An attack helicopter is a military helicopter
A military helicopter is a helicopter that is either specifically built or converted for use by military forces. A military helicopter's mission is a function of its design or conversion...
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 autocannon
An autocannon or automatic cannon is a rapid-fire projectile weapon firing a shell as opposed to the bullet fired by a machine gun. Autocannons often have a larger caliber than a machine gun . Usually, autocannons are smaller than a field gun or other artillery, and are mechanically loaded for a...
s, machine-guns, rocket
A rocket is a missile, spacecraft, aircraft or other vehicle which obtains thrust from a rocket engine. In all rockets, the exhaust is formed entirely from propellants carried within the rocket before use. Rocket engines work by action and reaction...
s, and guided missile
Though a missile may be any thrown or launched object, it colloquially almost always refers to a self-propelled guided weapon system.-Etymology:The word missile comes from the Latin verb mittere, meaning "to send"...
s such as the Hellfire
The AGM-114 Hellfire is an air-to-surface missile developed primarily for anti-armor use. It has multi-mission, multi-target precision-strike capability, and can be launched from multiple air, sea, and ground platforms. The Hellfire missile is the primary 100 lb-class air-to-ground precision...
. 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
Close air support
In military tactics, close air support is defined as air action by fixed or rotary winged aircraft against hostile targets that are close to friendly forces, and which requires detailed integration of each air mission with fire and movement of these forces.The determining factor for CAS is...
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.
History and development
In the mid-1960s the U.S. Army concluded that a purpose-built attack helicopter with more speed and firepower than current armed helicopter
An armed helicopter is a helicopter equipped with weapons. Most commonly, it is used for attacking targets on the ground. Such helicopter could be either purposely designed for the ground-attack mission—in which case it would be more specifically categorized as an attack helicopter—or could be...
s was required in the face of increasingly intense ground fire (often using heavy machine guns and anti-tank rockets) from Viet Cong and NVA
Vietnam People's Army
The Vietnam People's Army is the armed forces of Vietnam. The VPA includes: the Vietnamese People's Ground Forces , the Vietnam People's Navy , the Vietnam People's Air Force, and the Vietnam Marine Police.During the French Indochina War , the VPA was often referred to as the Việt...
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
The Lockheed Corporation was an American aerospace company. Lockheed was founded in 1912 and later merged with Martin Marietta to form Lockheed Martin in 1995.-Origins:...
The Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne was a single-engine attack helicopter developed by Lockheed for the United States Army's Advanced Aerial Fire Support System program to produce the Army's first dedicated attack helicopter...
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
The Bell AH-1 Cobra is a two-bladed, single engine attack helicopter manufactured by Bell Helicopter. It shares a common engine, transmission and rotor system with the older UH-1 Iroquois...
. 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, and design issues of its own. By 1972, when the Cheyenne program was eventually cancelled to make way for the Advanced Attack Helicopter
Advanced Attack Helicopter
The Advanced Attack Helicopter was a United States Army program to develop an advanced ground attack helicopter beginning in 1972. The Advanced Attack Helicopter program followed cancellation of the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne. After evaluating industry proposals, the AAH competition was reduced to...
(AAH), the interim "Snake" had built a solid reputation as an attack helicopter.
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. The US Marine Corps continued to see the helicopter, as well as its fixed-wing aviation assets, in the close support role, although the Marines did dedicate a close-support helicopter 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
Tank plinking is a term that was given by pilots during the Gulf War to the practice of using guided munitions to destroy artillery, armored personnel carriers, tanks, and other targets...
, 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
Special operations are military operations that are considered "special" .Special operations are typically performed independently or in conjunction with conventional military operations. The primary goal is to achieve a political or military objective where a conventional force requirement does...
missions, including the MH-6 for extremely close support.
Modern attack helicoptersDuring the late 1970s the U.S. Army
United States Army
The United States Army is the main branch of the United States Armed Forces responsible for land-based military operations. It is the largest and oldest established branch of the U.S. military, and is one of seven U.S. uniformed services...
saw the need of more sophistication within the attack helicopter corps, allowing them to operate in all weather conditions. With that the Advanced Attack Helicopter program was started. 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
Kamov is a Russian rotor-winged aircraft manufacturing company that was founded by Nikolai Il'yich Kamov, who started building his first rotor-winged aircraft in 1929, together with N. K. Skrzhinskii...
Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant
Mil Helicopters is the short name of the Soviet Russian helicopter producer Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant , named after the constructor Mikhail Mil. Mil participates in the Euromil joint venture with Eurocopter....
to submit designs. The Ka-50
The Kamov Ka-50 "Black Shark" is a single-seat Russian attack helicopter with the distinctive coaxial rotor system of the Kamov design bureau. It was designed in the 1980s and adopted for service in the Russian army in 1995...
officially won the competition, but Mil decided to continue development of the Mi-28
The Mil Mi-28 is a Russian all-weather day-night military tandem two-seat anti-armour attack helicopter. It is a dedicated attack helicopter with no intended secondary transport capability, better optimized than the Mil Mi-24 for the role...
that they had originally submitted.
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. The Russians are currently deploying the Ka-50, Ka-52 and Mi-28, which are roughly equivalent 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
Network-centric warfare, also called network-centric operations, is a military doctrine or theory of war pioneered by the United States Department of Defense in the 1990's....
in US military circles.
In actionThe 1990s could be seen as the coming-of-age for the U.S. attack helicopter. The AH-64 Apache
The Boeing AH-64 Apache is a four-blade, twin-engine attack helicopter with a tailwheel-type landing gear arrangement, and a tandem cockpit for a two-man crew. The Apache was developed as Model 77 by Hughes Helicopters for the United States Army's Advanced Attack Helicopter program to replace the...
was used extensively during Operation Desert Storm with great success. Apaches fired the first shots of the war, destroying enemy early warning radar
Early warning radar
An early warning radar is any radar system used primarily for the long-range detection of its targets, i.e., allowing defences to be alerted as early as possible before the intruder reaches its target, giving the defences the maximum time in which to operate...
A surface-to-air missile or ground-to-air missile is a missile designed to be launched from the ground to destroy aircraft or other missiles...
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.
In 1999 during the Kargil War
The Kargil War ,, also known as the Kargil conflict, was an armed conflict between India and Pakistan that took place between May and July 1999 in the Kargil district of Kashmir and elsewhere along the Line of Control...
, the Indian Air Force
Indian Air Force
The Indian Air Force is the air arm of the Indian armed forces. Its primary responsibility is to secure Indian airspace and to conduct aerial warfare during a conflict...
and the Indian Army
The Indian Army is the land based branch and the largest component of the Indian Armed Forces. With about 1,100,000 soldiers in active service and about 1,150,000 reserve troops, the Indian Army is the world's largest standing volunteer army...
found that there was a need for helicopters that can operate at such high altitude conditions with ease. The limitations of attack helicopters from operating with high payloads and restricted maneuverability led India to the develop the Light Combat Helicopter
HAL Light Combat Helicopter
The HAL Light Combat Helicopter is a multirole combat helicopter being developed in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for use by the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army.-Development:In 2006, HAL announced its plans to build a LCH...
that can operate in high altitudes. These helicopters will be used by the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army aviation wing.
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. A second mission in the same area, four days later, but coordinated with artillery and fixed-wing aircraft, was far more successful with minimal losses.
In 2011, France and Britain sent Eurocopter Tiger
The Eurocopter Tiger is an attack helicopter manufactured by Eurocopter. In Germany it is known as the Tiger; in France and Spain it is called the Tigre.-Origins:...
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
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, on the situation in Libya, is a measure that was adopted on 17 March 2011. The Security Council resolution was proposed by France, Lebanon, and the United Kingdom....
. 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
Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar Gaddafi or "September 1942" 20 October 2011), commonly known as Muammar Gaddafi or Colonel Gaddafi, was the official ruler of the Libyan Arab Republic from 1969 to 1977 and then the "Brother Leader" of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya from 1977 to 2011.He seized power in a...
. 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.
TypesModern examples include:
- AgustaWestland AW129
- TAI/AgustaWestland T-129TAI/AgustaWestland T-129The TAI/AgustaWestland T-129 is an attack helicopter currently under development for the Turkish Army...
- TAI/AgustaWestland T-129
- Bell AH-1 Cobra
- Bell AH-1 SuperCobra
- Bell AH-1Z Viper
- Boeing AH-64 Apache
- AgustaWestland Apache
- CAIC WZ-10
- Denel AH-2 Rooivalk
- Eurocopter TigerEurocopter TigerThe Eurocopter Tiger is an attack helicopter manufactured by Eurocopter. In Germany it is known as the Tiger; in France and Spain it is called the Tigre.-Origins:...
- HAL Light Combat HelicopterHAL Light Combat HelicopterThe HAL Light Combat Helicopter is a multirole combat helicopter being developed in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for use by the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army.-Development:In 2006, HAL announced its plans to build a LCH...
- Kamov Ka-50/Ka-52Kamov Ka-50The Kamov Ka-50 "Black Shark" is a single-seat Russian attack helicopter with the distinctive coaxial rotor system of the Kamov design bureau. It was designed in the 1980s and adopted for service in the Russian army in 1995...
- Mil Mi-24Mil Mi-24The Mil Mi-24 is a large helicopter gunship and attack helicopter and low-capacity troop transport with room for 8 passengers. It is produced by Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant and operated since 1972 by the Soviet Air Force, its successors, and by over thirty other nations.In NATO circles the export...
- Mil Mi-28Mil Mi-28The Mil Mi-28 is a Russian all-weather day-night military tandem two-seat anti-armour attack helicopter. It is a dedicated attack helicopter with no intended secondary transport capability, better optimized than the Mil Mi-24 for the role...
- Duke, R.A., Helicopter Operations in Algeria [Trans. French], Dept. of the Army (1959)
- France, Operations Research Group, Report of the Operations Research Mission on H-21 Helicopter (1957)
- Leuliette, Pierre, St. Michael and the Dragon: Memoirs of a Paratrooper, New York:Houghton Mifflin (1964)
- Riley, David, French Helicopter Operations in Algeria Marine Corps Gazette, February 1958, pp. 21–26.
- Shrader, Charles R. The First Helicopter War: Logistics and Mobility in Algeria, 1954-1962 Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers (1999)
- Spenser, Jay P., Whirlybirds: A History of the U.S. Helicopter Pioneers, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press (1998)