Military, Public Service

Survivability Report

By By Steve “Elroy” Colby | July 1, 2010
Send Feedback

Newer airframe designs incorporating
vulnerability reduction concepts and
crashworthiness reduced combat losses
to commonly used weapons six-fold
since Vietnam. DoD Graphic

The U.S. Deputy Undersecretary for Acquisition and Technology recently published its Study on Rotorcraft Survivability. This document addresses many of the shortfalls that military helicopter crews have cited for years and formalizes their analyses in recommendations to the services.

Similar shortfalls in fighter and attack aircraft resulted in significant investment in technology for that community to improve under-performance in human machine interfaces (HMI), situational awareness and standoff weaponry. Similar investments in rotary wing fleets have not been realized despite the overwhelming predominance of helicopter employment over tactical air in the war-time period studied. The report focuses on the combat period of 2001 to 2008, studying combat-hostile, combat non-hostile and non-combat aircraft loss and fatality trends compared to various other combat epochs and offers suggested rationale for the loss rate changes.


The report states that the primary recent combat helicopter loss causes are: MANPADS, rockets/RPGs, and small arms and automatic weapons (SA/AW). A reassuring finding is that newer airframe designs incorporating vulnerability reduction concepts (see Military Spin, Rotor & Wing, May 2007) and crashworthiness have reduced combat losses to these weapons six-fold since Vietnam. Though the trend is arguably much better, these weapons still accounted for 84 percent of the downings and demand technological solutions to reduce crew risk.

Controlled flight into terrain and degraded visual environments are two
leading causes of non-hostile, non combat losses. DoD Chart

The greatest causes of combat non-hostile and non-combat losses are controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), degraded visual environments (DVE) and mechanical failures. With CFIT and DVE generating the preponderance of those losses, it’s clear that a technical solution is overdue. Recommending robust solutions to the five combat and non-combat culprits is the report’s main goal.

The report’s technological recommendations to reduce combat losses relate to those assessable, post-downing factors analyzed by in-country combat loss assessment teams. The report team recommended that in order to defeat MANPADs, rotorcraft need better (lighter and more effective/reliable) missile detectors and jammers. It cites the need for greater numbers and more effective flare cocktails, and it points to engine suppression and insulation as an effective IR threat susceptibility reduction measure. Rotorcraft need better (good detection and low false alarm) hostile fire detectors for ballistic threats including small arms and RPGs, that can geolocate the source and cue weapons or evasive maneuver response. They need better (more reliable and lighter) hostile fire countermeasures to include integrated systems that could blend missile laser jamming with frequency agile optical jamming techniques from the same turret. The report delved into helping aviator situational awareness with better and more integrated systems with glass cockpits, data links and data-fusion to share friendly and adversary order of battle. Conspicuously absent from the report were any specific recommendations for acoustic noise reduction and active camouflage to reduce an aircraft’s visual and aural detection range. Nor were there recommendations to pursue cutting-edge lightweight nano-tube armor appliqué technologies for aircraft with precious little payload margin.

Lastly, the report focused on ways to reduce the non-combat and non-hostile losses. Pilot cueing during DVE environments and constant terrain awareness are essential requirements. Digital flight controls with advanced flight control laws and coupled autopilots will reduce workload and provide means to reduce CFIT and DVE accidents. For less advanced aircraft, flight control augmentation or hover symbology cueing would greatly improve the loss rates to visual obscuration. Fire protection (OBIGS, suction fuel systems, intumescents) and crash survivability would clearly reduce post-crash mortality rates. Protective headgear, airbags, and crashworthy seats were cited as ways to reduce a very large proportion of crash fatalities—this is especially important for passengers, who comprised the largest group of fatalities in cargo/utility mishaps.

The report also makes several valid training recommendations. It states that more realistic threat encounter training for detection, reaction, countermeasure, and post detonation multiple-system failure mode training is required to reduce combat loss rates. Further it cites that most training syllabi address only common mechanical emergency procedures, but don’t address identifying and preventing human factor failures. It cites that more instructors may be required to accomplish these thrusts. It will definitely require more instructors but may also require fundamental changes in organizational training constructs to include establishing “train-the-trainer” weapon schools whose specialty will be creating “Jedi” IP’s that will standardize and improve unit training.

These reports do great things to focus the service staffs and industry toward technical solutions that decrease end-game susceptibility and vulnerability, but do little to advance tactics, techniques and procedures that could break the kill chain earlier.

This report stated that TTPs were not found to be a significant factor in loss rate changes. This is the universal conundrum of proving a negative.

If, in fact, tactics have improved survivability, you won’t be able to make that determination from databases of losses and fatalities because the tactically savvy crews will have returned unharmed from a defeated threat engagement. Analysts searching for answers will turn toward material solutions to prevent/minimize the damage mechanisms, rather than searching for ways to break the kill chain earlier with better tactical employment techniques. Services that capture successful combat TTPs, publish and train to them will have higher mission success rates but not necessarily lower loss rates.

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox