Attack helicopter

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A British Apache fires rockets at insurgents in Afghanistan in 2008.

An attack helicopter is a military helicopter with the primary role of an attack aircraft, with the capability of engaging targets on the ground, such as enemy infantry and armored vehicles. Due to their heavy armament they are sometimes called helicopter gunships.

Weapons used on attack helicopters can include autocannons, machine-guns, rockets, and guided missiles such as the Hellfire. Many attack helicopters are also capable of carrying air to air missiles, though mostly for purposes of self-defense. Today's attack helicopter has two main roles: first, to provide direct and accurate close air support for ground troops, and the second, in the anti-tank role to destroy enemy armor concentrations. Attack helicopters are also used to supplement lighter helicopters in the armed scout role. In combat, an attack helicopter is projected to destroy around 17 times its own production cost before it is destroyed.[1]


In the mid-1960s the U.S. Army concluded that a purpose-built attack helicopter with more speed and firepower than current armed helicopters was required in the face of increasingly intense ground fire (often using heavy machine guns and anti-tank rockets) from Viet Cong and NVA troops. Based on this realization, and with the growing involvement in Vietnam, the U.S. Army developed the requirements for a dedicated attack helicopter, the Advanced Aerial Fire Support System (AAFSS). The aircraft design selected for this program in 1965, was Lockheed's AH-56 Cheyenne.[2]

Prototype of the AH-1, the first dedicated attack helicopter, and a canonical example to this day

As the Army began its acquisition of a dedicated attack helicopter, it sought options to improve performance over the continued use of improvised interim aircraft (such as the UH-1B/C). In late 1965, a panel of high-level officers was selected to evaluate several prototype versions of armed and attack helicopters to determine which provided the most significant increase in capability to the UH-1B. The three aircraft ranked highest during the evaluation; the Sikorsky S-61, Kaman H-2 Tomahawk, and the Bell AH-1 Cobra, were selected to compete in flight trials conducted by the Army's Aviation Test Activity. Upon completion of the flight evaluations, the Test Activity recommended Bell's Huey Cobra to be an interim armed helicopter until the Cheyenne was fielded. On 13 April 1966, the U.S. Army awarded Bell Helicopter Company a production contract for 110 AH-1G Cobras.[2] The Cobra had a tandem cockpit seating arrangement (vs UH-1 side-by-side) to make the aircraft a smaller frontal target, increased armor protection, and greater speed.

In 1967, the first AH-1Gs were deployed to Vietnam, around the same time that the Cheyenne successfully completed its first flight and initial flight evaluations. And while the Cheyenne program suffered setbacks over the next few years due to technical problems, the Cobra was establishing itself as an effective aerial weapons platform, despite its performance shortcomings compared to the AH-56,[2] and design issues of its own. By 1972, when the Cheyenne program was eventually cancelled to make way for the Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH),[2] the interim AH-1 "Snake" had built a solid reputation as an attack helicopter. In June of 1972 the USMC began deploying AH-1J SeaCobra Attack Helicopters for combat operations in South Vietnam.

Modern attack helicopters[edit]

A Russian Mil Mi-28N

During the late 1970s the U.S. Army saw the need of more sophistication within the attack helicopter corps, allowing them to operate in all weather conditions.[3] With that the Advanced Attack Helicopter program was started.[4] From this program the Hughes YAH-64 came out as the winner. The Soviet armed forces also saw the need of a more advanced helicopter. Military officials asked Kamov and Mil to submit designs. The Ka-50 officially won the competition, but Mil decided to continue development of the Mi-28 that they had originally submitted. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, attack helicopters became a key component of Soviet operational art (as they ecompassed full air-mechanized brigades), that maneuvered ahead of the Operational manoeuvre group, Soviet Army's main battle unit.[5]

After Vietnam, and especially into the 1990s, the missile-armed attack helicopter evolved into a primary anti-tank weapon. Able to quickly move about the battlefield and launch fleeting "pop-up attacks", helicopters presented a major threat even with the presence of organic air defenses. The gunship became a major tool for both the US Army and their Warsaw Pact counterparts in tank warfare, and most attack helicopters became more and more optimized for the antitank mission.[6] The US Marine Corps continued to employ attack helicopters in the direct fire support role, in the form of the AH-1 Super Cobra. Soviet helicopters retained troop transport capability rather than being attack only.

While helicopters were effective tank-killers in the Middle East, attack helicopters are being seen more in a multipurpose role. Tactics, such as tank plinking, showed that fixed-wing aircraft could be effective against tanks, but helicopters retained a unique low-altitude, low-speed capability for close air support. Other purpose-built helicopters were developed for special operations missions, including the MH-6 for extremely close support.

Today, the attack helicopter has been further refined, and the AH-64D Apache Longbow demonstrates many of the advanced technologies being considered for deployment on future gunships. The recently fielded AH-1Z upgrades the twin-engine AH-1W Super Cobra currently operated by the US Marines. Russia is currently deploying the Ka-50, Ka-52 and Mi-28, which are comparable to the AH-64D and the AH-1Z. Many students of ground attack helicopter warfare feel that linking into a network is a requirement of today's modern armies, since attack helicopters are being increasingly incorporated as part of a linked support element system by most of the armies of the world. This doctrine is known a network-centric warfare in US military circles.[7][8]

In 1999 during the Kargil War, the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army found that there was a need for helicopters that can operate at such high altitude conditions with ease.[9] Limitations from operating with high payloads and restricted maneuverability led India to the develop the Light Combat Helicopter for high altitude operations.[10] These helicopters will be used by the Indian Air Force and the Army Aviation Corps (India).

In action[edit]

Above, a U.S Army's AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and below, an OH-58D armed scout helicopter

The 1990s could be seen as the coming-of-age for the U.S. attack helicopter. The AH-64 Apache was used extensively during Operation Desert Storm with great success. Apaches fired the first shots of the war, destroying enemy early warning radar and SAM sites with their Hellfire missiles. They were later used successfully in both of their operational roles, to direct attack against enemy armor and as aerial artillery in support of ground troops. Hellfire missile and cannon attacks by Apache helicopters destroyed many enemy tanks and armored cars.

The "deep attack" role of independently operating attack helicopters came into question after a failed mission, during the 2003 Gulf War attack on the Karbala Gap.[11] A second mission in the same area, four days later, but coordinated with artillery and fixed-wing aircraft,[12] was far more successful with minimal losses.

European Eurocopter Tiger of the German Army

In 2011, France and Britain sent Eurocopter Tiger and AgustaWestland Apache attack helicopters to Libya. The primary objective of the 2011 military intervention was to protect civilians in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1973. Within days of the Apaches deployment, it had completed a variety of tasks such as destroying tanks, checkpoints held by pro-Gaddafi forces and vehicles carrying ammunitions loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. The attack helicopters were reported to be far more effective than the fighter jets which had previously been given the task of completing the aforementioned tasks.


A Russian Ka-50

Modern examples include:



HelicopterFirst FlightLengthRotor diameterHeightEmpty weightPower
Italy Agusta A129 Mangusta198312.3 m (40 ft)11.9 m (39 ft)3.4 m (11.2 ft)2,500 kg (5,500 lb)2×664 kW (890 shp)
Turkey/Italy TAI/AW T-129200913.45 m (44 ft)11.9 m (39 ft)3.45 m (11.3 ft)2,900 kg (6,400 lb)2×1,014 kW (1,360 shp)
United States Bell AH-1G Cobra196616.2 m (53 ft)13.4 m (44 ft)4.1 m (13.5 ft)2,600 kg (5,700 lb)1×820 kW (1,100 shp)
United States Bell AH-1Z Viper200017.8 m (58 ft)14.6 m (48 ft)4.1 m (13.5 ft)5,600 kg (12,300 lb)2×1,340 kW (1,800 shp)
United States Boeing AH-64 Apache197517.7 m (58 ft)14.6 m (48 ft)3.9 m (12.8 ft)5,200 kg (11,500 lb)2×1,490 kW (2,000 shp)
South Africa Denel AH-2 Rooivalk199018.7 m (61 ft)15.6 m (51 ft)5.2 m (17.1 ft)5,700 kg (12,600 lb)2×1,420 kW (1,900 shp)
European Union Eurocopter Tiger199114.0 m (46 ft)13.0 m (43 ft)3.8 m (12.5 ft)3,100 kg (6,800 lb)2×873 kW (1,170 shp)
India HAL-LCH201015.8 m (52 ft)13.3 m (44 ft)4.7 m (15.4 ft)2,250 kg (5,000 lb)2×1,067 kW (1,430 shp)
Soviet Union/Russia Kamov Ka-50/-521982 (Ka-50)16.0 m (52 ft)14.5 m (48 ft)4.9 m (16.1 ft)7,700 kg (17,000 lb)2×1,641 kW (2,200 shp)
Soviet Union Mil Mi-24196917.5 m (57 ft)17.3 m (57 ft)6.5 m (21.3 ft)8,500 kg (18,700 lb)2×1,600 kW (2,150 shp)
Soviet Union Mil Mi-28198217.0 m (56 ft)17.2 m (56 ft)4.7 m (15.4 ft)8,600 kg (19,000 lb)2×1,636 kW (2,190 shp)


HelicopterMax. SpeedCruise SpeedRangeCeilingRate of Climb
Italy Agusta A129 Mangusta280 km/h (170 mph)230 km/h (140 mph)510 km (320 mi; 280 nmi)4,700 m (15,000 ft)10.2 m/s (33 ft/s)
Turkey/Italy TAI/AW T-129315 km/h (200 mph)270 km/h (170 mph)561 km (350 mi; 300 nmi)6,096 m (20,000 ft)14 m/s (46 ft/s)
United States Bell AH-1G Cobra230 km/h (140 mph)570 km (350 mi; 310 nmi)3,500 m (11,000 ft)6.3 m/s (21 ft/s)
United States Bell AH-1Z Viper410 km/h (250 mph)300 km/h (190 mph)690 km (430 mi; 370 nmi)6,100 m (20,000 ft)14.2 m/s (47 ft/s)
United States Boeing AH-64 Apache290 km/h (180 mph)270 km/h (170 mph)480 km (300 mi; 260 nmi)6,400 m (21,000 ft)12.7 m/s (42 ft/s)
China CAIC WZ-10300 km/h (190 mph)270 km/h (170 mph)800 km (500 mi; 430 nmi)6,400 m (21,000 ft)10.2 m/s (33 ft/s)
South Africa Denel AH-2 Rooivalk310 km/h (190 mph)280 km/h (170 mph)740 km (460 mi; 400 nmi)6,100 m (20,000 ft)13.3 m/s (44 ft/s)
European Union Eurocopter Tiger290 km/h (180 mph)260 km/h (160 mph)800 km (500 mi; 430 nmi)4,000 m (13,000 ft)10.7 m/s (35 ft/s)
India HAL-LCH330 km/h (210 mph)260 km/h (160 mph)700 km (430 mi; 380 nmi)6,500 m (21,000 ft)12.0 m/s (39 ft/s)
Soviet Union/Russia Kamov Ka-50/-52315 km/h (200 mph)270 km/h (170 mph)550 km (340 mi; 300 nmi)5,500 m (18,000 ft)10.0 m/s (33 ft/s)
Soviet Union Mil Mi-24335 km/h (210 mph)450 km (280 mi; 240 nmi)4,500 m (15,000 ft)
Soviet Union Mil Mi-28320 km/h (200 mph)270 km/h (170 mph)440 km (270 mi; 240 nmi)5,700 m (19,000 ft)13.6 m/s (45 ft/s)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Frank Barnaby (2010). "main+battle+tank"#v=onepage&q="main battle tank"&f=false The role and control of weapons in the 1990's. Psychology Press. p. 15. ISBN 0-203-16831-3. Retrieved 14 February 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c d Office of the Assistant Vice Chief of Staff of the Army (1973). An Abridged History of the Army Attack Helicopter Program. Department of the Army. 
  4. ^ Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) (1970-1981). Global Security
  5. ^ Glantz, David M. "The Triumph of Maneuver War - Soviet Operational Art Since 1936". US Army Center of Military History. Retrieved July 24, 2012. 
  6. ^ Mazarella, Mark N. "Adequacy of U.S. Army Attack Helicopter Doctrine to Support the Scope of Attack Helicopter Operations in a Multi-Polar World". Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1994. Accessed on 12 December 2007.
  7. ^ Changing Roles: Attack Helicopters As the Dominant Maneuver Force at DTIC
  8. ^ Joint Vision 2010 and the Attack Helicopter: An Effective Dominant Maneuver Force for the Operational Commander at DTIC
  9. ^ Light combat copter’s maiden flight a success
  10. ^ Aero India: India's indigenous combat chopper
  11. ^ Scarborough, Ryan (April 2003). "Apache operation a lesson in defeat; Army choppers hit without air cover". Washington Times 
  12. ^ O'Rourke, Ryan (June 4, 2003). Iraq War: Defense Program Implications for Congress (PDF). Congressional Research Service. p. CRS–36. Retrieved 2007-12-12 

Further reading[edit]