns of the earlier versions of armed helicopter.
During the 1960s, the Soviet Union also felt the need for armed helicopters and modified the military MI-8 troop transporter helicopter with weapon pods for rockets and machine guns. This subsequently led to the development of a dedicated armed helicopter/ gunship the MI-24 which saw active action in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In our context we had earlier MI-8 and Ranjeet (modified Cheetah helicopter), fitted with machine guns fired from the side doors. Presently the MI-17 and Lancer (Cheetah helicopter) are modified for armed role capable of mounting guns and rockets.
With the armed helicopter/ gunship concept battle proven, began the development of dedicated AH with the primary aim of engaging tanks. The late 1970s/ early 1980s saw the advent of AH like the American Apache (AH 64A) and upgraded Huey Cobras (AH 1), the Soviet MI-24 and the Italian Mangusta (A-129). While some questioned the relevance of these dedicated AH due to increased cost over gun ships, the 1991 Gulf War put at rest these doubts. Fleets of Apaches and Huey Cobras dominated Iraqi armour in the open desert during the war.
In fact the Apaches fired the first shots of war destroying early warning radars and SAM sites with Hellfire missiles. The Soviet operations in Afghanistan during 1979-1989 saw the emergence of the MI-25/ MI-35 AH, a variant of the MI-24. We have in our inventory the Russian MI-25/ MI-35 AH which are vintage, though certain amount of upgrading has been carried out to make them night capable.
Notably, the Apaches were the first helicopters to use protective plates for the crew made of Kevlar and composite materials, a fact disclosed at the 1991 Dubai Air Show by pilots who flew missions over Iraq.
Armed helicopters today can also be fitted with mine dispenser/ mine clearance systems. The system is composed of racks on both sides of the helicopter for up to 40 canisters. Each canister contains six anti-tank and one anti-personnel mine. The rapid air borne mine clearance system is another armament sub system where the intended targets are naval mines. The system consists of a single modified, 30mm cannon for targeting and neutralizing the mines in shallow depth and is fitted on the US naval Black Hawk helicopters.
The AH on the other hand carries guns, rockets and guided missiles, both air to ground and air-to-air. The gun is normally a 20mm/30mm weapon and is located in the chin of the helicopter. The gun provides suppressive ground fire while the AH carries out its anti tank mission. The unguided aerial rockets complement the short range gun and the long range anti tank missiles. The rockets are cheap and effective as an area weapon. The rockets can also be used to attack and destroy soft ground targets that are not vulnerable to anti tank missiles like depots and anti aircraft gun sites.
In emergent situations they could also be used in the air-to-air role. Today there are rockets with submunition war heads which can disperse a number of grenades/ bomblets over specified target areas. The air-to-air missile system is basically to counter the threat from other AHs and is more of a defensive armament system.
The anti tank guided missile is the main punch of the AH. The advent of fire and forget missiles is the greatest asset of the AH which increases its lethality. The hellfire missile on the Apache AH is in this class. The carriage of the armament and type will depend on the mission and area of operations.
The combat helicopter has also to be fitted with a counter measures suite to include radar and missile detectors, infrared jammers and chaff and flare dispensers, depending on the degree of threat perceived for their own defence and survival.
The Longbow Apache is an upgraded version of the AH 64A Apache and is the most sophisticated AH in the world at present. It has a radar dome atop the main rotors, which facilitates firing of the Hellfire missiles in full fire and forget mode, allowing the AH to stay masked behind terrain as it acquires and engages targets. In contrast, the earlier Apache had to pop up to scan the battlefield leaving it exposed or rely on target data from other sources such as scout helicopters. The Apache Longbow armament consists of a 30mm cannon, 70mm rockets, Hellfire missiles and stinger/ sidewinder air to air missiles. It has the Honeywell integrated helmet and display sighting system with state of the art counter measure sensors.
The Apache Longbow can also operate in today’s net centric and electronic warfare (EW) environment, and the pilots can link to satellites, AWACS, Ground radars and other aircraft to transmit or receive Command and Control inputs.
The Russians have also developed the state of the art AH in the Ka-50 and MI-28. This decision was taken after their experience in Afghanistan with the MI-24 AH, which was basically an armed helicopter and hence not suited for a typical AH role. The Ka 50 is the world’s first coaxial, single seat AH. The MI- 28 on the other hand is roughly equivalent of the Apache Longbow but without the significant Command and Control linkup.
The MI-28 has a 30mm chain gun, Ataka anti tank missile and rocket pods for S-8 and S-13 rockets. The Ataka is an improved version of the Vikhr anti tank guided missile fitted on the MI-25/ MI-35 AH. It also has in its armament the Igla/ Vympel air to air missiles.
The other dedicated AH operating are the Italian Augusta Westland AW129 (Mangusta), Bell helicopters Viper (the latest version of Huey Cobra), and Eurocopter’s Tiger. Then there is the latest formidable entry, the Chinese Z-10 (Zhising). As per reports, China is also in the process of developing another AH, the Z-19. Its first prototype is reported to have flown in Dec 2010.
Multi Role ConceptThe Multi Role Helicopter (MRH) concept evolved during the Vietnam War but was subsequently taken over by the requirement of dedicated AH as an anti armour/anti tank weapon system due to the threats from the ground. However the nature of wars to be fought has undergone a major change in the last few years with emphasis on non conventional operations.
World over, the armed forces are looking at this concept and requirement, particularly for counter insurgency and counter terrorist operations. The MRH is basically a utility/troop carrying helicopter built with provisions for armament fitment or duly modified for the same.
The MRH can be fielded for roles such as ground attack, air assault, cargo, surveillance and troop transport. The size of such helicopters is generally between cargo and light observation helicopters. The basic armament on these helicopters would generally be restricted to guns and rockets; however air to ground and air to air missiles are also reported to be a part of armament of some MRH primarily putting them in the class of armed helicopters.
All these helicopters are also fitted with self protection suites to include features such as missile approach warning system, threat warning equipment and chaffs/ flare dispensers. Some of the MRH in service in different countries are US marine Bell UH-IN Twin Huey, Augusta Westland AW-139, German Army’s NH-90, US Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk and Russia’s MI-17 (all versions) etc.
The US, with its experience in Afghanistan, has embarked on a programme for developing four variants of different sizes of MRH. In India’s context, we have the MI-17 IV/V, Navy’s Sea King and the armed version of advanced light helicopter (ALH) under final trials now.
Indian ScenarioThe Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), also known as the Dhruv, is already in service with the Armed Forces. The weaponised version of the ALH called the ALH weapons systems integrated (ALH WSI) is currently undergoing weapons integration and likely to enter service by end-2011.
Designated Rudra, this version is fitted with the more powerful Shakti engines being manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) in collaboration with French Safran Turbomeca. This engine has also been trial evaluated for high altitude operations on the utility ALH. Basically the ALH WSI is a new generation armed helicopter duly modified for fitment of all types of weapon sub systems which can be fitted on a modern day AH. It needs to be noted that it also falls in the class of MRH. The ALH WSI has a 20mm gun turret, 70mm rockets and the Mistral air to air missile. The integration firing for these subsystems has already been carried out successfully.
However the anti-tank missile Helina, the air version of NAG being developed by the Defence Research and Development organization (DRDO) is still not ready. Once developed, Helina is stated to be a fire and forget missile with 7 kilometers range and would compare with the Hellfire missile. To meet the interim requirement the Army is scouting for a suitable anti tank missile in the world market. In contention are the two fire-and-forget French PARS-3 and Israeli SPIKE-ER.
Spike is stated to be a 4th generation fire and forget anti tank missile developed by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, which is also cooperating with India on some other missiles.
HAL has also embarked on the development of the light combat helicopter (LCH). The LCH is using the technology of the ALH and its configurations, except the fuselage which is streamlined and suitably modified for tandem seating of pilot and weapons system operator with adequate armour protection. The weapons and systems will be the same/ similar to the ALH WSI. The above approach has an inherent advantage as most of the critical systems have been proven either on the ALH or the ALH WSI.
An indigenous AH like the LCH is a step in the right direction as it can be tailored to suit the terrain and climatic conditions of our area of operations. The first flight of LCH took place on 29 March 2010, and the AH is likely to enter service by 2014. The LCH once fielded should compare well with Eurocopter’s Tiger, Italian Mangusta and Bell’s Huey Cobra as it is in the same weight class.
In the MRH class, the Navy is already looking at replacing its vintage Sea King fleet. In fray are the US Sikosrky S-70 Bravo and Eurocopters NH-90. HAL’s Dhruv, or its variations, are not in the running as it has not been found suitable for naval operations.
HAL is also looking at the development of a 10-12 ton class of MRH for the requirement of armed forces in a joint venture with a foreign based company like Eurocopter or Sikorsky.
However no major headway has been made in this project as yet. The Army is keen to acquire this class of helicopters and has suitably called it the Tactical Battlefield Support Helicopter (TBSH). This will enhance its lift capability in the Tactical Battle Area.
Incidentally, the Indian Air Force though has also completed its trial report for 15 heavy Lift Helicopters. In the running are Boeing Chinook, which can even land on water and allow small boats to enter it – as the US Navy Seals routine do – and a newer, modified version of the Russian Mi 26 which the IAF already uses.
Surprisingly, Chinook is the only helicopter in the world which can submerge its floor in water to allow small boats to zip in, and apparently such a helicopter can play a significant role in disaster relief operations also besides being able to carry heavy loads under-slung or onboard. Notably, the US Navy Seals used a combination of Black Hawks and Chinooks for Operation Neptune Spear.
Conclusion The combat helicopters whether armed, dedicated AH or MRH will be extremely relevant in future conflicts which will be short notice, short duration and high intensity with emphasis on depth battle. The battle proven Apaches from their anti tank role in Iraq have got into infantry support role against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The MRH is playing and will continue to play a pivotal role in future conflicts, more so in special operations. With the ALH WSI and the LCH being indigenously developed by HAL and likely to enter service in the coming years, the Indian Armed Forces will have formidable and state of the art combat helicopters in their kitty – a useful force multiplier which can turn the tide in battle.
Numbers have to be kept in mind however. Indian Armed Forces have a relatively small number of helicopters, and their requirement would have to be tripled in the coming years.
India Strategic ( By Lt Gen B S Pawar (Retd)