Attack Helicopters for the Modern Army

Yes, I’m finally getting around to replying to some of Fishbreath’s stuff. You’re probably wondering what attack helicopter we in Borgundy like. The Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian, with the Longbow fire control radar setup. Duh. Best in-class. Next question.

Why do we like the AH-64E? Mostly on account of being the baddest tank killing thing with rotary wings, and that’s due to the phenomenal Hellfire missiles. It’s got the fancy millimeter-wave fire control setup so that it just has to poke the radar over a hill, or have a fellow helicopter do so, and it can literally rain hellfire on its enemies. Way cool.

This is hardly fair though. The AH-64E has gotten a lot of development money, and the alternatives have stagnated. And the single-seat Ka-50 is basically stillborn.1 The Ka-52, which hasn’t done well at exports, is a two-seater. Well, life and procurement games are hardly fair. But this is shaping up to be a dreadfully short piece, and simply adding tactics will make it boring, so let’s make it interesting (and also add tactics).

What helicopter would we choose if it was 1990? The Ka-50 has just entered production, and the Soviet union hasn’t collapsed yet. We’d still go with the Apache (then, it was the AH-64A, and it was made by McDonnell Douglas, who hadn’t been bought buy Boeing yet). A good chunk of that is political; we’re firmly in the West’s camp. But that’s the cop-out reason. Straight up, the AH-64A/Hellfire combo is still best at what we want it to do: kill tanks. Being semi-active laser homing, the Hellfire can be fired somewhat indirectly, as long as there’s some laser emitter to illuminate the target, the helicopter needn’t be exposed. Hellfire missiles can also be salvoed faster, since the laser only needs to be on target for guidance, not at launch. A ground launch option is available. Oh, and the tandem-HEAT warhead on the Hellfire is really big. So it’s probably going to kill what it hits.

Now we get to the tactics. What are attack helicopters for? Well, we see them as a much more successful manifestation of the ‘tank destroyer’ concept. Helicopters can move much faster than ground vehicles, so they’re perfect for rapidly moving to provide support or counterattack a breakthrough. I don’t have a cute metaphor for this, other than maybe to call them ‘plumbers’.2 They’re to kill tanks first, other vehicles second. So, the powerful, accurate Hellfire missile that can be fired rapidly is just what we need.

I should probably take a moment to point out that deep strikes with attack helicopters are a bad idea. They don’t fare well when lots of things can shoot them, as evidenced by losing one to a flak trap in Operation Iraqi Freedom. They’re not very good at dealing with SAMs, so they need to use terrain to avoid them. Since they fly low, they’re also vulnerable to AAA fire. Again, it’s about speed and using cover and concealment effectively. They’re not well suited to forcing the SAM to dodge, since they’re not very fast.

That aside, we’ve mostly been talking about missiles, not about helicopters themselves. Let’s look more at the Apache and the two-man layout. A two-man crew is perhaps the most intuitive solution. There are two things that need doing: weapons employment and flying the helicopter. Since flying the helicopter is *hard*, and semi-active laser homing weapons like the Hellfire still require quite a bit of operator input for target discrimination and selection, we might naturally choose to have a crew of two, like the engineers at Hughes/McDonnell Douglas did. Or those at Bell, or those at EuroCopter, or those at Mil.

I generally like a crew of two in combat aircraft. In the fighter realm, the statistics show that for comparable types, the two-seat fighters tend to do better, since they have two pairs of eyes available. This is even more helpful for the attack helicopter, since spotting ground targets is notoriously difficult. Also, two sets of eyes to spot return fire is very helpful, since it’s easy for the gunner to get ‘tunnel vision’ when prosecuting targets. The pilot can maintain overwatch for tracers or missile launches, or keep the helicopter moving. These tactics of attack on the move have been heavily used by Soviet pilots in Afghanistan after Stinger missiles were introduced to the conflict, by American pilots in Vietnam, and more recently by Russian pilots in the Syrian intervention. Movement is good. Movement is life.

Hovering is not a good idea from a long-term survivability perspective. In addition to dedicated anti-aircraft assets, most modern IFVs and some modern MBTs have targeting systems capable of nailing attack helicopters if they hover for a while. Fishbreath and I can also testify that even an old-school T-55 can bag you if you sit pretty and hover for a while. If you’re gonna hover, you have to pop up from some kind of cover, engage, and drop back down (and relocate). Again, that second crewmember allows for a rapid transition to movement to avoid incoming fire, and he can keep his eyes up while the gunner is engaging targets. Or just be looking around and planning where to pop up from next. He can route plan while the gunner hunts targets.

One nifty feature of the Apache in particular is that the pilot has his own independent thermal viewer to let him see at night or in foul weather. The pilot’s thermal camera is slaved to his helmet. Night fighting and operations in harsh weather conditions are also better with the split workload, and the Apache has the vision tech to facilitate this. The Ka-50N might have rectified this a bit, but that was just a prototype, and we don’t know how well it would have done at night.

So there you have it. While you could operate an attack helicopter with a single man crew and appropriate automation, they’re better with a two-man crew. More combat effective. None of this precludes operating attack helicopters in groups; more helicopters are better. And yes, you’ll pay a bit more for the American-made Apache, and you’ll pay more for two crew. But you get more. This is the helicopter that armies want. This is the helicopter foreign designers wish they made. This is the most effective attack helicopter available. The choice is clear.

Geronimo would approve.

1.) Don’t worry, Fishbreath. I’ll be sure to say something pithy at its funeral. And then drink a bunch of good vodka and gloat.
2.) Because they stop leaks, get it? A trifle Nixonian though.

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