Combat helicopters

The choppers are proving to be handy in the battlefield to perform a wide range of missions from supplying logistics to carrying out combat missions even in most difficult terrain without a proper air strip or complete runway as the heli-borne platforms are fast becoming a necessity than casual machine.  

Since the helicopters can land and take off virtually from any location, commanders are placing increasing demand for such multi utility and attack choppers which can carry out a range of tasks without changing its inventory.    

The helicopters are gradually required as a key component in airland maneuvers. Initially, it provided service support for ground forces, then combat support before becoming directly involved in the maneuver, accelerating in rhythm and extending the area of action to a considerable degree.

As the strategic context evolved, the relevance of the attack helicopter was called into question for a while, even as the transport helicopter was proving itself indispensable in every theater of operation.

However, the intensification of conflicts led to a strong comeback by the attack helicopter, though in different ways from those initially planned.

This strong demand for airmobile platforms, however, was not anticipated by Western nations, who had real difficulty building up suitable fleets in sufficient numbers.

The armed forces, meanwhile, are focused on optimizing the use and organization of their airmobile forces, while gradually updating their doctrines.

The development and entry into service of a combat helicopter is no exception to the difficulties inherent in producing and operating military equipment whose primary characteristic is its extended duration in time.

However, the complexity of this weapon system and the amount of financial and political capital on the line render the process even more delicate.

Between the expression of a requirement for a helicopter, the signature of the production agreement and the delivery of the first machines, there can be a time lag of several decades.

To this must be added the time required to produce the number of machines that have been ordered and the time required for the machine to enter service, which again can extend to several decades.

It is necessary to bear in mind two essential parameters: the ageing of machines in the previous fleets and the timing of the transition on the one hand, and the adaptation of the new system to the conflict environment, on the other.

Due to the extended duration of this process, fielded platforms and those to be acquired have been largely inherited from the 1980s, and from concepts of employment linked to the ‘maneuver warfare’ concepts which led to heli-borne forces being oriented towards autonomous, deep attack operations.

This paradigm translated into fleets divided into two major categories: on the one hand, Utillity Helicopters (UH) for tactical transport and on the other, helicopters whose primary purpose at the time was reconnaissance, protection, attack and particularly anti-tank combat.

In the US, the AH-64A Apache was one of the first attack helicopters developed along those lines, followed by the Italian A-129 Mangusta in 1983. France entered into discussions with Germany in 1975 leading to a decision in 1989 to jointly develop a helicopter of this type, thus giving rise to the Eurocopter group and the Tiger program.


The helicopters born in this period of fierce international competition were designed to push back technological boundaries.

The quest for performance was pursued in all domains: speed, with the development of faster (and stealthier) machines like the Russian KA-50 Hokum which could reach 217 mph with its two counter-rotating coaxial rotors.

It has all-weather capability, allowing the helicopter to fly day and night in adverse weather conditions, an aspect that had long been a weak point of the rotorcraft, and, finally, protection as the AH-64A Apache was able to detect and jam enemy radar and, was partly armored, all of which allowed it to resist damage from munitions up to 23 mm caliber.

The most striking advance, however, was in relation to weapon development. The helicopter became a weapon system integrating the full spectrum of systems for target acquisition (laser telemetry, optics, IR camera) and engagement (cannon, rockets, missiles).

The AH-64A Apache, for example, was upgraded in the 1990s to produce the AH-64D version with its mast-mounted Longbow radar.

The latter system was capable of detecting and tracking up to 256 different targets, whatever the weather of lighting conditions.

It could thus be used to launch ‘fire and forget’ munitions like the Hellfire missile. The UK decided to buy this machine product by Boeing, it was assembled under license in Britain by UK Westland.

This new generation of helicopter was developed with a view to high-intensity combat in Central Europe against a conventional army spearheaded by battle tanks.

However, the collapse of the Eastern bloc marked the beginning of a period of transition characterized by the emergence or re-emergence of asymmetric threats whose goal was to circumvent the technological superiority and firepower of Western armed forces.

There is no denying that the operational conditions in which the new-generation helicopter has been employed over the last 10 years do not correspond to the context for which it was conceived.

On a technical level, first of all the operations in which Western forces are involved now take place for the most part in what the theorist Shimon Naveh called striated space (mountain, jungle, city) as opposed to the smooth space for which the maneuver warfare of the 1980 had been conceived.

This operational context presents many aspects that are hostile to the use of helicopters. Night fights in mountainous terrain extreme heat, dust and sand storms, and the predominance of urban and peri-urban zones exert heavy stresses on the machines and sometimes show the limits of their utilization.

Inadequate power due to high altitude, restricted autonomy, frequent loss of ground references, risks due to natural and artificial obstacles, engine overheating and lack of visibility have caused a significant number of accidents in Afghanistan and Iraq and have often disrupted resupply operations.

On an operational level, these difficulties are compounded by the nature of asymmetric combat which seeks to circumvent the power of Western weapons.

Armored vehicles sheltered inside houses or hidden in palm grove; snipers concealed in towns and villages; armed bands crouching in vegetation or seeking the natural protection of the mountains; launch platforms adjacent to public buildings; light infantry weapons dispersed across the terrain and among the population are all threats to which electronic deception systems and countermeasures cannot necessarily respond.

On a political-strategic level, finally, the disappearance of the large-scale symmetric threat has led to the end of a certain traditional conception of war involving territory and, therefore, vital interests.

Nowadays, Western forces are involved in limited wars, with limited stakes and limited resources. In return, their adversaries, vastly inferior in terms of equipment, nonetheless accept confrontation because they are mostly engaged in a fight to the death.

In this way, the imbalance in stakes and motivations makes up for technical and equipment superiority and enables them to exploit Western political weak points.

Increasing risk

Adopting almost systematically asymmetric postures and modes of action, they seek to turn the combat into a battle of wills, and not of weaponry, by targeting vulnerabilities: military losses, collateral damage and inability to protect civilian populations.

These adversaries often take the form of armed groups engaged in guerrilla warfare, but they can also be regular state or para-state forces like Hezbollah, who possess sophisticated know-how and significant light capacities, and who use them to conduct a ‘hybrid’ confrontation mixing high-intensity combat and guerrilla warfare.

Under these condition, modes of action (vertical envelopment, deep maneuver) involving airmobile divisions or brigades acting in a centralized manner in order to weaken the second echelon of enemy forces no longer seem adequate to counter a diffuse and multi-form threat, whose primary characteristic is often dispersion.

The accumulation of these three types of difficulty can lead to a reduction in the helicopter’s survivability by increasing the risk of some of its combat and firing process, such as low-altitude flight and hover, process whose primary role was to evade enemy radar coverage backed up by a particularly dense air defence network.

Nonetheless, even though the reality of these discrepancies should not be overlooked, attack helicopters inherited from the Cold War have been adapted to the new conflict environment.

For example, the British forces immediately reacted to problems posed by elevated altitudes and temperatures in Afghanistan by upgrading the Lynx MK9 with new engines in response to an urgent operational requirement in Helmand during the summer of 2002.

The US responded to the new strategic environment by cancelling development of the RAH-66 Comanche in 2004.

This ultra-modern, stealthy design resulted from the technological innovation race between the two blocs, but it would have swallowed up a large portion of US Army budgets.

On the other hand, the US chose to upgrade the ‘Apache family’ by introducing the Longbow Apache Block III (AB3) version with improved data processing and transmission systems, along with enhanced firing capacities.

The Americans do not plan to replace this version until around 2020, with a new multi-role attack helicopter known as the Joint Multi-Role Rotorcraft (JMR).

The Tiger helicopter developed by Eurocopter in cooperation with Germany was initially ordered in anti- tank (HAC) and support/escort (HAP) versions, both conceived as a function of the threat at that time.

France has transformed its anti-tank version into a multi-role support and attack (HAD) version whose extended range of missions corresponds more closely to current threats. All HAPs will ultimately be retrofitted to the HAD version.

Valuable asset

Apart from this, the helicopter also has intrinsic characteristics making it a valuable asset in the new conflict environment.

Its speed, first of all, ensures maximum reactivity, allowing it to compensate for the low numbers present in the field-the combined result of an extended theater and reduced manpower.

In addition, its modern sensor suite gives it an early threat detection capability which is the best guarantee of good area coverage and, therefore, space control.

Also, its airborne firepower and the variety of its weapon load, enable it to ensure precision support, which is often sufficient for small units in contact with the enemy.

Furthermore, it can constitute a powerful deterrent for a lightly armed adversary, as was illustrated by the engagement on the bridges of Abidjan in April 2011.

Finally, the mobility of transport and utility helicopters in particular can be used to compensate for the lack of mobility of dismounted soldiers and to secure logistics-if necessary, it can also provide security for the pendulum movements inherent in a logistics footprint that is often extended.

Without going back to the ‘flying taxis’ of the wars in Algeria and Vietnam, it quickly become apparent that this key component constitutes one of the only means of compensating, at least partially, for the fleeting nature of the insurgent threat.

Over the past 10 years, the presence of Western forces in numerous theaters has led to intensive utilization of the helicopter, revealing serious capacity shortfalls in the fleets concerned.

The operational requirements of the NATO mission in Afghanistan have highlighted the inadequacies of the coalition’s airmobile resources, to the point where, in 2009, the Americans themselves explicitly asked French, German, Italian, Spanish and Turkish allies to increase their contributions in order to reinforce their own fleets.

Since this request produced no results-for political and budgetary reasons-the situation was serious enough to consider turning to the Russians to make up for the shortfall.

These examples illustrate the capacity tension that exists today in relation to rotorcraft. They also point to the need for a more detailed analysis of the present state of the main Western fleets.

In 2004 US Army Aviation had 4,475 helicopters, the US Navy 662, the US Marine Corps 720 and the US air Force 198. Altogether, therefore, the US armed forces had a fleet of over 6,000 helicopters, not including those of the Coast Guard.

The figures bear witness to the high importance attached to air mobility by the US armed forces. Within the US Army, every active and reserve division has its own dedicated helicopters, the Combat Aviation Brigades (CAB).

Each brigade comprises battalions equipped with a particular type of helicopter-a service support battalion; a combat support battalion (UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook); an assault battalion (OH-58D Kiowa Warrior); a light attack/reconnaissance battalion (AH-64 Apache).

To these brigades is added the specific case of the 101 Airborne Division (Air Assault), the special forces helicopter regiment, a number of Air Cavalry Squadrons attached to armored cavalry units and the Theater Aviation Brigades providing reinforcement for the CABs.

In 2004, however, with US forces engaged in two theaters of operation, in Afghanistan and Iraq, a report by the Congressional Research Service highlighted fleet weaknesses due to the excessive number of different types of platform in service, with designs dating back in most cases to the 1960s and 1970s.

The British Army has a total fleet of slightly less than 500 helicopters. Involved for the past 10 years in intensive military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite major budget cuts since the end of the 1990s, the British Army has had to undertake huge organizational and financial efforts to restore inadequate air mobility capacities.

This situation explains why in 2008, in the face of growing criticism about the shortfall in air mobility resources, the House of Commons Defence committee issued several recommendations to the government.

It underlined the decisive role of the helicopter, even presenting it as a ‘cost effective’ solution due to its ability to increase the operational impact of other components of the armed forces.

The report highlighted the shortage of medium and heavy transport helicopters, as well as the unsuitability of a large number of platforms due to their age of simply the stresses imposed by the physical environment (heat and altitude).

Created in 1999, Joint Helicopter Command aimed to maintain a fleet of 35 helicopters available for British troops deployed in Helmand province.

One-third of the fleet, or almost 10 helicopters, was kept in reserve for maintenance operations, so that the remaining two-thirds were available for war fighting.

Helicopter availability was also largely dependent on the qualified personnel assigned to their maintenance and the delivery speed of spare parts, which a just-in-time logistics system has had trouble satisfying.

The French army has around 350 helicopters, while the Air force and Navy have around 80 each, the Gendarmerie, 54, and civil protection organizations, 36.

Between 2011 and 2016, French air mobility is heading for a capacity gap due to the withdrawal from service of a number of machines, upgrading of part of the fleet and the late arrival of new-generation helicopters like the NH90 and Tiger, the last of which will not be delivered before 2020.

At the same time, French armed forces are facing increasing demand for air mobility due to the evolution of the engagement context. When the 2008 parliamentary report was being finalized, French armed forces had 78 helicopters deployed in six different theaters of operation overseas (Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chad and the Central African Republic).

Dependent on long cycles, the helicopter is therefore obliged to undergo phases of adaptation. However, the uncertainty surrounding the strategic context has in no way diminished its utility, which is confirmed by its intensive utilization and capacity challenges.

Air mobility

Under these conditions, it is imperative to ensure that fleets are managed in such a way as to allow these adaptations to the implemented, while responding to new requirements that have emerged from recent operations.

Recent events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ivory Coast and Libya bear witness to a dual reality. While air mobility has established itself as a key resource in contemporary interventions, in parallel there is an ongoing repositioning of the helicopter within the land forces.

It would be reckless to draw definitive lessons from engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, in view of their specific character and their duration, it is undeniable that these two conflicts have led Western forces to question the relevance of certain modes of action which have proved to be poorly adapted to the circumstances.

The helicopter has not escaped scrutiny, as illustrated by the primary lessons learned by the US armed forces in these two theaters of operation.

From the very first phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, US and British land forces identified air mobility as one of the contributing factors in attaining the objective of a lightning campaign assuming a very rapid rate of progression all the way to Baghdad.

Deep helicopter attacks in accordance with Air-Land Battle doctrine, however, soon showed their limits.

On March 23, 2003, the 11th attack Helicopter Regiment carried out a deep strike mission, involving two helicopter battalions, with a view to destroy the Medina division of the Iraqi Republican Guard.

The operation was a complete failure: a single helicopter reached the target zone but had to fall back under heavy fire.

This failure was undoubtedly due to first and foremost inadequate preparation, whether in terms of intelligence, close air support or lack of coordination due to the elevated tempo of operations.

The 101 Airborne Division, for example, was involved in heavy fighting near the city of Al Hillah against an entrenched battalion of the Republican Guard using the full range of joint resources (tank squadron, artillery battery, air defence systems).

In close collaboration with ground forces, including a tank squadron, the helicopters of the 101 provided almost over the shoulder support for ground units, using the so-called Close Combat Attack (CCA) procedure.

Eight Apache helicopters were hit by enemy fire but all remained flyable thanks to their protection. Finally, the AH-64 Apaches flew numerous offensive reconnaissance missions, in broad daylight, contributing to the destruction of important targets such as artillery and air defence batteries.

This type of operations depended on close coordination between airmobile assets (missile-carrying reconnaissance and attack helicopters) and support systems-long-range artillery, intelligence (JSTARS), jamming (AWACS) and close air support (A10).

Identified at a range of eight kilometers, targets were engaged using the various resources available as a function of the autonomy of the different machines, which followed each other in waves to allow or refueling.

Afghanistan and Iraq highlighted the danger of light infantry weapons in the form of assault rifles and antitank rocket launchers, sometimes associated with short-range air defence weapons, machine guns, MANPADS.

More than the weapons themselves, the real threat came from their dispersion and their tactically pertinent usage in terrain whose features were unfavorable for helicopters, such as mountains or urban zones.

Not only were traditional detection and countermeasure systems inoperative, but low-altitude flight could be very dangerous in some cases, as was well illustrated by the attack of 23 March 2003, during which the specific features of military helicopter design saved the crews.

Attack helicopters nonetheless continued their offensive reconnaissance, destruction and, above all, combat support missions.

During stabilization and counterinsurgency operations, the helicopter retained a key role. It made it possible to take action across the entire theater, which ground forces could not permanently control due to its size and their limited manpower.

Not only did the helicopter substantially reduce reaction times thanks to its speed, but it allowed forces to bypass terrain barriers and evade the omnipresent threat of IEDs when facing insurgents melting into the population.

Similarly, in Iraq and Afghanistan, special operations have played, and continue to play, a decisive role. As was recently demonstrated by Operation Geronimo, which led to the elimination of Osama Bin Laden, the helicopter is the preferred system for this type of unit due to its unique capabilities.