By By Giovanni de Briganti | November 1, 2009
In recent years, faced with the realization that enemies on the ground were actually disposed to shoot any helicopter that came within range, Western militaries have discovered anew the advisability of fitting automatic weapons as a way of defending their transport helicopters. While operational procedures might have preferred giving this role to dedicated escort helicopters, reality has shown that these are not always as available, as fast and as flexible as they were made out to be in tactical rulebooks. This has resulted in a wide variety of weapons being retrofitted to helicopters deployed in southwest Asia. And, in the case of the MV-22 Osprey, even to the development of a turret-mounted gun due to be fitted to the aircraft’s belly to provide a 360-degree field of fire.
Giving transport and utility helicopters the ability to shoot back seems like a no-brainer, especially when one thinks back to the helicopter’s glory days in Vietnam. Yet, door- and pylon-mounted weapons have virtually disappeared among Western armies—for example, the contract signed in September by France’s Ministry of Defence to buy M621 20mm automatic cannons and to fit them, on retractable door mounts, to the Caracal and Cougar helicopters to be deployed to Afghanistan. These guns are routinely fitted to France’s Gazelle, Fennec and Puma helicopters, so not fitting them to more modern designs headed to a combat zone is yet another instance of hard-learned lessons mysteriously disappearing as soon as the shooting stops. Retrofitting guns is one way to improve the combat performance of in-service helicopters. Another is to fit them with more powerful engines, improved rotor blades and modern avionics, giving them the technical wherewithal to perform satisfactorily. These are all very valid ways of improving a bad situation that was allowed to deteriorate through lack of foresight. For example, one British minister sought to excuse the Lynx’s dismal “hot and high” performance in Iraq by saying it had been designed for temperate climes in the NATO area. Did he really think that incompetence is a valid defense?
But the fashion for going retro is moving well beyond upgrades. Most, if not all, current British and U.S. programs are now derived from designs that are decades old, ranging from the CH-47F, CH-53K and UH-60M in the U.S. to the Lynx Wildcat and Puma LEP in the UK, where in addition all signs point to the Future Medium Helicopter being bought off the shelf. Where are the new development programs that will keep the industry going in future decades? Nowhere in the pipeline, that’s clear, as even those few heavy transport projects that loom on the horizon are blighted by their selection of tiltrotor technology.
Industry is investing its own money in even older programs, which might generate some short-term cash but certainly no long-term technology dividend, with the possible exception of Sikorsky’s X2—and even that is only a technology demonstrator. A case in point is Sikorsky’s S-70i International Black Hawk, which the company plans to assemble in Poland with parts manufactured in Turkey and elsewhere. Despite some improvements, this is a 1970s-designed aircraft, and it will compete with more modern H-60 models benefiting from Foreign Military Sales financing.
A more recent—if that’s the right word—entrant to the market is Boeing’s AH-6i light attack/reconnaissance helicopter. Despite Boeing’s marketing spiel, this is an updated OH-6 Cayuse of Vietnam war fame, rather incongruously armed with Hellfire missiles. Even if it inherits the Cayuse’s unique maneuverability, the AH-6i is unlikely to provide the level of protection and systems capability that is required of a modern scout helicopter. But the most grievous fault of the AH-6i, and indeed of several other helicopter upgrades mentioned here, is that it appears to have been designed for low-intensity conflict where air superiority, if not outright dominance, is assured.
In southwest Asia, enemy forces mostly rely on AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns that, with few exceptions, do not pose a grave threat to helicopters. But it would be a big mistake to think that future warfare will always feature such badly equipped opponents which, until now, have been unable to fire even the most primitive MANPADS air-defense missiles.
Although “next-war-itis” has gotten a bad name, it would be unconscionable to think that helicopters suitable for COIN operations would fare equally well on other battlefields. Just as it would be folly to think that leased civil helicopters could operate as freely in high-intensity operations as they do today in Iraq and Afghanistan. But with cash and energy diverted to upgrades and re-working of old designs, where will the funding come from to develop the next generation of battlefield helicopters?