It takes two to tango: why I like single-seat attack helos

Picture your favorite helicopter gunship. I can’t tell you much about it without knowing what it is, but I can tell you one thing: unless you’re a weirdo like me, it has two seats. I do not think this must be so. To explain why is going to take a little detour into the tactical thinking of helicopter pilots, and how that affects the way they’re employed on the battlefield.

Picture yourself as a fixed-wing pilot. You can easily fly above all but the most specialized of ground-based weapons systems. Compared to anything in the dirt, you are extremely fast, so fast that they may as well be standing still. Your bog-standard general purpose bomb is several times more explosive than the largest explosive projectiles commonly hurled by things on the ground. Your precision-guided weapons are more precise, your sensors are better, you can see further. You are as unto a god, or at least a hero of Greek or Norse myth, striking down your foes with the weight of inevitability behind you.

Got that image in your mind? Savor it for a minute. Now forget all about it, because that isn’t how flying a helicopter works at all.

Picture yourself as a helicopter pilot. If you fly high, a plane will shoot you down, or a long-range air defense system. If you fly low, things on the ground a plane would laugh at will shoot at you, and might shoot you down. You are fast, but you aren’t so fast that you can really use it to enhance your survivability. You do not generally carry especially heavy weapons, and your sensors are pretty good, but you aren’t high enough to see a long way. You are certainly not as unto a god. You’re scary, but it’s the kind of scary your adversaries can actually kill.

What does that mean for you, noble helo pilot? How does it shape your doctrine? If you’re looking for a metaphor, the right analogue for a helicopter is not an IFV or a tank. If you’re a helicopter pilot, your mindset is ‘sky infantry’. You keep out of sight, use natural cover, engage quickly before getting out of sight, and generally skulk around in the mud. Just like the infantryman has a pretty bum deal on the ground, the helo pilot has a pretty bum deal in the sky. The only difference is that the helo pilot has someone to look down on.

Why do attack helicopters generally feature two crew? Because there are three jobs in a helicopter, and one person can’t do all three at once. You need to fly the helicopter, which is a difficult task on its own; you need to use the weapons, which often requires going heads-down; you need to keep your eyes up to see threats visually, since a lot of the things that can shoot down a helicopter can only be detected by the Mark I Eyeball1. The pilot can fly and watch, if the gunner is working with the sensors or weapons systems, and the gunner can keep an eye out, if the flying gets especially hard on the pilot. Simply put, each crewman can do about one and a half things simultaneously, and each helicopter has three things you need to do. Perfect coverage.

Mathematically, it looks bad for the single-seat concept. One crewman can do one and a half things. The helicopter has three things that need to be done. Let’s work on bringing those numbers closer together.

First off: we can install an advanced autopilot. We’ll go the Ka-50, the only single-seat attack helicopter ever to see combat service, as our example2. Taking its age into consideration, the Ka-50 has one of the most advanced autopilot systems ever installed in a helicopter. It’s fully capable of flying the helicopter through a noncombat mission from just after takeoff to just before landing, and can take control in nearly every combat situation that doesn’t involve immediate evasive action, or nap of the earth flying. This reduces our list of things to do to two, but we still only have one and a half tasks doable with our single crewman.

How can we fix that? Add a second crewman, but put him in a different airframe. Your helicopters fly in pairs. How many things will we need to do at once? Fly, but the autopilot takes care of that for us. Use weapons, yes, but that’s a shared task: only one helicopter needs to be engaging at a time. That’s one thing between us. Keep an eye out, yes: ideally, both of us should be keeping an eye out, but in a pinch, one pilot can keep an eye out for the whole team. That leaves us two crewman, who together can do three things, and two or three things to do between them (that is, weapons, eyes, eyes, or weapons, eyes).

That’s really all there is to the argument. Additional automation can help reduce the workload further. A fancy threat warning system helps reduce the need for constant lookout, and helps direct pilot attention during the few, emergency situations where the autopilot is insufficient. Better weapons and datalinks allow for off-board targeting, which can be used to move the weapons employment burden around between helicopters. Autopilots with more options yield further reductions in flying workload—a terrain-following radar or lidar, for instance, would give the Ka-50 the ability to fly nap of the earth at high speeds. Better sensors help reduce the time spent heads-down for weapons employment.

I’m nearing my target word count here, so I’ll wrap up with some quick pros and cons. I’ve made a decent argument that a single-seat attack helicopter is a reasonable choice, so why might you prefer one? To start, you have reduced aircrew requirements, and reduced aircrew losses—half of two airframes is one, and half of one airframe is zero. You have a great deal of large-scale tactical flexibility. Since the two-ship element is the basic unit of maneuver, you can choose to advance in bounding overwatch, for instance, or widely separate your eyes from your weapons. Your eyes helo might be just behind solid cover on a ridge outside of enemy engagement range, able to peek and feed coordinates to your weapons helicopter, which might be advancing in concealment much nearer the enemy. In separating eyes and weapons, terrain may sometimes allow a quick attack from two angles in rapid succession, or at entirely the same time. If you have a small number of helicopter pilots, single-seat airframes let you put more into the sky at once. It’s a setup optimized for tankbusting: large targets, relatively easily spotted and shared.

Why might you choose the standard two-seater? It’s better in moderately threat-heavy COIN situations, where the front lines are poorly defined and any territory may become enemy territory. Two-seat helicopters have better small-scale tactical flexibility, and a single two-seat helicopter swing between navigation, evasion, and counterattack much more quickly than a pair of single-seat airframes. For another, two-seaters are tried and tested. Nobody operates a single-seat attack helicopter in any real number today, not because it’s not a workable theory, but because the only modern example entered service well after its technology started down the hill toward obsolescence. Today, you’d have to build your own single-seater, or buy a bunch of Kamovs and refit them, while you can buy Havocs or Cobras or, for that matter, the Ka-52, basically off-the-shelf. Two-seat helicopters have better engagement speed: for a given number of helicopters and a given number of weapons, the two-seaters will distribute their arms faster, because each airframe is a self-contained targeting and shooting unit, not depending on another helicopter for overwatch or targeting data.

That’s about all I have. One of these days, I’ll take a look at the concept, and come up with some justifications for why Luchtburg might choose a single-seat helo.

1. Or the Mark II Eyeball, also known as the missile launch warning system.
2. The Ka-50 is outmoded in today’s market, but if you look at its competitors in late 80s, when it first appeared on the scene, it’s a much closer case, and depends mainly upon some tactical considerations I’ll get into later.

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