Helicopter Gunships for Engaging Targets on Ground

Issue: 2 / 2012By Lt General (Retd) B.S. Pawar

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 armament using helicopters in their kitty, a useful force multiplier which can turn the tide in battle

Armed helicopters or combat helicopters can be classified into two categories i.e. the armed helicopters/gunships 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 enemy fire from the ground as well as air and for 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.

The attack helicopters on the other hand are specifically designed and built to carry weapons for engaging targets on ground and air with special emphasis on anti-tank role. The weapons include machine guns, cannons, rockets and guided missiles for air-to-ground and air-to-air engagement. Modern day attack helicopters have two main roles: of providing direct and accurate close air support for ground troops and anti-tank role to destroy enemy armour. Specialised armed helicopters flying from ships at sea are equipped with weapons for anti-submarine and/or anti-shipping operations.

The Concept of Arming Helicopters

The concept of arming 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 the Vietnam conflict, military helicopters were mostly used for troop transport, observation and casualty evacuation. These helicopters, while flying the 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 helicopters.

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. Currently, 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 attack helicopters with the primary aim of engaging tanks. The late 1970s/early 1980s saw the advent of attack helicopters 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 attack helicopters due to increased cost over gunships, 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 surface-to-air missiles (SAM) sites with Hellfire missiles. The Soviet operations in Afghanistan during 1979-89 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.

Types of Helicopter Armament Systems

The most common weapons are machine guns and rockets for use against soft targets on the ground and for self-defence while transporting troops over conflict areas. While armed helicopters have mostly used direct firing weapons with bombs considered more appropriate for fixed wing aircraft, certain armed helicopters have successfully lent themselves to use with heavy bombs. The US Army used the Chinook helicopters for dropping bombs to clear landing zones and saturate base camps and infiltration routes during the Vietnam War. Armed helicopters today can also be fitted with mine dispenser/mine clearance systems. The mine dispenser system is fitted on the US Black Hawk 139. 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 airborne mine clearance system is another armament sub-system where the intended targets are naval mines. The system comprises of a single modified 30mm cannon for targeting and neutralising the mines in shallow depth and is fitted on the US Navy Black Hawk helicopter.

The attack helicopters, 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 attack helicopter 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 sub-munition warheads which can disperse a number of grenades/bomb lets over specified target areas. The air-to-air missile system is basically to counter the threat from other attack helicopters and is more of a defensive armament system. The anti-tank guided missile is the main punch of the attack helicopters. The advent of fire and forget missiles is the greatest asset of the attack helicopters, which increases its lethality. The Hellfire missile on the Apache attack helicopter is in this class. The carriage of the armament and the type will depend on the mission and area of operations.

The armed helicopters will have to be fitted with countermeasures 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.

Modern Attack Helicopters

AH 64D: The American Apache Longbow (AH 64D) demonstrates many of the advanced technologies being considered for deployment on future attack helicopters. The Longbow Apache attack helicopter is an upgraded version of the AH 64A Apache and is the most sophisticated attack helicopter in the world today. The Longbow attack helicopter has a radar dome atop the main rotors, which facilitates firing of Hellfire missiles in full-fire-and-forget mode, allowing the attack helicopter to stay masked behind terrain as it acquires and engages the targets. The earlier Apache had to pop up to scan the battlefield, leaving it exposed or relying on target data from other sources such as scout helicopters. The Longbow armament consists of a 30mm cannon, 70mm rockets, longbow Hellfire missiles and Stinger/Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. It has the Honeywell integrated helmet and display sighting system with state-of-the-art countermeasure sensors.

KA-50 and MI-28: The Russians have also developed state-of-the-art attack helicopters in the Ka-50 and MI-28. This decision was taken after their experience in Afghanistan with the MI-24 attack helicopters, which was basically an armed helicopter and hence not suited for a typical attack helicopter role. The Ka 50 is the world’s first coaxial, single-seat attack helicopter. The MI-28 on the other hand is roughly equivalent to the Apache Longbow but without command and control linkup. The MI-28 has a 30mm chain gun, Ataka anti-tank guiding 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 attack helicopters operating are the Italian AugustaWestland AW129 (Mangusta), Bell helicopters Viper (the latest version of Huey Cobra) and Eurocopters Tiger.