As we come to the end of 2011 what have we learned in the last 12 months and what is in store for the coming year in terms of the ongoing utility of military rotorcraft? What has certainly been confirmed is that helicopters continue to retain an important place at the cutting edge of military operational strategy. This was confirmed on May 2 in the raid mounted by U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), informally known as Seal Team Six, to “take out” Osama bin Laden at his hideaway “in plain sight” in the Pakistani military-heavy city of Abbottabad. Quite how he was able to survive there without being discovered has still not been explained.
Codenamed Operation Neptune Spear, two modified Sikorsky MH-60M Black Hawks and two Boeing MH-47G Chinooks from the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) performed the mission, supported by fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned aerial systems. One of the Black Hawks crashed and although an attempt was made to destroy it, part of the tail survived to reveal a never-seen-before modification.
This modification came as a huge surprise to most of the international aviation community, providing that in a world of cell phones with cameras—it is still possible to keep a developmental secret. (Incidentally, Eurocopter also managed to keep the first flight of its X3 technology demonstrator under wraps in the south of France by cunningly moving the test aircraft by water and conducting test flight during the late evening over a weekend.)
The shooting down of a U.S. Army CH-47F Chinook with 38 soldiers and other personnel onboard served as a reminder that helicopters flying low and slow are very vulnerable to ground fire, especially heavy machine guns and, in this case, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). An inevitability of war is casualties and while standard operating procedures (SOPs) are continually re-evaluated and updated, it is continuing progress in hostile fire identification and the development of countermeasures that will further help protect those flying within the threat band.
The major operational threat to helicopters operating within hostile countries must continue to be ground-to-air missiles, particularly MANPADS. The recent reports of hundreds if not thousands of these missiles being stolen from Libyan arms depots during the final days of the Gaddafi regime by groups with terrorist sympathies must rank as one of the most serious threats to civil and military aircraft in the new year and beyond.
Any sudden appearance of such weapons in Afghanistan could have a similar effect as the arrival of Stingers did during the period of Russian occupation. However, security agencies will be much more aware of the danger to civil airliners from terrorist attack. It would seem to suggest that threat detection and countermeasure companies may well be the first to benefit by the obvious need to protect aircraft in flight, particularly at low level during the crucial period of landing and takeoff.
As for military helicopter fleets, it is very likely that further rationalization will take place across the international military operator spectrum, as governments consider yet again how they can save money by doing more with less. Military forces may be advised to engage more with their international allies to redouble their efforts on how “best practices” can be shared, how interoperability and working in coalition can be improved and, perhaps in the extreme, how national specializations may be looked at again in preference of each individual force trying to achieve all capabilities with a shrinking number of platforms to do them.
Following those cheerful comments may I wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and safe New Year.