Is This the Finish of the Assault Helicopter? What You Have to Know

  • The Russian invasion of Ukraine has not been variety to the assault helicopters collaborating, with greater than 60 misplaced because the battle started.
  • Within the final 20 years, assault helicopters have confirmed themselves susceptible to floor hearth, particularly shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.
  • Assault helicopters should change with the instances—or turn out to be out of date.

Maybe one of the vital motivational sights on the trendy battlefield is a pleasant assault helicopter, bristling with weapons, rockets, and missiles, dipping low because it plunges ahead to deal demise and destruction upon the enemy.

But, proof means that if the assault helicopter survives on the trendy battlefield that picture could have to alter, with armed helicopters attacking their targets far behind pleasant strains. Blame it on the inherent nature of helicopters themselves, and the proliferation of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that may swat them like flies.

Right here’s what it is advisable find out about the way forward for the assault helicopter.


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Ukraine: A Graveyard of Assault Helicopters

ukrainian forces shoot down a russian attack helicopter

The second a Ukrainian MANPADS missile strikes a Russian assault helicopter, Ukraine, 2022.

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now 455 days outdated. Each Russia and Ukraine have misplaced numerous assault helicopters over the course of the battle; based on the Oryx weblog, Russia has confirmed losses of a minimum of 62 assault helicopters to fight, together with 35 Kamov Ka-52 “Alligators”, 12 Mil Mi-28 “Havocs”, 9 Mi-35s, and 6 older Mi-24 “Hinds.” These are devastating losses, with the Ka-52s misplaced representing 30 p.c of Russia’s total fleet of “Alligators.”

Ukraine has made out barely higher, shedding simply 4 Mi-24 assault helicopters, however these 4 nonetheless characterize over 10 p.c of its total pressure of armed helicopters.

What induced such heavy losses? Because the attacker, Russia’s helicopters might be put in additional susceptible conditions than Ukraine’s, because the helos are despatched to areas the place the enemy is anticipated to be dug in and ready for them. However magnifying the issue is the massive variety of short-range surface-to-air missiles that NATO and the west despatched to Ukraine. NATO has despatched hundreds of man-portable air protection techniques (MANPADS), together with a minimum of 2,557 FIM-92 Stingers and an unknown variety of Piorun, Sungur, Strela-2, Igla, and RBS-70 missile techniques. These missile techniques, simple to function and lethal with a excessive diploma of accuracy, have scored a number of high-profile shootdowns of Russian fixed-wing and rotary-wing plane.

Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee

vietnam ah 1g cobra helicopters over southern vietnam, 1968

An AH-1G Cobra flying over Vietnam, 1968. After the battle, assault helicopters have been delivered to Central Europe, however how they’d fare towards fashionable air defenses was an unanswered query.

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The fashionable assault helicopter was developed throughout the Vietnam Struggle. The U.S. Military made intensive use of helicopters to move troops to and from the battlefield, and these usually got here below intense floor hearth. After first modifying transport helicopters to hold rockets and extra machine weapons, the Military determined it needed a devoted, armed helicopter able to escorting transport helicopters and serving within the function of flying artillery.

The end result was the AH-1 Cobra, a helicopter that carried a 20-mm cannon and 70-mm rockets. After the battle, the Military tailored the Cobra to serve within the anti-tank function, arming it with anti-tank missiles. Within the occasion of World Struggle III and a Soviet invasion of Europe, Cobra helicopters with TOW anti-tank missiles might shortly place themselves to blunt fast-moving Crimson Military tank assaults.

Nonetheless, regardless of their clear benefits, there was a nagging query of how susceptible they have been towards a contemporary, well-equipped enemy like the united states. Helicopters have been quick and had appreciable firepower, however the usage of rotors made them slower than jets, and the necessity to preserve weight at acceptable ranges meant they have been much less well-armored than tanks. Helicopter losses in Vietnam have been enormous, with the U.S. shedding 5,607 helicopters of every type over the course of the battle, with most downed by small arms or mild anti-aircraft hearth.

World Struggle III in Europe by no means occurred, and the vulnerability of assault helicopters was by no means absolutely put to the take a look at. There have been, nonetheless, indicators earlier than the Ukraine battle that helicopters have been in hassle: in 1999, the U.S. Military deployed assault helicopters to Albania to intervene within the Yugoslav civil battle however, amongst different causes, the helicopters never flew into combat due to the specter of “small arms hearth, anti plane weapons, and shoulder-fired missiles.” In March 2003, throughout the invasion of Iraq, 32 AH-64 Apache assault helicopters took off to fly over enemy strains and assault the Republican Guard Medina division. One helicopter was shot down and a number of other others have been closely broken by enemy hearth.

Can the Assault Helicopter Survive?

ukraine presses counteroffensive in south ahead of winter

Ukrainian helicopters, corresponding to this Mi-8 flying close to Kotlyareve, Mykolaiv oblast, fly low to keep away from floor hearth. Adjustments of ways and weapons might preserve helicopters alive on at present’s battlefield.

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America operates 819 Apache and 91 AH-1Z assault helicopters, making the platform a major funding in firepower. At $36 million a pop, the AH-64 Apache doesn’t come low cost. With a crew of two, it additionally locations two people in hurt’s approach, and because the battle in Ukraine has demonstrated, crews of helicopters downed by MANPADS usually don’t survive being shot down. If the assault helicopter is out of date, there’s a sturdy incentive to retire them shortly and transfer on to one thing else—maybe armed drones.

“I feel the jury is out relating to assault helicopters,” Mark Cancian, a senior adviser on the Middle for Strategic and Worldwide Research, tells Pop Mech. “They haven’t had a lot success within the battle in Ukraine, and Ukraine isn’t asking for any, which signifies an absence of curiosity primarily based on wartime expertise.”

Nevertheless, new weapons and ways might save the platform. The U.S. Military is shifting away from anti-tank missiles that require direct line of sight to so-called “Air Launched Effects” (ALEs). ALEs are primarily kamikaze drones outfitted with a two-way datalink and a formed cost anti-tank warhead. An assault helicopter can launch an ALE and information it on an exploratory path past the crew’s subject of view, trying to find enemies, then sending the ALE diving down onto discovered enemy targets for destruction. This permits the assault helicopter to not solely keep out of vary of enemy short-range missiles, but in addition acquire intelligence on enemy positions. Nevertheless, just about any helicopter can launch ALEs, even transport helicopters, arguably making an costly, devoted assault helicopter pointless.

The armed helicopter, Cancian warns, might be an inflection level. “It may be that new weapons and ways will reestablish their worth on the battlefield … however in some unspecified time in the future, unmanned techniques would just do as effectively.” That might imply a variety of unmanned techniques, even an assault helicopter shut in dimension to the Apache, however with out the life-support techniques required for a human crew.

The Takeaway

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An Air Launched Results drone take a look at fired from a UH-60 Blackhawk transport helicopter. These long-range kamikaze drones might preserve assault helicopters protected whereas nonetheless looking down enemy targets.

U.S. Military

The invasion of Ukraine has made clear the assault helicopter’s shortcomings in fashionable, high-intensity warfare. China has reportedly taken a hard look at Russian helicopter losses and determined that, whereas Russian forces have confirmed inept, there may be a lesson for the Individuals’s Liberation Military’s personal assault helicopter fleet—one which includes a tough proper flip into armed drones.

If the assault helicopter has grown out of date, the armies of the world will exchange it, however it’s additionally attainable a change of ways and weapons may not solely make them extra survivable, however more practical. The subsequent decade could resolve if the assault helicopter maintains its swagger, or joins the battleship within the pile of discarded, out of date weapon techniques.

Headshot of Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami is a author on protection and safety points and has been at In style Mechanics since 2015. If it includes explosions or projectiles, he is usually in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Each day Beast, U.S. Naval Institute Information, The Diplomat, Overseas Coverage, Fight Plane Month-to-month, VICE Information, and others. He lives in San Francisco.