Attack helicopters

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of a large army aviation (helicopter) branch. Some Western army aviation branches have slid towards gold-plating since the late 70's and failed to deliver on the promises. Army helicopters are also a huge fiscal and logistical pain in the cushions.

There are four distinct dominant modes of attack helicopter (in a wide sense) operations;

Alouette helicopter with SS.11 ATGMs
(1) The standoff approach. Anti-tank helicopters hover close to friendlies, serving as a very mobile floating anti-tank missile launcher system. These may have great use for theatre command because this way 50+ ATGM launcher systems can be moved by almost 100 km in 30 minutes. This mode of operation doesn't require much; you can bolt on ATGM launchers onto a civilian helicopter or a utility helicopter, bolt on a stabilised optic for fire control and that's it. The West German PAH-1 followed this concept, as did Gazelles and Alouettes and Hughes 500 Defender series models.* The conversion is so affordable that there have been dozens such conversions.
The biggest problem to this concept was the introduction of self-propelled anti air gun systems such as Gepard and "Shilka" which made this tactic much more dangerous. You need at the very least a radar warning receiver to cope with this problem.
A more careful attack helicopter would strive to expose itself only as much as necessary, if possible only a mast-mounted (top) stabilised sensor. This behaviour largely eliminates the bird's view advantage and reduces the field of vision to rather short ranges on many forms of terrain. The required very low level flight reduces the advantage of the helicopter over soft ground vehicles mostly to its greater speed, which may easily mean it just gets more opportunities to run into trouble.

(2) Climb, approach, hit and run. The Soviets liked this most. The attack helicopter climbs, spots the target, flies a bit towards it and fires with unguided rockets and an autocannon with limited field of fire (forward). This tactic was likely the explanation for why some Russian attack helicopters have an almost fixed gun. It also requires heavy hardening for vital components and the crew.
This tactic turned out to be not such a great idea once the helicopter faced at least ManPADS or other basic very short range air defence systems. It was a great success in the very early 80's over Afghanistan, though.

The U.S.Army also liked this approach a lot before the TOW missile and the impression left by Shilkas changed the picture. This largely explains the genesis of the AH-56A Cheyenne program.

(3) Hover or circle high and shoot at ground-bound opposition preferably with a fully movable autocannon. This is what we know from milporn videos of Apaches killing insurgents in Iraq. It doesn't work at all in face of effective air defences (same fate as fixed wing gunship tactics and related loitering flying drone tactics).

(4) Infiltrate with a helicopter's unimpeded high mobility over all terrains (but high mountains), then proceed to attack the enemy's rear area. This was typically advocated by the most ambitious army aviation branches; dominantly in the U.S.Army, but it was also advocated by Simpkin and exploited by the German Heer to justify the Tiger and NH90 programs during the budget squeeze of the 90's (long dropped since).
In theory, this yields easy success against supply columns, low readiness combat troops, headquarters and so on. In practice it first and foremost requires a much more sophisticated helicopter than mode (1); armour, more versatile fire control, a gun, unguided rockets, a second engine, long endurance, versatile armament, radar/missile/gunfire warning and locating sensors, possibly an obstacle avoidance sensor (to avoid power lines at night), long-range radios, missile countermeasures et cetera.
The problems with this tactic are that the helicopters expose themselves to much hostile fire (including small arms fire and heavy machinegun fire against which a 100% passive protection is impossible) and the endurance is still a problem.
An air mechanisation approach which meant to provide such attack helicopters with utility helicopter escorts for command/control, electronic warfare, infantry 360° security on the ground during breaks and refuelling capacity was developed and ranks high among the least cost-efficient army concepts ever devised.
The low tech ambush against a AH-64 Apache-equipped regiment in 2003 which downed one Apache* and damaged 28 others has forced many to re-evaluate the survivability of attack helicopters over hostile or contested ground in a conflict with an actually competent opponent.

It would be pointless if I pretended to draw conclusions from these four modes. Fact is, I described these modes years after having drawn my conclusions:
I'm for some cost-effective utility helicopters (such as the Dhruv). Some of these could be equipped as basic anti-tank helicopters in order to provoke potential adversaries to waste resources on countermeasures and in order to distort their tactics with a bit caution.
I also see a niche for a few heavylift helicopters, albeit all but the Mi-26 seem to be ridiculously overpriced these days and the Mi-26 is too big and too expensive in operation.

The glorified thoroughbred attack helicopters - well, I don't think that they're worth the fiscal and logistical hassle in face of a really dangerous opponent. And we would have done something really wrong if we face not really dangerous opponents, for it's almost unheard-of that inferior powers attack a powerful alliance.


*: The success of anti-tank helicopters depends a lot on the spectacular outcome of remarkable exercises in Germany on civilian property (tanks were even allowed to run over fences) in '73/'74. These pitted helicopters with 3,750 km range TOW missiles against tanks and M163 SPAAGs with a 20 mm gatling gun which was limited in range to about 2,000 m. It was a turkey shooting for the helicopters and the kill ratio ranged from 3:1 to 14:1 in their favour. Suitable countermeasures changed the picture dramatically and the M163s VADS was no adequate representation of Soviet "Shilka" anyway.
**: Published at the time as a "Iraqi farmer shot down a American helicopter with his rifle" story.


  1. One man mini-copters are the way to go. Use them to swarm enemy tank formations! Casualtys will be high, but the loss/exchange ratio makes it entirely worthwhile.

  2. Do you have a positive definition of what helicopters can do best?

    1. Take off and landing almost everywhere, fast cruise over almost any terrain.

      Sounds great for courier service and Medevac to me.

    2. So green light for utility helicopters that have dual purpose for civilian and military use and are the mainstay of naval helicopters.

      What if you perceive attack helicopters as a fast mobile platform with ground attack weapons and high performance sensors? This platform can be concentrated on suitable spots, creating temporary information and firepower dominance. The slow flight speed allows for precise ground attacks with not so expensive munitions.
      I'm not sure this concepts validates attack helicopters. COIN aircrafts (include the A10 here) compete in that role and are an important inexpensive weapon platform for much of the world.

      I don't know whether fixed or rotary wing is the solution, but it's about sensors on a flying ground attack craft that strikes in large numbers with supremacy in information gathering and firepower. It works worst if dispersed
      Rotary wings offer "take off and landing almost everywhere, fast cruise over almost any terrain". That might be a reason to run this ground attack thing with rotary wing crafts and not less expensive fixed wing crafts.

    3. Keep in mind current army aviation was defined by the restrictions armies operate under (other than the USMC they cannot have large fixed wing forces any more, for that's air force territory) and such bureaucracies just want to grow. The current state of affairs is thus not indicative of what's a good idea in general, but of what the past conditions have led to.

      The huge problem of helicopters is that they continuously fight gravity while flying and can thus not be heavy. This in turn prevents them from being more than partially and lightly armoured. They're slower, less efficient and lower flying than fixed wing aircraft (which share the problem).

      Imagine how well-received an armoured fighting vehicle with barely bulletproofed armour would be on the battlefield, especially if it costs more than several main battle tanks. Helicopters' advantage is really only the low altitude flight. As mentioned before; this may easily mean that they just have plenty more opportunities to run into trouble.

    4. I agree with you that in a number of countries the legal definition of the forces has led to attack helicopter development.
      COIN aircrafts and attack helicopters compete within the same niche. Both have pros and cons. Do you suggest to close the whole niche or a different approach than in most Western countries?
      I consider the South African Ahrlac, the Argentine Pucará, the Brazilian Super Tucano or the US A-10 are examples of fixed wing concepts that compete with attack helicopters.

    5. I think attack helicopter's and CAS aircraft's jobs can be substituted with a range of other aerial assets, ground assets and tactics.
      You can make the theatre-level quick reaction force capability of attack helicopters unnecessary with a greater emphasis on delay tactics by ground forces, for example.

    6. I like the discussion.
      You are in favour of utility helicopters and I presume arming them to some degree.

      Ground assets and tactics are a different solution to the concentration of firepower problem. Within this framework improved delaying tactics help to reduce the demand for quick CAS.

      How do you suggest to replace the CAS punch in an offensive operation?
      Build up with ground based assets will be much slower and less surprising. This leaves only other aerial assets. I'm not aware any of these could be cheaper or more cost effective than a fixed wing CAS aircraft. The attack helicopter is certainly more expensive than the fixed wing CAS aircraft (but has some own advantages and disadvantages).
      That's the point where I can not follow your argument. It's about concentrated attacks with good sensors and massive firepower. The mentioned ambush against the Apache regiment has much to do with restrictive rules of engagement. I doubt that the ambush would have had the same effect on a more trigger happy command (with lots of civilian casualties).
      I do think you have a honourable bias against attack and for defence. The article and the discussion did provide very good insight on the operation and limits of attack helicopters.
      Try to consider the scenario of a large group of attack helicopters operating as mobile strike force. This mobile strike force never strikes far from friendlies on the ground. This does include infiltrations for strikes in unexpected sectors (ability to expect attack helicopters in a small enough area is a grave tactical mistake by the heliforce).
      A suitable concentration for an ambush and thus the number of possible ambushes is limited due to the firepower carried by the flying assets. Armour does overall not provide the same degree of benefits per carried weight. You are quite right, pointing out that these aircrafts will run into such ambushes and will be damaged. While not armoured, they need to be resilent. Resilent means operational under damage and quick to fix after damage due to such an ambush. Creating CAS for attacking air groups with specialized helicopters is likely a very inefficient solution from the resilence point of view. Upping resilence and reducing unit costs with different aerial assets would be the way to go. Ahrlac and A-10 seem the most promising designs to continue the delivery of concentrated aerial ground attacks. At least, it clarifies attack helicopters as mostly one trick ponies for concentrated aerial ground attacks and possibly not the best solution.
      Do you have a different idea for an as rapid concentration of sensors and firepower with some other kind of aerial assets that has the necessary resilence against ambushes and is cost effective?

      You often mention the low force density of modern battlefields. These do increase the utility of flying platforms over more stationary systems. The flying platforms can concentrate far better than the ground based systems. The ground based systems are superior at hiding. This makes it natural to mostly scout and defend with ground based assets, while a offensive punch is often delivered by the flying CAS system/s (whatever it is).

    7. About replacement for CAS in egenral; keep in mind many countries don't rely on CAS in their doctrine. German field manuals point out that even artillery support is only to be expected at the Schwerpunkt (or crisis locations), and at times skip CAS entirely.

      Low force density favours forces which can function well if dispersed, and which require no well-secured logistical bases. Helicopters certainly ain't such platforms. What's n Apache regiment worth if its staging base was overrun last night by an armoured recce company?

      A quick concentration is not necessary to stop attacking formations if you can delay them.
      A quick concentration isn't necessary for own offensive actions either if these are the result of creating favourable conditions for offensive action over time. A brigade may be harassed, constricted, and cut off for days before being smashed by a superior concentration of strength and readiness. There's no need for 200 kph linear distance cruise speed then.

      A theatre QRF is only essential if
      (a) meeting engagements turn into the equivalent of a 5 sec brawl instead of a skilled boxing match which lasts minutes due to defensive movements.
      (b) recce and intel efforts did not provide enough early warning for insufficiently elusive forces

      I wrote about both (a) and (b) already and this attack helicopter text really fits into the whole.

      Finally, there's the repulsion issue: Helicopters have a ~100-200 km radius of effectiveness. Sometimes it's better to be a more local force. (See D&F 20 Jan 2010)

    8. Questions answered.

    9. Re-reading the discussion, I was reminded about another weapon system, a one trick pony for short decisive impact brawls against stationary enemies, the Late Medieval gendarme with long lances (they could repeat their charges several times).
      It was replaced by the reiter, a less armoured system with slightly longer ranged weapons for non contact combat on a much less powerful and expensive horse (less costs, less logistic footprint for the same effect). The costs for replacement of combat losses proofed the undoing of gendarmes and ilk (Polish winged hussars) despite them being successful under suitable conditions against reiter-likes.

      We seem to have arrived at a resilent armed utility helicopter. Going a bit futuristic, it can be a compound copter with longer range. The Soviets were not far off the mark when they made all their "attack" helicopters also troop transports.
      This weapon system will profit from the ability to defend transit and landing. Long range detection and weapons will be of benefit against ground based systems that endanger it during low altitude flight.

  3. IMHO, (1) is still a useful capability against high end forces. (2) is only viable in a "medium" threat environment where you don't expect significant ManPADs threat, but can still be more useful in higher threat situations than (3). (3) is useful for COIN. (4) is dangerous and should be avoided unless you KNOW you won't overfly enemy forces on the way to the target.

    The US has a lot invested in the Apache and Cobra, so I support continued development. I wouldn't support developing a new AH for us.

  4. Option 4 sounds fantastic, and then you give it a bit of thought, and its clearly bonkers.

    Outside the Maritime domain, I really dont see the value. Utility, yes, but at well beyond reasonable cost.

    Option one sounds great, until someone points out for the cost of one of those armed utility helicopters, you could mount a battalion worth of missile utility trucks or a company of missile armed light armoured tanks, twice the response time, but 5x the response.

    Or you could deploy a couple of batteries of GMLRS,

    Or stick with air, and operate a proper CAS aircraft like the A10

  5. As I understand it the Apache was designed to survive Soviet AAA and MANPADS;at least until it had performed its mission which was to destroy the leading Soviet armour - a more survivable option 1. An explanation of its intended use can be found here:
    "Hellfire had a designed range of 18 kilometers, compared to FOGM's then and still current 10km. Since the Hellfire range was classified (public references only said "in excess of 3750 meters") outsiders were confused. They didn't know it was going to be 5 TIMES in excess. This range of course put the AH-64 well outside the current and 20 year projected Soviet SHORAD (Short Range Air Defense) umbrella. You know the 'upsided down wedding cake' model for ADA (Air Defense Artillery) coverage."
    "...the capability to RAPIDLY mass decisive anti-tank fires at the critical point, at least not like the AH-64 (Attack Helicopter 64) Apache . The whole AH-64 organization stays outside the range of enemy artillery. Apache rearms/refuels outside enemy artillery and quickly shuttles in. Although we pushed AH-64 battalions down to division, this organization was subject to detachment by the Corps commander at a moment's notice. With two divisions' AH-64 battalions, plus three more at Corps level, the Corps commander had the theoretical capability to mass 5 x 18 = 90 Apaches x 16 Hellfires = 1,440 Hellfires at a threatened breakthrough.

    Casualties and serviceability rates would reduce this optimal number, but there in nutshell is how Generals Meyer & Starry planned to DESTROY (not 'attrit', 'delay', or 'stop') an invading Warsaw Pact force"

    1. I knew the text, but it's nonsense. The ballistic range of a Hellfire is irrelevant.

      Its guidance was line of sight laser illumination (and I'm not sure if LOAL was even practical), and there's no real point in using an expensive helicopter as launcher if the purpose is to deliver a warhead to a target illuminated by forward observers. That was the job of M109+Copperhead.

      The useful direct fire range of the Hellfire was not better than with a TOW except over most simple terrain such as Kuwait's desert:
      The TADS sensors weren't good for reliable detection of a foliage- or textile-camouflaged tank at 6+ km.
      Now remember detection is insufficient; you also need to identify. This reduces the practical range to 0-3 km depending on circumstances.
      Finally, lots of terrain restrictions such as hills, buildings and trees usually limit the line of sight for ground or very low level sensors to less than 2 km over much if not most of Europe.

      Helicopters such as Apache or Blackhawk have their fuel lines and some other critical components protected against 14.5 mm. Protection for crew depends on angle (front window hardened on Apache, sides not so much). 7.62 mm bullets are known to cause trouble to such helicopters because the protection is so incomplete.
      Shilkas use 23 mm HE mostly. One fine Shilka burst wrecks an Apache or Tiger - it's a guaranteed mission kill, even if an emergency landing attempt succeeds.

      By the way; the "Fulda Gap" area was (a) only planned for a WP diversionary attack to fix forces and (b) is very hilly and very much woodland.

      Last but not least, the theoretical lethality of munitions assumed in peacetime is usually several times as high as in conflicts against competent opponents. Of those 1,440 Hellfires only about 1,200 would have been on mission ready helicopters with mission ready crews, hundreds wouldn't have been expended prior to the Helicopter loss, dozens or hundreds would have been damaged by gunfire or lost to accidents prior to use. Some hits would be duds, others would be largely ineffective due to placement and angle. Some hits would even fail to penetrate due to reactive armour, placement and angle.
      The remainder would probably have destroyed the equivalent of three or four tank battalions. Plus the equivalent of a tank battalion of NATO tanks, for the ID of moving haystacks is ridiculously hard and unreliable.
      (This assumed no Apaches were destroyed on their bases with a strategic surprise.)

  6. "the "Fulda Gap" area was (a) only planned for a WP diversionary attack to fix forces" - interesting. Do you have any more information on this? I remember reading something about the US believing the Soviets would launch a Central attack while the British believed they would launch flank attacks North and South; but that was awhile ago

  7. @SO:
    I can agree with your sceptical view of the offensive performance of attack helicopters.
    But I would see them very useful in a defensive role - especially against armoured reconnaissance units.
    How to fight such fast forces, if your own forces have only equal speed?
    How to react, if such enemy forces stands at the gate of your logistic centre?
    And how to destroy such forces with limited own casualties, if they are in contact with own recce companies with similar firepower?

    1. Depends on the terrain and the nature of the armoured recce.

      The can't move all the time, so spotting and tracking them is the key. The theoretical top speed of the vehicles isn't very important.

      A German tactic against Red army deep attack tank forces was to equip mobile anti-armour (assault gun, tank destroyer) units with a scouting element consisting of teams with very cheap and unarmed off-road cars with backpack radios. They kept an eye on possible routes and tracked hostile tanks, so the actual AT units were able to move into ambush positions and were rarely surprised themselves.

      You don't need to use gold-plated multi-million bucks high-tech for such basic jobs.

  8. Spotting and tracking the enemy are nothing worth without destroying the enemy. Watching the enemy destroying the own infrastructure wouldn´t be nice.

    Nothing against military history. But a modern recce force has another level of speed and range than a soviet WWII tank force. And if you use tanks versus the intruded forces, they will be missing at the Schwerpunkt. Even if you use your reserves, they will be missing for solving problems at other points.

    That´s why attack helicopters matters in my opinion. Spot and track the enemy with cheap ground forces (accompanied by a FAC). Destroy them with air power. And if you don´t need the helicopters in that role at the current moment, they can be used as highly mobile (defensive) anti-tank-weapons.

    1. You provoke the OPFOR to equip its armoured recce with effective VShorAD, which in turns strangles general army aviation ops everywhere because helicopters might then be shot at with VShorAD everywhere.

      What you're proposing is a step in a spiral. Don't you think 'they' already thought of this and the next step? Such as a decade ago already?

  9. Every weapon system that provoke the enemy to take the next step in a spiral, seems to be effective.
    Let the (Belo-)Russians equip all their tanks with VShoRAD-missiles. Flares or DIRCM will neutralize them.
    There is furthermore the question why VShoRAD-systems have only seen limited distribution. The main reason is IMO the fear of friendly-fire. The danger for army aviators of both sides would be nearly equal.
    In the words of German SAM-Soldiers:
    Es gibt weder Freund noch Feind, nur lohnende Ziele.
    (Neither friend nor foe, only worthwile targets.)

    OK, I accept that you don´t like attack helicopters. ;-)

    1. "(...) VShoRAD-missiles. Flares or DIRCM will neutralize them."

      Look up laser beam rider missiles.