It is ironic that the battlefields of Southeast Asia were the operational birthplace of the combat helicopter. One of the most successful weapons systems of the Vietnam conflict was the two-seat dedicated gunship development of the ubiquitous “Huey”, the AH-1 Cobra, variants of which are still operated by the armed forces of Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, Taiwan and Thailand.
by David Oliver
Another conflict in the region, saw the emergence of another iconic battlefield helicopter when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The aircraft that became a symbol pf Soviet air power in the conflict was the Mi-24 ‘Hind’, at the time the world’s most formidable helicopter gunship, christened the ‘Devil’s Chariot’ by the Mujaheddin. With a speed of over 200 mph (320 km/h), the ‘Hind’ was armed with cannon, rockets and laser-guided anti-tank missiles, and could carry eight fully equipped assault troops. Unlike the Cobra, the ‘Hind’ is still in production more than forty years after its first flight, and is in service with the air arms of Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
Few Asia Pacific nations can afford the latest generation of pure attack helicopters, namely the AgustaWestland T129, Eurocopter Tiger, Mil Mi-28N and the Boeing AH-64D Apache. The latter has been sold to Japan, Singapore and Taiwan and has been downselected by India, and the Tiger delivered to Australia.
The latter has suffered a series of problems that have delayed its full operational capability. The Australian Army’s fleet of Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters (ARH) returned to regular training activities following the lifting of a temporary suspension that began in June 2012. The suspension was put in place as a safety measure following the precautionary landing of an aircraft at the Shoalwater Bay training area on 25 June when fumes were detected in the cockpit. An investigation determined that the source of the detected fumes was a faulty capacitor in the power supply module in a cockpit Multi Function Display (MFD). The suspension was lifted after the Army Operational Airworthiness Authority received a detailed assessment and recommendation to resume flying operations from the Technical Airworthiness Authority.
The AH-64, T129 and Tiger are competing for South Korea, Malaysia and Pakistan’s requirements for new attack helicopters while Japan, India and China are developing indigenous designs.
Japan was the first to produce a twin-engine tandem two-seat armed scout helicopter, the Kawasaki OH-1 almost twenty years ago. Since 1993, only 30 have been delivered to the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force (JGSDF) although it is reported to have a requirement for more than 100. A decade later, India launched its Light Attack Helicopter project although the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) produced prototype did not take to the air until 2009 designated the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH). Also a twin-engine tandem two-seat design, the Indian Air Force has a requirement for 65 LCHs and the Army 114 although it is not expected to enter service before 2016 at the earliest.
Developed in a parallel timeframe as the LCH, was China’s Changhe Z-10, a twin-engine tandem two-seat attack helicopter that resembles the AW129. Its protracted development is manly due to delays in the delivery of the locally produced WZ-9 turboshaft engine and only a small number of development aircraft have flown to date powered by Western engines.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Aviation has had to rely on an armed version of the Harbin Z-9, a Chinese development of the Eurocopter AS 365N Dauphin 2. The Z-9WZ armed reconnaissance helicopter is in service with the PLA’s 4th Helicopter Regiment based at Tongzhou, a satellite town of Beijing. Armed with a Type 23-2 23 mm cannon, 58 mmm and 70 mm rockets, HJ-8A anti-tank missiles and TY-90 IR-guided short-range air-to-air missiles, the regiment’s 12 Z-9WZ helicopters serve alongside a number of Mi-17 and Mi-171 multirole helicopters imported from Russia.
More than 500 variants of the Mi-8/17 ‘Hip’ are currently operated by a dozen armed forces in the Asia Pacific region and still more are on order. The ubiquitous ‘Hip’ is a truly multirole helicopter capable a undertaking armed reconnaissance, fire support, CSAR, Casevac, and assault troop transport roles in the hot and high conditions.
One of the largest fleets is operated by the Indian Air Force which is in the process of taking delivery of 80 Mi-17-V5 helicopters under a $1.34 billion contract signed in 2008. Initially the new helicopters were deployed to Bagdorga near the Chinese border although most of them will be based at Bhatinda in the Punjab, and Srinagar and Jammu in Kashmir.
With its excellent ‘hot and high’ performance, the helicopters will be operated by the IAF to aid movement of Indian Army troops and for special forces deployment, logistics, search and rescue operations and for casualty evacuation. In its MEDEVAC and SAR roles the Mi-17 is equipped is equipped with Russian SLG-300 rescue hoist and scoop and can accommodate 12 stretchers, and seats for a medical team with its medical kit.
The last of the 80 helicopters being produced by the Kazan Helicopter Plant are scheduled to be delivered by early 2014, and India has made the decision to acquire an additional 71 Mi-17-V5 medium utility helicopters for the Air Force and Border Security Force to replace the older Mi-8 and Mi-17 variants and the HAL Cheetah, a licence-built Aerospatiale Lama.