He­li­copter Gun­ships for En­gag­ing Tar­gets on Ground

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


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-toground 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 MI24 and the Ital­ian Man­gusta (A-129). While some ques­tioned the rel­e­vance of these ded- icated 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 an­ti­tank 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 com-

The use of armed he­li­copters in coun­terin­sur­gency op­er­a­tions can pay rich div­i­dends as they fa­cil­i­tate car­riage of troops as well as suit­able weapons for use against in­sur­gents/ter­ror­ists

prises 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 an­ti­tank 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

AH-64D Apache Block III he­li­copter

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