Manned attack helicopters still have a future, as witnessed by the US Army’s thrust towards Next generation rotorcraft. But will the accolades gained during the counter-insurgency campaigns over previous decades hold true if future fights?
Many years ago I was invited down to South Africa by Denel Aviation to take a look at, and fly in, the Rooivalk (Red Falcan) AH2 attack helicopter. When I asked about its capability compared to Boeing’s AH-64D Apache which came with milimetric fire-control radar that identified over 60 targets and could engage around eight at the same time with its clutch of AGM-114L Hellfire 2 guided missiles, I was firmly told that nothing that expensive, or complicated, was required in Africa. “All we need here is to own the biggest stick – and that is the Rooivalk,” said my Denel host.
However, only 12 Rooivalk’s were ever delivered to the South African Air Force (SAAF) and their main claim to fame was the deployment of three Rooivalk’s to support United Nations operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013. They seldom were called on to wield that stick.
Today’s in service ‘big sticks’ are all well known, ranging from modern versions of American-made helicopters that first cut their teeth during the Vietnam War including Boeing’s perennial AH-64 attack helicopter and Bell’s AH-1 family, through to Russia’s ubiquitous Mi-24/35s and more modern Ka-52s and Mi-28s. In terms of the modern era, Europe got in on the act with the Airbus Tiger, Leonardo AW129 Mangusta and not forgetting the Asian Hindustan Aeronautics’ Light Combat Helicopter and China’s AVIC Z-10.
Despite the plethora of unmanned aerial vehicles muscling their way onto the aerial stage, and the changing expectation that warfare will be more ‘peer-to-peer’ next time, manned attack helicopters look set to remain for the next few decades, although they will be increasingly absorbed into the battlefield network ‘of things’, and are increasingly standing-off targets so that their manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) buddies can press home the attack in high threat areas.
The success of manned attack helicopters dominating the battlefield during the asymmetric wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been the high point in this type of warfare. During the Cold War, helicopters armed to attack then Soviet tank formations that would have been coming over the forward line of defence (FLOP) were thought to have a one-way mission, such were the low expectations for their survival. What should be expected from the attack rotorcraft of the future?
The Future is FARA
The US Army’s search for two Next Generation helicopters, the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA), has reached another milestone, which is looking beyond the prototyping of two flying technology demonstrators.
Dan Bailey, Program Manager for the FARA Competitive Prototype, said that the US Army’s goal has been “to fly before we buy.” Speaking during the Vertical Flight Society’s virtual Forum76 on Wednesday 20 May, Bailey said that the focus has been on developing the air platform prototypes and open systems digital backbone, and feed that work into the establishment of a programme of record.
In terms of what the FARA will be expected to deliver, the Army’s Future Vertical Lift Cross Functional Team divided performance and operational characteristics into what was ‘required’ and what was ‘desirable.’
Highlights in the former category include the General Electric T901 Improved Turbine Engine (ITE) which will deliver more power that existing engines, limiting the size of the rotor diameter and aircraft width, limiting gross weight, speed matched with the reach that is required, and a Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) to the integration of sub-systems.
Bailey said that the process was in a final design phase which will lead into “a go/no-go decision later this year at final design point will be reached at the end of the year with the intention to built the air vehicle sometime in 2022.”
There was an evaluation at the beginning of the year and two contenders emerged. Bell’s Invictus 360 is a single main rotor with a ducted tail rotor and is visually conventional but it is a compounded aircraft with a wing. Said Bailey: “They are focusing on simplicity and low drag and have learned a lot of lessons from the Bell 525 Relentless commercial aircraft. All the aircraft are fly-by-wire. They are past a sub-and full up-system PDR [Design Review] level and on the way to the final design and on schedule.”
Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin has produced the RaiderX, a fourth generation design. “They have worked on the Raider S-97 and through JMR-TD there was the flying aircraft called the SD.1 Defiant. The RaiderX is the scaled up version of the S-97 but has lessons learned from earlier co-axial prototypes that are being incorporated into the design enhancements. The RaiderX is again based on a compound design, has a six-bladed rotor system and has passed PDR level design and is on track for flight test in November 2022.”
Colonel Gregory Fortier, the FARA Program Manager’s first comment was that FARA “it not your grandfather’s acquisition programme. New military helicopters, and fighters for that matter, have a history of laborious development with escalating costs, whereas FARA has had an aggressive development timeline. Given previous slow development times for rotorcraft, the intention with FARA is to conduct the down-select in 2024, reach Milestone C (the end of Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) and begin initial production) by 2028 and have the first unit equipped (FUE) by 2030.
Apache Not Ready for Sunset
For the foreseeable future, and well past the proposed FARA FUE date, that old war horse Boeing’s Apache AH-64s will still be flying. The latest version is the AH-64E Guardian Software Version 6 upgrade and Boeing’s TJ Jamison, an retired Army Apache pilot and now director, Vertical Lift International Sales, believes that this will continue to helping Apaches keep flying through continual modernisation until around 2060.
During a briefing on 12 May, Jamison stated that in the AH-64E V6, the fire control radar (FCR) has been improved which has doubled its range from eight kilometres to 16km. Although the current weapons onboard cannot range out that far, by using its Manned-Unmanned Teaming-Extended (MUMT-X) range capability it would be able to vector other armed UAVs – or fighters – onto any target at range with a non-line of sight remote shot.
The software updates now mean that Apache V6 will operate more effectively in the maritime by detecting smaller targets at greater range, and can eliminate some of the surface clutter that can give false readings, as it can do with smaller UAVs.
Jamison stated that the Apache E is the only attack helicopter in the world with the Link 16 secure data link which allows it to integrate with any other Link 16 holding asset allowing it to share targets and data to all within the same Joint Fires Network. It can also exchange data over Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) allowing direct comms and date with soldiers on the ground.
The Apache is also the only attack helicopter with both Modernised Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor (PNVIS/MTADS), with each crew member being able to use either crew member to fly or conduct target acquisition and prosecution. With a new ITE engine and improved resilliance, the Apache has a secure future with the US Army as well as an impressive collection of foreign customers.
Tiger Pads on
In December 2019, the Airbus Tiger attack helicopters in service with the French German and Spanish armed forces jointly benefited from a long term support agreement signed by Airbus Helicopters and European intergovernmental OCCAR (Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation).
An Airbus statement revealed that the contract “covers critical items such as continuous improvement and obsolescence treatment as well as securing repair and spares capabilities with all vendors involved.”
A Tiger Mk3 upgrade is in the making, with OCCAR examining new developments and upgrades to the helicopter’s avionics, mission, and weapon systems. Thales and MBDA are contributing to these studies.
Airbus states that 183 Tigers are in service with the three European nations as well as Australia, although the latter is currently in the process of deciding whether to replace its fleet of Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters (ARH) with an alternative attack helicopter. The Australian Army is looking at its military rotorcraft fleet long term and particularly at the developments of FARA/FLRAA in the US. The question of whether to upgrade the existing ARH or acquire a new attack helicopter will depend on the result of the process triggered by the Commonwealth of Australia’s (CoA) Request for Information (RFI) for the Project LAND4503 Armed Reconnaissance Capability. The CoA will judge whether a Tiger upgrade offered by Airbus is better than buying a new helicopter type, and how long the in-service life of the ARH capability will be until its replacement by a Next Generation aircraft begins around 2035-2040.
Andrew Mathewson, Airbus Australia Pacific managing director told Armada that improvements to the supply chain and the way that the ARH is embedded in defence and local industry will be a cost effective bridge for the 22 aircraft towards a new aircraft. “We can save the Government more than $2.1 billion (AUS$3 billion) by retaining Tiger in service and extending its life out to 2040,” said Mathewson. He added that the Australian Army were now much more satisfied with the Tiger, now that it is reaching typically a 93 percent of planned missions achieved rate.
However, Airbus has been hit hard as a corporate entity over the last few years and this, together with the impact of the coronavirus on business may well temper plans to fully modernise a relatively small fleet of helicopters, and prospects for further international customers for Tiger have not looked positive for many years.
Taking It Forward
The development of a successor to Leonardo’s AW129 Mangusta attack helicopter was triggered in 2017 by the Italian Army. Although Leonardo offered the option of a new airframe at that time as option, the Army opted for an upgrade to take it through to the type’s out-of-service date expected around 2025.
The Army has made use of its attack helicopter operationally, deploying the AW129 to a variety of countries including Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a multinational force on both occasions, and as an element of United Nations missions to countries including the Republic of Macedonia, Somalia and Angola.
From the initial fleet of 60 A129s, 45 are still in service. The current Italian Army fleet is coming to the end of an upgrade programme which will deliver an improvement to the type’s endurance, speed, situational awareness, and information-handling capabilities. This upgraded version has been designated the AH-129D which will remain in service until its successor is ready. This upgrade saw the integration of the PCO Toplite electro-optical system with Rafael’s Spike air-to-surface missiles (which are also incorporated into the ‘make’do’ upgrade of Poland’s current Mil Mi-24 fleet until the Kruk requirement is fulfilled.
The AW249 will not be a newer version of the AW129, but will be “a completely new design leveraging lessons learnt designing, developing, producing and introducing into service the AW129 and its entire life-cycle and operational experience in Italy and abroad,” according to a Leonardo spokesperson.
The AW249 will be a heavier aircraft, up to eight tonnes, three tonnes heavier than the AW129. This will allow it to deploy with a wider range of mission systems, fuel and weapons. it will also feature open architecture which should lead to greater potential for collaboration between avionics and mission systems suppliers.
In July 2018 a joint announcement was made between Leonardo and Polish company PGZ (Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa) over the intent for both to potentially collaborate over the design, manufacture, final assembly and through-life support for the AW249. The Polish angle is particularly important as the Polish Ministry of Defence could be a potential customer for its Kruk attack helicopter requirement of 32 new helicopters to replace its legacy Mil Mi-24s.
“The collaboration between Leonardo and PGZ, particularly through PZL-Swidnik, would allow Polish industry to access up to 40 percent of the contractual value,” said the Leonardo source. If the company can keep the development costs low with an uncomplicated specification the new AW249 may have a market among countries who want medium complexity at an affordable price.
Syrian Lessons Learned
Russian Helicopters will always have its main customer, the Russian Federation to rely upon for orders. The company has made headway in trying to ‘internationalise’ its appeal and modernisation matched with trade deals woven by state corporation Rostec that are made financially appealing to foreign customers.
In December 2019, Russian Helicopters announced that it had delivered “over 20 attack helicopters” to the Russian Defence Ministry which met the contracted number for that year.
On 26 December, Aviation Cluster Industrial director of the Rostec State Corporation Anatoly Serdyukov stated: “This year, the [Russian] forces have received Ka-52 Alligator reconnaissance and strike helicopters, transport and combat helicopters Mi-35M and combat helicopters Mi-28N and Mi-28UB. In addition, we completed the delivery of the first modern Mi-28NM Night Hunter combat helicopters and by 2027 we will produce 98 such machines for the Defense Ministry.”
Lessons have been learned from the international deployment of Russian forces into Syria and that experience is now being inserted back into helicopter modernisation programmes.
The latest version of the Kamov Design Bureau Ka-52 Alligator is the Ka-52M. Manufacturer Progress Arsenyev Aviation Company (AAC) is currently conducting experimental design work to further modify the helicopter to improve target location and identification. According to Russian media reports, the Defence Ministry has a requirement for 114 modernised Ka-52Ms to be delivered by the end of 2022. Although the Russian involvement in Afghanistan taught lessons in hot and high operations, that experience ended in 1989. A quarter of a century later and the Syrian deployment will have fed back much needed information regarding operational capability in a modern environment, and a significant amount of data gained from operating in proximity to NATO forces.
Russian Helicopters says that modernisation is focusing on EO/IR technology, together with target classification and identification. Range is also under review, to provide the latest upgrades with longer endurance and weapons with improved range to engage targets on land and in the air. “Increasing the armour of the machine and updating the energy supply system are being studied cooperatively [as well as studying the] unification of aviation weapons with attack helicopters of the Mi brand.”
The Mi-35P, an international version of the Mi-24P which has seen longstanding service with the Russian Army, has been in deep modernisation over the last couple of years. According to a Russian Helicopters spokesperson, testing at the Russian Helicopters’ Rostvertol factory in Rostov-on-Don continues on the Mi-35P, which made its debut at the MAKS-2019 Aviation and Space Salon in Moscow.
The Mi-35P features the Shvabe OPS-24N-1L observation-sight system which provides the crew with 360-degree targeting surveillance by using four, stabilised, short-wave infrared cameras (this can also be found on the Mi-35M and and Mi-8AMTSh). Images and data are presented to the crew through four screens inside the cockpit. According to the company, the system was developed following lessons learned while Russian forces were operating in Syria. Other improvements extend to an updated piloting system which adds a greater level of control and stability, and improved target tracking capabilities.
Russian Helicopters declares that the modernisation of the Mi-35P gives it improved performance in ‘hot and high’ conditions, while there has also been a reduction in the complexity of maintenance. It also features the 30mm GSh-30-2K twin-barrel auto cannon.
Following a later delivery timetable comes the order from the Russian Defence Ministry for 98 of the modernised Mi-28NM Night Hunter attack helicopters by the end of 2027. The Mi-28NM first flew in 2016 and is different to the standard Mi-28N.
“The Mi-28NM has acquired a new fuselage shape, modernised engines and an auxiliary power unit, a new avionics system, advanced weapons capability, and can be operated in conjunction with unmanned aerial vehicles and ground command posts,” stated Boginsky. He added that its development continued to be one of the companies priorities.
Recent customers for Russian attack helicopters include the Serbian Government who received four out of a requirement for seven Mi-35Ms in December 2019.
Designing new bespoke military helicopters is usually an expensive and time consuming activity, and with the world counting the cost of the COVID-19 virus – matched with the march of unmanned platforms, will this be the final crop of manned attack helicopters?