Marginal rate of utility for attack helicopters

In economics, the marginal rate usually tells you about the gain for one more unit of effort.
The marginal rate is usually diminishing the more effort you've already put into something in the real world, but some exceptions exist (especially when a certain quantity of effort is required to get any gain; fixed costs).

The last post was about how exaggerated the attention and budgeting on army helicopters usually is. Even I as a critic do not believe that no attack helicopters is the way to go, and the concept of marginal rates is a useful concept for explaining this reasoning. My writing here about repertoires is another good background for it.

Let's say your army corps brings a squadron of attack helicopters into the fight. Nothing really gold plated, just some average attack helicopters, maybe Mangustas.

The opposing force gets either caught unprepared by those helicopters and the latter have a field day for a change OR the opposing forces are prepared. This preparedness is about vehicle equipment, careful vehicle movement and availability of battlefield air defences (SPAAGs mostly).

The restriction of movements is probably not even the bigger issue here; the expense for battlefield AD (SPAAGs are not effective against modern strike fighters and are almost entirely specialised on countering attack helicopters) is likely the bigger one.
My laziness keeps me from looking up more recent figures, but during the 70's a Leopard 1A4 was priced at DM 1.7 million and a Gepard SPAAG at DM 5.4 million. The 1:3 ratio may have shrunk towards 1:2 in the meantime because of more and more electronics in AFVs, but the basic point is enduring: Battlefield air defences cost a lot, and expenditure for them is expenditure that could have been allocated at more ground combat power if they hadn't to face a threat.

Now back to our imaginary army corps and its squadron of Mangustas; there'll be either some turkey shooting time for them or the opposing force will need to afford dozens if not over a hundred air defence assets to counter this handful of Mangustas (which can appear anywhere in and even beyond the corps sector on short notice).

I think it's likely that some attack helicopters are worth the expense (especially if you already have them) because they provoke inefficiencies in the opposing forces, but it's foolish to expect high returns in shape of tank kills from them. This is not going to happen against a prepared opposing force.

The marginal rate for the first couple attack helicopters is better than their fiscal costs, but break-even is quickly reached and a large attack helicopter force operates at terrible marginal rates of utility; likely often even harming their team more through their fiscal and logistical demand than they help it.

Again; this is the same as with cavalry; high potential - largely if not entirely ruined by countermeasures.



  1. >(SPAAGs are not effective against modern strike fighters and are almost entirely specialised on countering attack helicopters)

    I think you already know this, but most modern point defence weapons are designed to shoot down cruise missiles and such as well, so any up-to-date army is likely to have some regardless, considering the proliferation of PGMs today. Hell, even Finland has the JASSM now, even though we, wisely, decided not to buy any attack helicopters.

  2. It's highly unlikely that battlefield air defences encounter such a munition. At the same time it's highly dubious that they could maintain their radar operation mode in face of a strike package, so taking out the likes of Maverick etc is unlikely as well.

    Completely different story for Pantsir, which I wouldn't call a battlefield AD system despite being ShoRAD, too.

  3. Unless you can of course have the same deterrence effect with another much cheaper, much more mobile, much more robust, flexible and effective system:
    And when you realize that there is diminutive gain in trying to make heavy armor fly:

  4. Problem with ground attack aircraft is that they can easily fly higher, use standoff sensors and munitions. An air force that faces Shilka-type SPAAGs goes this route if it's wealthy enough.

    This immunizes them against normal battlefield AD and requires something similar to Kashtan as a defence. Kashtan is an even more expensive asset than a normal SPAAG, but you can provoke this expenditure without dedicated ground attack aircraft, simply by having normal multi-role combat aircraft such as Rafale with some battlefield-relevant munitions.

    In the end, dedicated ground attack aircraft such as Frogfoot and Thunderbolt2 are in a similar position as attack helicopters. Almost blind at treetop altitude, too vulnerable at low altitude and no better than multi-role combat aircraft at higher altitudes.
    In fact, a Frogfoot is almost certainly more vulnerable than a Gripen at 15,000 ft and higher (due to the airframe limits and thrust; even if they had the same avionics).

  5. I perfectly agree with your analysis. It seems the military does also.
    But like any very large social structure it is very conservative, has many entrenched power groups, has to always go through an enormous number of procedures in order to do anything, and due to this this even if something is acknowledged by almost everyone nobody can do anything.

    A nice case happened during the last Yugoslav war, when NATO attacked Serbia.
    The Apaches were coming. Still coming. Arriving any moment. And when they arrive wow what will happen. Etc etc. Media was full of descriptions about how the mighty Apaches will burn and destroy. Of course the army took great care not to expose them to anything remotely dangerous until the end of the war. Still managed to loose 2 of them out of 24 ( if I remember correctly) while preparing in Macedonia to obliterate the serbian army.

    The military knows the problems you mention. But like any similar structure by order of size, from General Motors to the Catholic Church, knowing something doesn't mean anything.The structural inertia is so large that only a major shock can induce a change of doctrine and direction.

    I won't comment the analysis, as usually you didn't live much room for debate, at least not for me.

  6. Matthias Wilde2 April 2012 at 17:52

    Come on, Teo, don´t be huffy ;) At least I find your ethno-demographic musings of some value.

    I presume you know Jared Diamonds "Guns, germs and steel"? Fascinating how he eschews theorizing about politics or culture and digs deep into biology and geography instead for explaining history.

  7. Yes I know. But I understand Jared Diamond.
    He had great success which he obviously greatly desired because he was extremely PC.
    In order to have his cake and eat it too he goes to great length talking about elephants, zebras etc LOL.
    He was right it seems.
    Just like my "musings". It all about the people.
    Jared knew perfectly this lesson it seems.

    But I wasn't huffy. From a technical point of view it's very difficult to comment anything in Sven's analysis.
    And from my personal experience dealing with large organizations from inside and outside - had the opportunity to see both sides of the hill - I think that usually it's not a problem of lack of understanding or stupidity.
    But everyone has a very small degree of independence, sometimes not at all. Large structures have so many procedures, end results are so very far away, everything moves very slow and impersonal etc.
    That was the only thing I thought was of any use.
    To add that the military by all evidence arrived to the same conclusions as our host but this makes no difference. Nobody can change the general direction, systemic inertia is far too large to allow significant changes.
    (this was a sociological musing :), I variate)

  8. "but it's foolish to expect high returns in shape of tank kills from them. This is not going to happen against a prepared opposing force."

    True, but applicable to every piece of kit.
    I'm a big believer in the ability of systems like Apache/Hellfire and Typhoon/Brimstone to devestate armoured forces they catch on the move.
    Obviously, the enemy nows this, so refuses to be caught en masse in the open.

    But that has a massive detrimental impact on the effectiveness of the enemy armour.

    If you consider that the tank remains the only agressive componant of the modern army, even the UKs excessive gunship fleet is likely to be cost effective, even if it could be more so.

  9. Brimstone ranks close to AMOS in regard to my list of overhyped hardware that keeps attracting undue fascination.

    True, everything fares worse against a capable opponent than its theoretical potential. The fragile and most specialised kit is worse than others in this regard, though.

    For the UK Apache fleet to come close to cost efficiency of any kind, I'd first expect their training to leave the level of "largely absent".

    In regard to the effectieness of armour: Tanks cand ash 10 km forward in a matter of 20 minutes if their Cdr has balls. Helicopters can neither be safely stationed close enough to react in time nor can they loiter satisfactorily and even having them wait in the vicinity on the ground is unsatisfactory (risky). They share with the mythical 16 Brimstones-equipped Typhoon the problem of absence.

    I wrote years ago about "stop & go" tactics, but didn't even include this QRF delay issue back then.
    A discontinuous mode of operation with quick actions and highly elusive behaviour the rest of the time has great potential against all sluggish responders.

  10. Matthias Wilde3 April 2012 at 15:40

    @Teo: Haha, PC he (Diamond) definitely is, although his argument about the availability of certain large mammals and their co-evolution with their respective human hosts seems plausible to me.

    @Sven: In continuation of TrT´s line, this is a point I don´t get. I understand that a daring AFV group can advance rapidly and unexpectedly, bypassing fixed positions and surprising defenders.

    But after a certain time, it will be reconnoited nonetheless, especially as AFV cannot hide as well as infantry, and given the widespread use of UAV or the reconnaissance elements mentioned in your other articles.

    I share your points on economic feasibility and the necessity of constant training, and deem these points decisive from a strategic point of view;

    but from a purely tactical/operational perspective, what prevents an AFV force from being identified and localized, and subsequently being wiped out by helos closing in from their more or less secure bases?

  11. How does an attack helicopter wipe out a tank platoon that's in the woods? How does it wipe out a tank platoon that's sitting in a farmer house compound? How does a tank helicopter wipe out a tank platoon that's in a village?

    It would need to overfly them, and that's suicidal against a great power's army force.

    Strike fighters can do this more easily (save for the woods hideout), but they're so damn versatile and there are so many easier and mroe pressing targets that they'll rarely be used against resting armoured forces. That happens in deserts and possibly at a persisting Schwerpunkt, but it's not likely as a general phenomenon.

    There'll be some attrition voer time, as with almost all forces. I doubt that the tank forces which are immunised against a wide range of munitions would be the prime candidate for attrition during non-battle phases.

    Keep in mind even in WW2 stopping an armoured spearhead was first and foremost about destroying their supply trucks unless you had more TacAir at hand than you can count in an hour.

  12. Matthias Wilde3 April 2012 at 18:25

    Is it really that easy to quickly hide a tank platoon (=3-4 tanks, if I´m correct?), especially in e.g. the (in)famous plains of northern Germany, or suburban areas?

    Your point that strike fighters would probably have other, more pressing priorities at e.g the Schwerpunkt or logistical targets, seems plausible.

    Isn´t it the case, though, that fixed-wing aircraft are generally considered an operational weapon (with ranges between perhaps 80-300km), while helos are considered as flexible CAS?

    In other words, are you in favor of abolishing CAS (e.g. for economical reasons, which, of course, is a perfectly valid if not decisive factor), or is this distinction between roles not made in reality?

    Interesting point on blunting the spearheads in WW2. So they interrupted the logistic flow in order to starve the steel beasts instead of attacking them directly - why? Inaccurateness, insufficient penetrating power, or...?

  13. @Wilde; in part because it was so much easier to light up three trucks than to destroy a dozen tanks (and penetration alone was often only a temporary fix, as repairs and replacement crews were quick).

    It IS so easy to hide tanks when you only need to hide them against near-horizontal views (helos fly low...) and often times you can even predict the direction because the only halfway safe tactic for attack helicopters in regard to the low tech threat is to hover above 'friendly' troops (see PAH-1 tactic).

    In regard to the ease of hiding of stationary tanks; these guys did know nothing about an Apache, and still no Apache would detect them while hovering somewhere in the area.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBThvkdzW00# at 3:28 This is really old stuff.

  14. Matthias Wilde3 April 2012 at 23:11

    OK, seems plausible.

  15. Following this line of thinking the attack helo is out as an offensive weapon, expect for well coordinated and supported strikes.

    On the defensive: How about a rather rugged helo (1 or 2 birds) that gets attached to a unit currently on zone defence? They may be useful as quick reaction spoilers to distract, harrass or delay an enemy force before those hit the ground units...

  16. @MMK:

    Loiteringso far forward would be dangerous in face of modern surface-to-air missiles (especially those with look down and lock on after launch capability) andopposing fighters. Their rotor movement and their separation from the ground makes detection and identificatione easy (doppler effect).

    They could wait on the ground, but which helo is so rugged that acommander would feel comfortable having him sit so close to opposing forces on the ground? To hide one is furthermore much more difficult than to hide a tank or even an insanely big APC such as Boxer: You need a huge cleared zone (rotor radius) unless you use only two rotor blades (or quickly folding ones) and wheels (to push/pull the helo into a hideout).

    Furthermore, a single capable attack helicopter would still cost about as much as a medium tank company in procurement and training.

    What would or should a commander on the battlefield prefer? Two 'rugged' birds or two companies of tanks equipped with 120 mm cannons?

  17. Sven
    But 10kms isnt a long distance.
    You'll have to repeat that dash 10 times in even a small war.
    It only takes one bit of bad luck / competant opfor for your tank company to be bounced by a waiting gunship during its dash, and its paid for itself.

    Thats before you consider delays.

    Your armoured company dashes to its next target.
    500 metres out, three tanks hit mines, two more are disabled by rockets and you see infantry falling bac to dug outs.

    Do you charge in and hope its 20 stragglers, not 2000 about to Grozney you, or do you wait/run and risk air attack?

    "How does an attack helicopter wipe out a tank platoon that's in the woods?"

    It doesnt, it waits on a newly pioneered pad 25m from the front, as troops keep your armoured company under observation.
    As soon as they move, it does, and then your armoured company, isnt.

    What do you do if your reserves are concentrated to break through in the south, and I over run your defences 200 miles further North?
    Make 20 dashes?
    My armour can move 600 miles a day, with attritional breadowns, what can yours manage without being gutted by air? 50?

    I'm not an expert, but I thin I'm going to eat you all up

  18. Well, you know my arguments and we think about the topic with different emphasizes and apparently also different assumptions.
    Stuff happens.

    You need no attack helicopters if you can crash a tank attack within 10 km without it.
    A helicopter can't be within 25 km all the time while covering a 600 km front either, so it's either proximity or exploitation of operational mobility, never both at once. Btw, the huge operational level mobility niche can be filled by more versatile fixed wing aircraft, no need for helos there.

    Your newly pioneered pad (why would helo need one?) would be 25 km away? Do you assume airtight front-lines or why aren't you bothered much by the threat caused by infiltrated reds?

    Tell me how does your flying armour cope with red tanks? Does it close in to 2 km and risk getting torn apart even by IFV autocannons? No? Fine, how exactly is it going to tell red from blue moving bushes at >2 km? I've seen some IIR screenshots and at 2 km they're not even 100% fine for ID when there's no camo on the tank.
    We even need to take into account that our ally Poland uses T-90 lookalike MBTs!

  19. As a combat asset helicopters in major warfare are very questionable (see already the later phases of the Vietnam war). They are support assets. Only in colonial wars they can be used because there the enemy rarely shoots back with anything meaningful. Maybe with Sikorsky's X2 technology things will brighten up a bit, but that's still years away.

    You kill tanks with smart sub-ammo artillery rockets. A clearly ID'able technical like a tank is dead against a capable enemy. And in any case the typical smooth-bore gunned MBT is a dying breed. For anyone but the two or three major full-spectrum capability powers the focus will be on being not ID'able as a military asset. Something that looks and EM-smells like a civil delivery fan but has two missiles hidden in the back will be much more usable than any clearly military vehicle. DON'T BECOME A TARGET.