Military attack helicopters

Imagine a next-generation attack helicopter platform so advanced that it can reach speeds more than 220 knots (407 km/h), flying as high as 10,000 feet (3 km) in 95° of heat.

The new generation military attack helicopters are poised for a greater role in the modern battlefield where piking targets are crucial for winning the game.

Americans are always ahead in choosing finest technologies for the military. The Sikorsky S-97 Raider helicopter is poised to realize this vision and to revolutionize next-generation military aviation.

The S-97 Raider aircraft multi-mission capabilities will meet both conventional US Army and Special Operations future requirements in a variety of combat roles. Potential applications for US Air Force, US Navy and US Marine Corps are also being reviewed.

Sikorsky Aircraft has invested in the X2 Technology to illustrate its commitment to developing future capabilities that are achievable and affordable. X2 Technology is scalable to a variety of military missions including assault, armed reconnaissance, close-air support, combat search and rescue, and unmanned applications.

It is based in the same technology as their X2 technology demonstrator, which broke the world helicopter speed record in 2010: 260 knots-that’s 299.2mph (481.5km/h) vs the 172mph of conventional helicopters.

According to Sikorsky’s Mike Miller, it “is an all-new helicopter, all-new configuration. We haven’t seen something this new in 30 years.” The Raider uses counter-rotating rotor blades with a push propeller on the tail. This unique combination allows it to pulverize all speed records.

Obviously, its weight is limited. This thing will not have the same kind of firepower as heavier helicopters, but it will be able to zip to any location and provide troop support faster than any other chopper.

The US military is looking for a credible chopper machine for some time after it was felt that Apache and others are not meeting the requirement.

In today’s environment many things are changing very fast. The question comes the Apache is truly a force to be reckoned with, or is it?  Are attack helicopters in general fairly useless?

Attack helicopters are primarily designed for CAS (Close Air-Support) missions, as well as some ground-attack missions.

However, ever since their first wide-deployment in Vietnam, they have been dropping by the dozen. Unfortunately, there are very few fixed-wing aircraft capable of providing CAS, and only a few of those have the survivability needed to replace attack helicopters.

After a history of somewhat successful tests by various independent scientists around the world, helicopters were first deployed for war by Nazi Germany in WWII for transport, observation and Medevac (medical evacuation) purposes.

However, like other aircraft developed under the Nazi regime, the German helicopters were not deployed in large quantities due to intense bombings and material shortages.

After WWII, the world turned its attention to helicopters for Medevac purposes. Under the Key West Agreement, USAF (and USN+USMC to an extent) had a monopoly on fixed-wing aircraft (excluding recon and medevac), meaning that if the US Army wanted aircraft under its own commandto use helicopters.

The US Army used its new helicopters for scouting operations and Medevac in the Korean War, where helos proved to be very useful.

The war also proved that USAF would not be able or willing to cover all Army operations, and that an Army-owned ground-attack aircraft would be needed. It also proved that the lightly-armed choppers in use would not get the job done against armored vehicles.

Fourteen years later, the first purpose-built attack helicopter, the AH-1 Cobra, was deployed in Vietnam to perform the CAS that Navy and Airforce aircraft were incapable of.

While proving themselves very capable of CAS, they also proved themselves very vulnerable to even small-arms fire, with 270 of 1,100 deployed Cobras lost in the conflict. In spite of this, the US Army continued pushing forwards with attack helicopters until it got to the modern AH-64D Apache Longbow.

The Apache was built with increased firepower, range, and maneuverability in mind to cover the AH-1’s shortcomings.

First deployed for Operation Just Cause (US Invasion of Panama, 1989), the Apache was praised for its precision, namely with its rocketry and chain gun.

After Panama, the Apache saw extensive use in the First Persian Gulf War. In spite of its low mission-capable rate, it participated in thousands of sorties against Iraqi radar sites and armored vehicles.

Apache losses in the Gulf War were few, and the damage they inflicted was extensive, especially in the famed “Highway of Death”, where American artillery and aircraft decimated the elite Iraqi Republican Guard.

However, helicopter problems arenot unique to America, the Soviets lost hundreds in their invasion of Afghanistan, and other countries have seen similar results.

In spite of this, they are still in wide use, though their use has shifted considerably from attack to transport in the past several years.

The ongoing Libyan Civil War has proved that, in conflicts between two less advanced adversaries that helicopters can be useful in the attack role, but in situations when the anti-Gadhaffi forces have considerable anti-aircraft artillery, the helicopters generally either havenot been used, or have proven ineffective.

Their history also points in favor of the opinion that, in a large-scale engagement between advanced adversaries, that attack helicopters would be too easily shot down by AAA before they could inflict considerable damage.

The problem remains that there are few aircraft capable of providing CAS, especially in high-risk environments.

It is for this reason that certain USAF elements decided that a fixed-wing ground attack plane was needed, and the result of said project was the A-10.

Originally hated by USAF (who was still dominated by the nuclear war crowd at the time), the A-10 was widely considered a waste of money and fuel, until its deployment in the First Persian Gulf War,where 174 A-10’s destroyed nearly 1,000 tanks, 96 radar sites, 51 SCUD Launchers, and roughly 4,000 vehicles combined.

Compared to Apache, the A-10 has a similar range and loiter time, as well as improved survivability, reliability, firepower, and speed.

It also is capable of quick rearmament, operation from front-line conditions, and STOL, taking away many key advantages of the Apache.

The A-10 was also the only aircraft that the Coalition would fly below 15,000 feet in high-risk situations due to the “metal bathtub” the pilot sat in.

Only four A-10’s were lost in the war (though some were written off as non-mission capable), all of which were lost to SAMs.

In the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars, A-10’s have been used more extensively than the Apache, and have been extremely successful in both wars, returning in mission-capable condition in spite of moderate damages from small arms and even rocket fire.

The results of the A-10 in Libyan operations have not been sufficiently divulged, but the general synopsis from Coalition leaders is that they’re doing their job.

New technologies

But the use of helicopters in warzone remains. The need for greater capabilities at reduced costs means a number of revolutionary vertical lift aircraft are now being considered, to replace ageing helicopter fleets. The US military’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) strategic plan, published in October 2011, is just one part of this.

Designers are doing away with traditional helicopter designs featuring the familiar main rotor and smaller rotor on the tail. Instead, designs are being put forward that include a greater use of tilt-rotors-where the rotors move horizontally for cruising, currently seen on the V-22 Osprey-and other non-traditional technologies.

Another design that is gaining traction among manufacturers is the so-called ‘compound’ helicopter, which incorporates forward-facing rotors, such as those on a standard propeller aircraft, along with a main rotor. Both tilt-rotors and compound designs significantly increase speed, while still retaining vertical landing and take-off capabilities.

Newer helicopter designs are also incorporating more unmanned technology including greater autonomy. Military planners are hoping that helicopter ‘drones’ can replicate the tactical success of their fixed-wing aircraft, like the Predator.

Unmanned helicopters have been in action for some time, but their unreliability in operational environments has meant their adoption has been limited.

Boeing’s attempt at a UAV helicopter-the A160 Hummingbird-was tarnished with several crashes and technical problems, which led to its cancellation recently. But this may be about to change.

In October 2013, Northrop Grumman’s new MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter made its first flight at Naval Base in California.

The MQ-8C is based on a Bell 407 commercial airframe and big brother to Northrop’s MQ-8B unmanned helicopter. The C-variant can carry three times the payload of the MQ-8B and fly twice as long.

The US Navy plans to acquire 28 aircraft and will eventually fly missions from Littoral Combat Ships. The programme is a US Navy Rapid Deployment Capability effort in response to an urgent operational requirement for a maritime-based ISR platform with longer range to support special-warfare units.

“Operating the MQ-8B Fire Scout from Navy ships has proved extremely successful. During at-sea deployments, operators saw the need for a system that carried the same intelligence-gathering capabilities of the MQ-8B, but fly longer and carry additional payloads,” said Northrop Grumman’s vice president for medium range tactical systems George Vardoulakis.

“Changing out the airframe, installing control systems and avionics, and then conducting a first flight of the system in a year is truly remarkable. I couldn’t be more proud of the team,” he added.

Evading danger

The need for unmanned capabilities has become particularly acute during wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which has seen a number of aviation incidents involving rotary aircraft. This is due to the low altitudes and slow speeds helicopters operate at, making them vulnerable to enemy fire and mechanical faults.

This year alone has seen five helicopter incidents in Afghanistan, including a Black Hawk crash in March, which killed five US soldiers. Although most were attributed to mechanical failure, it still highlights the danger of helicopter operations.

In March, the US Marine Corp extended indefinitely the use of two unmanned K-MAX helicopters - developed by Lockheed Martin and Kaman Corp-in Afghanistan.

The aircraft are used for base re-supplies, removing the need to deliver supplies by road or use pilots to fly into dangerous areas. The K-MAX can autonomously fly a pre-programmed route to its destination and only requires human interaction to start up.

Across the Pacific, China is also experimenting with unmanned helicopter designs. In September, a Chinese company unveiled the JY-8 concept at the Second China Helicopter Exhibition in Tianjin.

It is expected to begin flight trials in 2016 and will be able to reach 400km per hour. The JY-8 is a compound helicopter with no tail rotor, which shows China’s willingness to experiment in this field.

Despite a renewed focus on unmanned capabilities, militaries around the world are still investing in the development of newer manned vertical-lift aircraft.

This is especially true for the US military, which has seen its helicopter fleet being work hard in the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, there are several initiatives which are looking to replace these ageing workhorses.

Recently, the US Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC) awarded contracts to four companies to develop a next-generation vertical-lift aircraft.

The contracts, awarded on 2 October, are technology investment agreements under the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator (JMR TD) programme.

The purpose of the JMR TD programme is to identify future technologies that can positively impact vertical lift aviation operations for the next 50 years.

The JMR TD programme will mitigate risk for the US military’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programme, which, along with the 2011 FVL Strategic Plan, aims to shape the development of vertical lift aircraft for the next 25 to 40 years.

The plan indicates that nearly all the decisions to either extend the life, retire, or replace the Pentagon’s vertical lift fleet will be taken in the next eight to ten years.

“As we understand the demonstrated technologies and the opportunities for future technologies, that will feed the desired and reasonable capabilities and requirements for the potential FVL solutions,” said Dr. William Lewis, director of the AMRDEC’s Aviation Development Directorate.

The first phase is seeing the US Army invest $217m in total and $6.5m to each selected company. Helicopter veterans Bell and Sikorsky were predictably chosen, but two relatively unknown companies were also awarded contracts.

The selection of radical designs from AVX Aircraft and Karem Aircraft shows the Pentagon’s desire to engage with non-traditional suppliers and push innovation. Karem Aircraft was founded by Abraham Karem, a former designer for the Israeli Air Force and the developer of the Predator UAV.

Bell and Karem Aircraft are taking tilt-rotor technology to a whole new level. The Bell V280 is similar in size to the Black Hawk but will be able to fly at 320mph while cruising-compared with the Black Hawk’s 180mph.

Karem is offering the TR36TD, another tilt-rotor aircraft with 36ft diameter rotors that can lift armoured vehicles across the battlefield and cruise above 30,000ft.

Sikorsky and AVX aircraft are taking a different design approach than their competitors. Sikorsky, working alongside Boeing, has submitted a design based on their compound X2 model, which features counter-rotating coaxial main rotors and a pusher propeller.

While little-known AVX has submitted a similar futuristic design also featuring coaxial main rotors and even a large rear ramp for loading cargo.

AVX has also submitted proposals for the Armed Aerial Scout programme, which is planned to replace the OH-58 Kiowa, currently in service with the US Army. Their design would transform a standard OH-58 into a compound helicopter capable of much greater speeds.


The AH-64E (AH-64D Block III) is an upgraded version of the original AH-64A, which was developed for the US Army, to replace the AH-1 Cobra. The Apache helicopter saw combat during a number of recent wars.

The Apache Guardian is fitted with a mast mounted antenna with updated Longbow fire control radar. This attack helicopter can fire Hellfire 2 anti-tank guided missiles in fire-and-forget mode.

Other improvements include targeting, battle management system, cockpit, communications, weapons and navigation systems. The gunship is also fitted with a 30-mm cannon.

Deliveries of the Apache Guardian began to the US Army in 2011. A total of 634 AH-64D helicopters will be be upgraded to the AH-64E standard. This attack helicopter was approved for export. It is also in service with Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. India, Indonesia, Iraq and South Korea ordered this helicopter.

The AH-1Z Viper gunship is based on the AH-1W SuperCobra. This helicopter is used by the US Marine Corps. It follows the line of the AH-1 Cobra, which was the world first dedicated attack helicopter.

A total of 189 Vipers will be built. Most of them will be upgraded from AH-1W airframes. Others will be newly-built machines. The Viper was introduced in 2010 and full-rate production began in 2012.

The AH-1Z Viper has new engines, new rotor, uprated transmission upgraded avionics and new target sighting system. Upgraded helicopters have improved flight characteristics. This helicopter is fitted with infrared suppression system, which covers exhausts.

The Viper is armed with a 20-mm three-barrel cannon. It can carry up to 16 Hellfire anti-tank guided missiles. It can also carry pods with unguided rockets and two Sidewinder fire-and-forget air-to-air missiles.

Kamov 52

The Ka-52 is a further development and a two-seat version of the famous Ka-50 Hokum. This attack helicopter entered service with the Russian Army and its small scale production commenced in 2008.

The Ka-52 is one of the fastest and most maneuverable attack helicopters due to its two coaxial contra-rotating main rotors. Armor of this gunship withstands hits from 23- mm projectiles. Pilots are seated in ejection seats.

This gunship is armed with a 30-mm cannon and up to 12 Vikhr anti-tank missiles. It can also carry unguided rockets and Igla-V air-to-air missiles.

The Ka-52 is fitted with a battlefield management system and can exchange data with other helicopters, as well as third-party sources. This helicopter is also intended as an aerial command post for a group of helicopters. It provides target detection and coordinates the attacks.


The Mi-28 has been in development since the late 1970s. This helicopter was finally accepted to service with the Russian Army in 2006. Currently Russian Army operates over 20 of these helicopters.

Some sources report that it is also in service with Kenya.

This attack helicopter is fitted with two heavily-armored cockpits. Probably it is one of the most armored attack helicopters to date. The Mi-28 is also fitted with emergency escape system for the crew. The Mi-28 is typically fitted with eight Ataka anti-armor missiles along with unguided rocket pods. This gunship is also fitted with a 30-mm cannon.

Comparing with the previous Mi-24 Hind it is better optimized for anti-armor role. It lacks secondary troop transport capability. However the Mi-28 has a small passenger compartment and in case of emergency it can carry three passengers. This feature allows to rescue downed helicopter crew.

It was reported that during comparative trials the Mi-28 lost to the Ka-50.


The Eurocopter Tiger was jointly developed by France and Germany. It is a medium-weight attack helicopter, which entered service in 2002. It is also in service with Australia and Spain. The Tiger has seen combat in Afghanistan, Libya and Mali.

This helicopter incorporates stealth technology as well as other advanced features to increase its survivability.

The Tiger is available in attack and fire support (escort) configurations. The attack version is fitted with Trigat or HOT-3 anti-tank missiles, as well as unguided rockets. It also carries Stinger air-to-air missiles. This version is not fitted with a cannon.     

 The escort version of the Tiger is fitted with 30-mm cannon and unguided missiles, as well as Mistral air-to-air missiles. This version is in service with the French Army.

Chinese Z10

The Z-10 is the first Chinese dedicated attack helicopter. It has been designed with extensive technical assistance from Eurocopter and Augusta.

Other sources claim that development of this attack helicopter has been assisted by the Russian Kamov helicopter design bureau. This new Chinese helicopter is advanced. It seems that first production gunships were delivered to the Chinese Army in 2009-2010.

Primary mission of the Z-10 is anti-armor and battlefield interdiction. It also has some limited air-to-air combat capabilities.

The fuselage has sloped sides to reduce radar cross section. All vital areas are believed to be protected by armor plates. Weapons of the Z-10 may consist of 30-mm cannon, HJ-9 anti-tank guided missiles (comparable to the TOW-2A), newly developed HJ-10 anti-tank missiles (comparable to the AGM-114 Hellfire) and TY-90 air-to- air missiles. It can also carry unguided rocket pods.


Despite its new appearance the Rooivalk was based on reverse-engineered AerospetialePuma and uses the same engines and rotor. This helicopter has been designed to operate without sophisticated support.

A nose turret of the Rooivalk is fitted with a 20-mm cannon. It contains an automatic target detection and tracking system. This attack helicopter can carry up to 16 TOW or indigenous ZT-6 Mokopa anti-tank missiles.

It also has provision for air-to-air missiles and launchers with unguided rockets. This gunship can be used in anti-armor, ground attack, armed reconnaissance, fire support, escort and deep penetration roles.

A pair of external seats can be fitted to the Rooivalk, allowing it to pick up the crew of a downed helicopter. Currently only 11 of these helicopters are operational due to funding problems.


The A129 Mangusta was the first dedicated attack helicopter to be produced in Western Europe. First helicopters were delivered to the Italian Army in 1990. Production of Mangusta was stopped in 1992 due to funding problems and changing operational requirements with the end of the Cold War. Later all Italian Mangustas were upgraded to the A129 International standard.

It is a lightweight attack helicopter, hence it carries less armor than its counterparts. Yet its rotor blades withstand hits from 30-mm rounds. Primary role of the Mangusta was anti-tank.

It was fitted with Hellfire or TOW anti-tank missiles and Stinger or Mistral anti-aircraft missiles.

It could also carry unguided rockets. TOW missiles were its primary armament. However the A129 International is a more flexible multi-role machine. It was fitted with an undernose 20-mm cannon. It can be used in anti-armor, ground attack, armed reconnaissance, fire support and escort roles.

Currently Turkey is developing an indigenous attack helicopter, which is a derivative of the Mangusta. It will have some key improvements over its predecessor.


The Mi-24 is one of the most widely known assault helicopters. It saw widespread combat action during wars and military conflicts. This ageing gunship is still very capable.

This helicopter has heavily-armored, stepped cockpits ant an undernose gun turret. First versions were fitted with a 23-mm twin-barrel cannon, however later production version with a 30-mm twin-barrel cannon emerged. Other weapons include anti-tank missiles and unoperated rockets.

The Mi-24 has a secondary troop transport capability. It can carry a full infantry squad of 8 fully equipped troops, which makes this gunship a flying IFV. Because of the troop carrying capability this helicopter is used in a slightly different manner than other attack helicopters.

This helicopter was produced in large number for the Soviet Army as well as Soviet allies. Over 2 300 helicopters were produced since the 1970s.

Despite its age it is in service with at least 50 countries around the world. It is estimated that 1 500 Hinds remain in service. Production of this helicopter ceased in 1991, however various upgrade and refurbishment programs are still available.