Few countries around the world have gone to the effort of building their own attack helicopters. However, countries in Asia are showing increased interest in these force multipliers - so much so that India and China are developing their own aircraft.
19th Sep 2012
Flying tanks: Asian attack helicopter programmes
Byline: Guy Martin / Johannesburg
Few countries around the world have gone to the effort of building their own attack helicopters. However, countries in Asia are showing increased interest in these force multipliers - so much so that India and China are developing their own aircraft. In fact, India is in such a hurry to acquire attack helicopters that it is also buying foreign airframes and has selected Boeing’s Apache to fulfil its near-term requirements.
For several decades India has flown Russian-built Mi-25 and Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters, with the first Mi-25s arriving in 1984 and the first Mi-35s in 1990. In order to improve the avionics performance of its Hinds, India in 1998 selected Israel Aerospace Industries to provide 25 Mission upgrade kits, featuring a nose-mounted sensor turret including a forward-looking infrared (FLIR), CCD TV, laser rangefinder, designator and auto-tracker. However, these aircraft are ageing and their high altitude performance previously proved to be lacking during the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan.
In late May 2008 the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued a request for proposals (RFP) for 22 twin-engine attack helicopters to supplement and eventually replace the Air Force’s Mi-25/35 aircraft, but the tender was cancelled in March 2009, with the MoD saying the remaining competitors (which did not include the Boeing AH-64D Apache and Bell AH-1Z Viper) could not meet requirements. A new RFP was issued two months later. In October 2011 India selected the AH-64D Apache Block III to fulfil its requirement for 22 attack helicopters, beating Mil’s Mi-28N Night Hunter in field trials. The Block III variant is the most advanced Apache model, with updated avionics and a raft of other improvements giving a boost to overall performance.
India is shortly expected to officially declare the Apache the winner and order 22 helicopters in the coming months, at a cost of around US$1.4 billion, and the package will include Hellfire and Stinger missiles. It should be noted that New Delhi is buying an increasing amount of military equipment from the United States, including ten C-17 Globemaster III strategic transports, eight P-8I maritime patrol aircraft and six C-130J Super Hercules.
For the last quarter of a century India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has been developing the Dhruv light transport helicopter for the armed forces. Out of this project emerged the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) - a dedicated attack variant - that was officially launched in February 2003. In 2006 HAL was given formal clearance from the government to proceed with the project. Although developing the LCH from the Dhruv was intended to save costs and time, the timetable has slipped - largely due to problems with excess weight. The aircraft was originally supposed to be inducted into service in December 2010, but initial operational capability in 2013/2014 and service entry in 2016 is more likely. First flight of the Turbomeca/HAL Ardiden 1H (Shakti) powered aircraft took place on March 29, 2010, a year behind schedule. The Indian Air Force has ordered 65 LCHs and the Indian Army 114.
An important feature of the LCH is its ceiling of 6 000 metres (19 700 ft), considerably greater than the Mi-24’s 4 500 metres (14 800 ft). It retains the Dhruv airframe except for a new forward fuselage with tandem crew seating, although the flight controls, hydraulics and fuel system all had to be redesigned. The LCH features the same weapons system as the Dhruv Weapon System Integrated (WSI) version, which includes a Nexter 20 mm M621 cannon mounted in a THL 20 turret under the nose. Stub wings carry four twin anti-tank guided missile launchers for 7 km (4 mile) range Helina anti-tank missiles, four 70 mm (2.75 in) rocket pods and a pair of twin air-to-air missile launchers for Mistral missiles. Other key features of the helicopter include stealth, a glass cockpit, armour protection, crashworthiness and avionics for night operations (CCD TV, FLIR and laser rangefinder/designator).
Across the border, India’s neighbour Pakistan operates a fleet of Bell AH-1 Cobras, having received its first ten AH-1S models in 1984 and another ten in 1986. Due to US sanctions resulting from Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, an option for ten never went ahead. However, when US arms sales resumed in the late 1990s, new C-NITE sensors, 70 mm (2.75 in) rockets and TOW missile launchers were delivered, bringing Pakistani Cobras up to AH-1F standard. Additional ex-US Army AH-1Fs were received in the 2000s and Pakistan Army Aviation currently has 34 of the type in service, which have been used against the Taliban in the country’s remote western region. Pakistan wishes to replace its Cobra fleet with advanced AH-1Z Vipers in several years’ time.
For thirty years China has unsuccessfully attempted to acquire dedicated attack helicopters for the People’s Liberation Army, but has been thwarted time and again and forced to rely on light attack aircraft like the Z-9W (based on the license-built Eurocopter AS365N Dauphin - China has around 200 Z-9s in service). However, the country began an indigenous attack helicopter programme in the mid 1990s, with foreign assistance, and initially in civilian guise. This programme resulted in the Changhe Aircraft Industries Group (CAIG) Z-10. Test flying of the Z-10 began in April 2003 with service entry in 2009. Apparently the helicopter is undergoing continuous modification based on experience and only small numbers are believed to be operational. It seems that prototypes were powered by Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 engines, but operational aircraft appear to be powered by the same engine as that on the Z-9W. Supplying PT6 engines and engine control software landed United Technologies Corporation in trouble as this violated US arms control laws and in June the company agreed to pay US$75 million in penalties for the violations.
The Z-10 follows a conventional layout, with pilot and gunner in tandem, a sensor turret and cannon on the nose and stub wings for missiles. It appears to incorporate some stealth technology. Up to eight missiles can be carried on the stub wings, including HJ-10 anti-tank weapons. The air-launched HJ-10 is equivalent to the AGM-114 Hellfire and was developed specifically for the Z-10.
Apart from the WZ-10, the existence of another Chinese attack helicopter was revealed a couple of years ago. The Z-19 or WZ-19 is apparently built by the Harbin Aviation Industry Group and based on the Z-9. This light attack helicopter features the fenestron tail rotor and rear fuselage of the Z-9, but with a tandem cockpit front fuselage. Although it has a sensor turret under the nose, it does not have built-in cannon armament. It is rumoured that the Z-19 first flew in May 2010 and may have been developed to counter delays with the Z-10’s engines and to complement its larger stablemate, as the Z-19 is a light attack helicopter.
Since 1993 China’s rival Taiwan has flown Cobras, the Republic of China Army ordering 63 of the type. In 2003 Taiwan began evaluating the AH-1Z Viper and AH-64 for a possible order and in spite of objections by China, Taiwan became the first international customer for the AH-64D Apache Block III model, requesting 30 new build examples in October 2008 under its Sky Eagle project. The United States announced in June 2011 that a contract had been signed and by the end of May this year, Taiwanese Apache contracts had reached a value of US$680 million, out of a maximum of US$2.532 billion noted in Taiwan’s October 2008 request. Deliveries will begin in the first quarter of 2014.
In North Asia, Japan has relied on a large fleet of Cobras to fill its attack helicopter needs, acquiring 90 AH-1S models for the Japan Ground Self Defence Force (JGSDF) between 1979 and 1986. Fuji Heavy Industries built these under license and many were later upgraded to AH-1F standard. In fact, Japan is the only country to have built the Cobra under license, rather than to buy from Bell’s US production line.
In August 2001 Boeing’s Apache beat Bell’s AH-1Z Viper in Japan’s AH-X competition for an AH-1S replacement and since 2006 Japan has been producing the Apache under license as the AH-64DJP. Fuji Heavy Industries was selected to build 50 and delivered the first aircraft to the JGSDF in March 2006. Japanese aircraft are able to launch the AIM-92 air-to-air Stinger.
Japan’s neighbour South Korea today flies approximately 77 AH-1J/S Cobras, having received eight twin-engined AH-1Js in 1978, followed by 90 AH-1S models with C-NITE equipment for night operations. Deliveries took place through the 1980s and early 1990s.
On May 29 South Korea announced its shortlist of three contractors in the 1.8 trillion Won (US$1.58 billion) AH-X competition for 36 attack helicopters, which will mainly be used to replace its AH-1S models and counter North Korean gunboats in the Yellow Sea. The companies that were shortlisted were Boeing, with its AH-64D Apache Block III, Bell Helicopter Textron with its AH-1Z Viper and a joint AgustaWestland/Turkish Aerospace Industries team with its T-129. South Korea has in the past shown strong interest in purchasing the Apache, which has been operated by the United States Army in South Korea for decades. Test and evaluation flights are expected shortly and a contract will most likely be signed later in the year, with the winner to be announced around October.
In addition to acquiring foreign attack helicopters, South Korea is interested in developing a new light attack helicopter designated the KAH to replaces its Hughes MD500s. A configuration is expected to be selected by the end of this year, to be followed by development between 2013 and 2018 at a cost of 600 billion won (US$532 million). The KAH will have a gross weight of 4.5 tonnes and have room for six to eight passengers. Around 200 will be ordered.
To the north, Pyongyang has approximately 20 Mi-24s in service. Hinds are scattered throughout the Asia-Pacific region, with the Vietnamese Air Force flying 30 Mi-24s, the Myanmar Air Force flying five Mi-35s (the order was announced in December 2009) and the Afghan Air Force has nine MI-35s in service. Six refurbished examples were received from the Czech Republic in January 2009 and a total of 15 have been delivered, but not all are operational. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, has Mi-24Vs and Mi-35M Hinds in its inventory and used them against Tamil Tiger rebels until their defeat in 2009. The Sri Lankan Air Force flies approximately 14 Mi-24/35 helicopters.
The Indonesian Army flies eight Mi-35s, taking delivery of six Mi-35Vs in 2008, after acquiring two in 2003. Indonesia is reportedly seeking to buy eight AH-64 Apaches from Boeing, which would be used to counter a separatist insurgencies. News of the prospective deal surfaced in February when Indonesia’s deputy minister of defence was reported as saying that only a purchase plan stood in the way of the procurement.
One of the smallest attack helicopter operators in Asia is Thailand, with just three AH-1Fs in service. The Royal Thai Army Aviation Division received four Cobras in 1990, after ordering them in 1986. In 2010 four refurbished ex-US military Cobras were bought by Thailand but it is not clear if these supplemented or replaced its existing models. The country has wide scope to use attack helicopters as it deals with terrorism in its Muslim south.
Singapore recently acquired attack helicopters, ordering eight 20 AH-64Ds in 1999 and another 12 in 2001. These feature the Longbow fire control radar. The first was officially delivered in May 2002, but only arrived in Singapore in June 2006, as the aircraft conducted training in the United States as part of the Peace Vanguard programme. The Apaches give Singapore a significant edge over its neighbours as the country was the first Southeast Asian nation to buy attack helicopters – Malaysia’s plan to buy attack helicopters was stalled following the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.
However, the situation might change because Malaysia has dusted off its plans and is now seeking attack helicopters. The Malaysian military’s air arms are acquiring new equipment and upgrading existing aircraft - the Army Air Corps recently took delivery of 11 AgustaWestland A109s. The Malaysian army is looking at establishing a squadron of six to 12 attack helicopters, funding permitting, and has prioritised this procurement plan. Eurocopter showcased its Tiger in December 2011 during the Langkawi Maritime & Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA) in anticipation of a future request for proposals by the country for attack helicopters, but funding remains a challenge.
Eurocopter has encountered success in Australia, which bought 22 Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters in December 2001 to meet its AIR 87 requirement for a Bell UH-1H and OH-58 replacement. The first four were built in France and the remainder assembled by Australian Aerospace in Brisbane under the AU$2 billion programme. Deliveries began in December 2004 and concluded in December 2011 (more than a year late) but the type is not yet fully operational in Australian service, as final testing is still to take place later this year.
The Australia Defence Force has struggled to get its Tigers into service after encountering technical problems. Cockpit fumes grounded the fleet between May 16 and 30 this year and again on June 26. The Department of Defence on August 3 announced the fleet had resumed flying after the temporary suspension was lifted. The cause of the fumes was found to be a faulty power supply module. Apart from delays, sustainment issues have emerged, which have hampered training and flying rates. Australian Tigers are based upon the French Hélicoptère d’Appui Protection (HAP), deployed successfully in Afghanistan, and feature Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.
Elsewhere in the region, the Philippines is seeking to acquire attack helicopters, in spite of a limited budget. An Air Force spokesman in July said that ten attack helicopters would be acquired in 2013 to replace the fleet of MD520s. The new aircraft will be used for internal security and border security operations as the Philippines battles insurgents in rural areas and Muslim extremists in the south. The Air Force spokesman said the government has allocated funding to purchase the helicopters.
For the first time in modern history, Asia is projected to spend more on defence this year than Europe - Asian military spending rose to an estimated US$262 billion last year. One of the items nations are buying is the attack helicopter, as they seek to replace ageing models and extend their military reach. With countries buying foreign aircraft as well as developing their own, the Asia-Pacific region, along with the Middle East, is one of the epicentres of the global attack helicopter market.