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.
In July 2012, Russia’s Rosoboronexport announced an order from Sri Lanka for another 14 Mi-171 helicopters to be built at the Ulan-Ude plant. The SLAF started operating Mi-17s in 1993, and the current fleet of 13 aircraft equips No. 6 Helicopter Squadron at Anuradhapura in north-central Sri Lanka. The additional buy is part of a $300 million 10-year loan from Russia to buy equipment for Sri Lanka’s military.
Several utility helicopter types are capable of taking on an effective fire support role including the Sikorsky S-70/UH-60 Black Hawk. In addition to the Brunei Ministry of Defence’s recent order for 12 S-70i Black Hawks for 2014 delivery with options for an additional 10 aircraft, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress today of a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Government of Thailand for four Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk Helicopters and associated equipment, parts, training and logistical support for an estimated cost of $235 million. Equipped with an External Stores Support System (ESSS) the Black Hawk can carry up to 16 Hellfire anti-armour missiles, and rocket and gun pods.
The Korean Army operates more than 100 UH-60P Black Hawks and Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) is developing an armed version of its medium multirole Surion helicopter as a possible replacement for some of them. Several other battlefield utility helicopter types attempting to make a breakthrough in the market include the Z-15, China’s military variant of the EC 175, AgustaWestland’s duo, the AW139M and AW149, and the PZL-Swidnik W-3WA Sokol, now an AgustaWestland subsidiary. The Philippines cancelled a contract for seven W-3 Sokols in 2010 although eight are in the process of being delivered to the Philippines Air Force during 2012. The helicopters will be based on the main island of Luzon while Filipino pilots and mechanics are trained by the supplier, Poland’s PZL-Swidnik SA.
In June 2012 Japan revealed that Kawasaki Heavy Industries had won a competition to develop a battlefield utility helicopter to replace the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force’s fleet of some 140 UH-1H/Js. The twin-engine 5 tonne UH-X will use an uprated development of the OH-1’s Mitsubishi TS1 turboshaft engine and drive train, four-blade main rotor and a similar fenestron-type tail rotor. Development is planned to be completed by mid-2018.
Several countries have acquired armed versions of Light Utility Helicopters (LUH) with the AgustaWestland AW109LUH selected by Malaysia and New Zealand. Capable of being armed with 12.7 mm or 20 mm gun pods, 70 mm rocket launchers, Tube-launched Optically tracked Wire-guided (TOW) anti-tank missiles, and air-to-air missiles. The AW109LUH was the first choice of the Philippines Air Force for 10 attack helicopters to provide air cover for Philippine forces conducting counter-terrorism and insurgency operations. However, due to availability issues, the PAF decided to order four Eurocopter AS 550B3 Fennecs for delivery before the end of 2012.
The Fennec has had limited success in the Asia Pacific region with small number ordered by the Thailand and Pakistan armies although Eurocopter is confident of winning the protracted Indian contract for 197 reconnaissance and surveillance helicopters with the AS 550B3. Eurocopter is also aggressively marketing armed scout versions of its EC 135 and EC 145 light and medium twin-engine multipurpose 3/3.5 tonne helicopters, the EC 365 and EC 645. The former has been ordered for the Iraq Army, armed with the ATE/Eurocopter Stand Alone Weapon System (SAWS) comprising 12.7 mm machine gun pod, 20 mm cannon pod, 70 mm unguided or semi-active laser-guided rockets or Ingwe anti-armour missiles, and retractable pintle-mount for machine guns can be installed on both sides of the cabin.
The EC 645 is a development of the US Army’s UH-72A Lakota utility helicopter that is being proposed for the US Army’s Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) requirement. Equipped with SAWS, the EC 645 is fitted with a mission computer, an EO system with TV and IR cameras and laser rangefinder with laser designator and a targeting system with helmet-mounted sight and display.
For those nations who want a dedicated attack helicopter but cannot afford the Apache or Tiger, the latest reincarnation of the OH-6 is an attractive option. First flown almost 50 years ago, the Hughes OH-6A Cayuse light military helicopter won the US Army’s Light Observation Helicopter (LOH) competition in May 1965, with more than 1,400 delivered during the Vietnam war. Since then MD 500E/530E Defender light attack/scout helicopters derived from the OH-6A have been acquired by militaries worldwide. More than 500 are currently in service in the Asia Pacific region with the JGSDF and South Korean Army operating the largest fleets.
The longevity of the combat-proven design and flexible mission configuration has encouraged two companies to offer new military variants which may be potential competitors for the US Amy AAS competition. The Boeing AH-6i is an export version of the AH-6 re-launched in 2008. MD Helicopters will build the airframe while mission integration will be carried out by Boeing, Mesa. It will feature an integrated digital cockpit based on Apache AH-64D Block III displays and software. Weapons options include Hellfire anti-armour missiles, 2.75 in rockets, 7.62 mm mini-gun, GAU-19A 50-caliber Gatling gun, or FN Herstal HPM400LC 50-calibre gun pod. Mission avionics include EO/IR cameras, laser range finder, laser pointer and designator capability.
It competitor is the MD 540F launched at ‘Quad A’ 2012. The helicopter combines the airframe of the 530F with a strengthened landing gear of the commercial 600N, and like the AH-6i, will be powered by a single 600 shp Rolls-Royce 250-C30 turboshaft engine driving a six blade main rotor. The prototype was fitted with a Garmin digital glass cockpit with Elbit Systems multi-function colour displays with a HDTS slaved to L-3 Wescam MX-10 EO/IR turret. Weapons systems options include guns, rockets and missiles mounted on the Cantine Advanced Lightweight Weapons Platform and the Mace stub wing.
Potential customers for these light attack helicopters include all the current MD Defender operators which includes the Philippines whose small fleet of MD 530MGs need to the upgraded and refurbished, and Afghanistan. The US Army have awarded MD Helicopters a $186 million Rotary Wing Primary Training Aircraft contract to supply up to 54 MD 530Fs for the Afghan Air Force of which six were delivered in 2011. The MD 540F would be a logical choice for an advanced light scout/attack helicopter for Afghanistan in the future.
Afghanistan has been the defining factor in rotary wing air warfare for more than a decade but future demand for new aircraft types is likely to focus less on less role-specific platforms and more on multi-mission capability where the attack/reconnaissance/scout helicopter will be in the ascendancy.