Friday, October 14, 2016

The High Cost of Ground Attack Helicopters

Guest author Mr. Bustamante returns with a fascinating and thought provoking post about attack helicopters.  This one will challenge your conventions.  Enjoy!


The High Cost of Ground Attack Helicopters
Are they really worth it? Are they survivable?

Just for fun: which aircraft has greater general flight performance characteristics?

Fieseler Fi 167 (circa 1938)

Bell AH-1Z Viper (circa 2000)
                              Source: Wikipedia

Point in fact: the Fieseler Fi 167 dominates the AH-1; with a maximum speed of 176 knots it was 20 knots faster, with a range of 703 nm it flew over twice as far, its service ceiling was 8,200 m - almost 2.5 times higher, and the Fi 167 could carry a 1,000 kg bomb or large torpedo, while the AH-1 is rated for 1,134 kg, the weight and configuration of weapon mounting points limits it to about a 500 kg ordnance loadout.  Purist will be aghast at this comparison, after all, the biplane lacks the modern sensors, weapon controls, and communications of the AH-1, but the performance characteristics of attack helicopters deserve closer scrutiny, particularly given the high cost of procurement and operations (the acquisition cost of the AH-64D Apache longbow at one point was almost $70 million - as much as an F/A-18).  


Few weapon systems are as enshrined in American military thought as the attack helicopter, but this reputation has never been proven in high intensity war.  In fact, considering the origins of the attack helicopter, its performance relative to alternative aircraft, its astronomical procurement and total ownership costs, the current and future threat environments, and historical battlefield performance; we should be very concerned about the tradeoffs made in buying attack helicopters.  The attack helicopter is arguably a niche airframe that is both costly, and deficient in performance relative to fixed-wing alternatives.  We must also consider that field artillery, now can deliver both precision and massed fires at ranges exceeding those of the attack helicopter. Justification of a weapon system is not governed simply by whether the system can do the job, but whether it does the job better than competing alternatives.  We have to remind ourselves that the mass purchase of attack helicopters was driven largely by United States Army.  The Army is motivated to view Close Air Support (CAS) as "aerial artillery" and it seeks to retain operational control of air power, in the same way as it controls artillery.  The USAF won the “control debate” in WW2, while still a branch of the Army, and then it won independence as a separate service.  The inter-service politics were nasty, but the Army was effectively pushed out of the business of fixed wing tactical aviation to any great degree, and saw the helicopter as a means for replacing assets lost to the Air Force.[1]  The wisdom or stupidity of this decision is debatable, but the driving argument in favor of the attack helicopter was not performance, but rather a bureaucratic response to the creation of the United States Air Force!  The few advantages that helicopters have over fixed wing aircraft is the ability to use terrain for cover and concealment, to take off, hover, and land vertically.  I argue that those capabilities are not sufficiently advantageous to overcome the huge performance and cost penalties, which makes it very tough to justify the purchase of attack helicopters for tactical aviation use. 

Army and Marine doctrine puts attack helicopters in competition with fixed-wing TACAIR.  Both services doctrine on attack helicopters is similar and assigns them the role of attack, reconnaissance, and security operations, although the USMC adds “anti-helicopter operations” and “… terminal control for …. CAS, artillery, mortars, and NGF.”[2]  More troubling, Joint Publication 3-03 Joint Interdiction, and Army doctrine list attack helicopters as assets capable of conducting interdiction operations; that is operations to prevent adversaries from employing surface-based weaponry and reinforcing units at a time and place of their choosing.  The interdiction mission has traditionally been a fixed –wing TACAIR mission because it has generally been conducted beyond the Fire Support Coordination Line (FSCL) – inside the FSCL, fires from any source must be coordinated with the ground commander; beyond the FSCL, any asset may attack without coordination.  Helicopters intrinsically have large acoustic and radar signatures, which makes them excellent targets.  This doctrine exposes attack helicopters to the full spectrum of enemy anti-aircraft systems without the raw airframe performance capabilities of fixed wing TACAIR (altitude, speed, and range), the ability to carry effective standoff weapons to minimize exposure to air defense systems, nor the sophisticated counters to protect TACAIR from these systems (e.g. jamming pods, stealth, etc.).

The issue of attack helicopters should be decided upon the merits, but any review of airframe performance makes it clear that fixed-wing solutions dominate the performance/cost debate; and this at a time when even vertical envelopment supporters are calling for, and funding, platforms with performance characteristics that exceed the performance envelop of any attack helicopter in service or under consideration (e.g. the V-22 and the forth coming Army led joint Future Vertical Lift program). Table 1 below compares U.S. attack helicopters with other tactical fixed wing aircraft:

Table 1. A Comparison of Common Tactical Ground Attack Aircraft1

                    Source: Federation of American Scientists, Wikipedia, and Global Security.

1.    These figures are for comparison only, actual combat loads, meteorology, and mission profiles dramatically affect performance.  Costs are even more difficult to quantify.
2.    No inflation adjustments have been made to this table.
3.    The GSh-30-2 is a dual barreled, recoil operated autocannon.
4.    Other AH-64 models (e.g. the AH-64D) can be equipped with launch rails for four air–to-air missiles.
5.    Ordinance load outs for attack helicopters are challenging.  The primary limitation is not weight but weapons hard points.   The AH-1 and AH-64 both carry an autocannon, and have four hard points for rocket pods (5” Zuni, or 70mm), or for a four AGM-114 Hellfire missile launch rack.  Additionally, some models add launch rails for AIM-9 air-to-air missiles.

It is worth noting that helicopter performance in “high hot” environments degrades substantially faster than fixed wing aircraft.  From the table above it is clear that fixed-wing aircraft dominate rotary wing attack aircraft in all measurable performance categories.  Specifically they are:

1.    More expensive to buy; and are much more expensive to operate and repair.
2.    Have lower performance (slower, less range, lower service ceilings).
3.    Have lower sortie rates.
4.    Carry dramatically lower armament load outs compared to fixed wing aircraft.
5.    Are less flexible than fighters or light attack aircraft (fighters have been pressed into service as attack aircraft, and most light attack aircraft can function as fighters, but attack helicopters cannot perform the fighter role).

So where exactly do attack helicopters excel? All of the aircraft in Table 1 have been successfully operated from makeshift dirt or grass runways, and all have excellent slow speed maneuverability, although only helicopters can hover, take off and land vertically. I contend that that ability is of limited use as the historical record of helicopter shoot downs demonstrates any low and slow moving tactical aircraft will be hugely vulnerable.  It is no surprise that the USAF prefers fixed wing solutions to close air support and never purchased attack helicopters, although it has acquired large numbers of rotary wing aircraft to meet other mission needs.  To summarize, when the costs and other performance metrics are considered; rotary wing aircraft fare very poorly compared to fixed wing tactical aircraft.  The final judgement on any weapon system is combat, so how have attack helicopters fared in combat operations?

The presumption is that attack helicopters are effective combat assets; but historical analysis does not support this.  The first mass employment of attack helicopters was in Vietnam; the Army and Marine Corps lost over 5,000 helicopters as complete write-offs, of which 277 were AH-1s.  This figure does not include aircraft that were shot down, or put out of commission due to ground fire, but later repaired to flying status.  It also does not count the number of UH-1s, AH-47s (they existed!), and OH-58s operating as attack helicopters.  Significantly, most of these losses occurred over South Vietnam or friendly airspace where the enemy could not deploy his most sophisticated air defenses.  Still, the AH-64, and to a lesser extent the upgraded AH-1s have benefited from a number of protective features to improve aircraft survivability.  So how attack helicopters performed in recent combat operations? Consider the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

“During the course of planning for ground operations in Iraq, the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, and British Army all considered, and actually planned for, air-assault operations in front of the advancing armored columns. … Once operations started, however, no air-assault missions in front of the leading edge of the armored advance were conducted. [Emphasis added]  Interviews with all three ground forces indicated that the risks of these operations were seen as outweighing the possible benefits, so the senior ground commanders elected to cancel the planned missions.” [3]

It is worth recalling that the Iraqi military in 2003 was broken.  Yet the decision of the UK, USA, and USMC commanders to cancel vertical envelopment operations against doctrine is profound.  Commanders curtailed attack helicopter operations, but even with these limitations, attack helicopters still suffered serious losses against an enemy with no effective air force, and no organized air defenses.

“During the course of the roughly 25 days of major combat operations up to the fall of Baghdad, the Army and Marine attack helicopter forces suffered considerable damage. Several aircraft were effectively destroyed, and many others (for example, 46 of 58 USMC Cobras) took battle damage, mostly from infantry-type weapons, such as machine guns, RPGs, and small arms fire.”[4]

How bad was the situation for attack helicopters?  On 23 March 2003, the 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment was drawn into a fight where one AH-64 Apache was shot down, and all 31 Apaches in the regiment took various amounts of battle damage. Following the incident, PBS interviewed Thomas White, Secretary of the Army and asked him to comment:

“I was disappointed that we didn't do better.  I mean, this was an Apache [AH-64] raid. We have invested an enormous amount of resources in attack helicopter operations in the U.S. Army. [Emphasis added] … We were very fortunate we didn't lose more aircraft.”

We need to be frank about casualties - they are inevitable - the real question is value: combat effect versus the costs of alternative options.  By this metric, attack helicopters were unable to perform their doctrinal role and did not deliver the combat effectiveness that was expected of them during the 2003 invasion of Iraq

It is now an open question how our rotary wing attack helicopter force would fare against a well led, well trained, well-motivated, force with effective weapons like the 2K22 Tunguska, which was designed to deal with threats like the AH-64 (see figure 2).[5]  Nor do we know how attack helicopters will fair when facing sophisticated artillery threats (modern multifunction fused tube or rocket artillery projectiles) employed en masse by our potential enemies.
Figure 2. The 2K22 Tunguska Anti-Aircraft System


To re-state the situation, not only have attack helicopters proven to be costly, and less capable than fixed-wing tactical aircraft, they have proven ineffective and vulnerable.  In fact, if the justification for buying attack helicopters is for use as a middle-weight force (which I take to mean COIN and ground attack in permissive environments), then the USMC has not only purchased the most expensive, and least capable aircraft for the mission; it bought into a weapons platform that it was unwilling to employ per doctrine due to survivability concerns.

So what conclusion can we draw?  The U.S. Army is constrained by long-standing policies on fixed-wing tactical aircraft, but the Department of the Navy is unconstrained and is free to pursue better alternatives.  From a price performance ratio, an amphibious task force would be far better served with two, or three squadrons of fixed-wing aircraft like a 21st century A-4, operating from an austere aircraft carrier (e.g. Midway class), than the current LHD/LHA with attack helicopters, and VSTOL jets.  Any shortfalls in cargo space could be addressed by other sealift (new AKA/LKA).  Someone will scream about the loss of vertical take-off and landing capability.  My response is: 1) a small carrier could conduct ground support flight operations to the limits of OMFTS – effectively the combat radius of the V-22; 2) the logistics/maintenance penalties of operating from FARPs will reduce sortie production to the extent that it is more effective to operate aircraft from ships; 3) if the ground force is operating so far inshore as to make carrier operations unfeasible, then fixed wing aircraft are capable of operating from improvised runways ashore (including dirt runways!); and 4) no rotary wing aircraft in production, or on the drawing boards, can keep up with the V-22.  


Mr. Bustamante is a retired naval officer who served the majority of his career as a Naval Special Warfare Officer; he also served as a Surface Warfare Officer and Foreign Area Officer.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in Systems Engineering.  He also holds a Master of Science degree in Defense Analysis (Operations Research) from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. After retiring from the Navy, Mr. Bustamante worked for the legislative branch as an auditor and analyst, as a civil servant with the United States Department of State, and also in the private sector as an analyst in information technology project management.

[1] The key point for this discussion is that the Army argued successfully that the attack helicopter fulfilled its requirements for close air support, but the origin of the attack helicopter is entangled in the larger inter-service debate over air power, particularly as argued between the United States Army and Air Force.  The most extraordinary claims are made by proponents on both sides of the issue; the two best summaries avoiding the partisanship are: The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate, by Douglas N. Campbell, May 1, 2003; and Army-Air Force Relations: The Close Air Support Issue, Rand R-906-PR, 1971.
[2] MCWP 3-2 Aviation Operations articulates USMC doctrine on aviation to include attack helicopters; Field Manual No. 1-112 articulates Army doctrine on attack helicopters.  Significantly, the two services organize attack helicopters very differently.  The Army organizes, and emphasizes the employment of attack helicopters in battalions consisting of 24x AH-64 helicopters.  Typically two attack helicopter battalions are assigned to division and corps in aviation brigades.  The Army also emphasizes that its attack helicopter battalions, even when conducting independent battalion sized operations, are always employed to complement other maneuver forces.  Marine Light/Attack Helicopter Squadrons (HMLA) mix utility and attack helicopters in a squadron of 9x UH-1 and
12x AH-1 helicopters.
[3] Rand briefing DB472, “Assessment of Navy Heavy-Lift Aircraft Options,” page 87.
[4] Rand briefing DB472, “Assessment of Navy Heavy-Lift Aircraft Options,” page 87.
[5] In addition to RAND studies, readers desiring more information on helicopter survivability may wish to read the article: “Are Helicopters Vulnerable?” by Dr. Carlo Kopp, published in the March 2005 edition of Australian Aviation.


  1. Common Tactical Ground Attack Aircraft Chart seems rather dated. No F-16, A-10 or AV-8B.

    1. Another problem is that it doesn't say what version for any aircraft except the AH-64E. A modernized version of the A-4 is going to be much more expensive than $3.8 million! The most current version of the A-4 would be the A-4AR Fightinghawk operated by Argentina. Lockheed-Martin was paid to take 36 A-4's and upgrade them to this configuration. There doesn't seem to be any readily available information on how much this upgrade program costed but it can safely be assumed that those 36 aircraft are now much more expensive than they used to be. The chart also fails to display operating costs, which is a significant factor in determining any aircraft's real cost of ownership.

    2. The point of this post was to highlight the extreme cost of delivering 16 PGMs and an auto cannon to the fight in a sub 200 knot platform, which is what attack helicopters provide - a pre-WII level of performance.

      This is more than sufficient to start a professional conversation, besides space is limited!

      At the time the $70 million dollar AH-64D Longbow Apache was fielded, the F-5 II and modernized A-4 were very much contemporaries in the secondary market, and priced at a considerable discount.

      I argue that the AV-8 is another niche aircraft – expensive to operate, maintenance intensive, and with a troublesome mishap rate.

      I intentionally avoided adding the A-10 to the discussion as it is a lightning rod for arguments, often by people who cannot articulate the difference between the CAS and interdiction missions.

      At any rate, the SU-25/39 compares with the A-10 and is close enough to make the point – you can buy two to three Sukhois (or comparable aircraft) for the cost of a high-end attack helicopter and get superior range, speed, and weapons load; while retaining good low speed characteristics, and even carrier capability.

      In the end, the helicopter gunship can no longer support the vertical envelopment mission because the V-22 and USA FVL programs have greatly superior speed/range/altitude characteristics and PGM artillery fired from MLRSs (e.g. Multi-Mission Launcher), can saturate a target area out to the FSCL or beyond 24-7 and for less than a tenth of the cost of a manned attack helicopter.


  2. The Army does not have the option, but Marines can do the "21st Century A-4" even better with Tucanos or new built OV-10s. These are supposed to be able to fly from LHDs so no new carrier platforms are needed and they excel in CAS with high weapon loads compared to Cobras, long time on station, and easy maintenance. For roughfield use there is AM2 matting that Seabees make EAFs with.
    Cobras and Harriers can be replaced with such a platform to provide a lot of CAS capability.

    1. @SurfGW

      I agree but point out that the LHD, like most of our amphibs, is also a problematic platform.


    2. I love the idea of bronco's flying from LHD's or LHA's. I do wonder though, without cats or traps, can they fly from those ships with a meaningful loadout, and can it return from a mission and land on them?

      If the answers to those to questions are 'yes' we have our low intensity COIN force that can operate more cheaply and save money on our CVN's and F-18's. If not, I think (from a naval perspective) we still need a solution to low intensity conflicts.

      As to the post, the twin factors of risk to a slow platform and cost of maintaining that platform would seem to kill helo's as a viable solution in any but the lowest risk environment.

      I find it interesting that both with the Helo's in Iraq and the Harriers in Afghanistan were both not used in ways that doctrine had predicted. The marines didn't put the harriers in forward airbases, because they feared losing them. And, as mentioned, the helo's weren't used in Iraq because of fear of casualties.

      If a platform isn't used according to doctrine because, when the time comes in the field, the commanders are afraid to use it even against an overmatched enemy, then I think we need to seriously recalculate the value of the platform and the doctrine.

      That time has come for attack helos.

      It might be their biggest use is in ASW work, against an enemy that's far less likely to shoot back. I love the idea of bronco's flying from LHD's or LHA's. I do wonder though, without cats or traps, can they fly from those ships with a meaningful loadout, and can it return from a mission and land on them?

      If the answers to those to questions are 'yes' we have our low intensity COIN force that can operate more cheaply and save money on our CVN's and F-18's. If not, I think (from a naval perspective) we still need a solution to low intensity conflicts.

      As to the post, the twin factors of risk to a slow platform and cost of maintaining that platform would seem to kill helo's as a viable solution in any but the lowest risk environment.

      I find it interesting that both with the Helo's in Iraq and the Harriers in Afghanistan were both not used in ways that doctrine had predicted. The marines didn't put the harriers in forward airbases, because they feared losing them. And, as mentioned, the helo's weren't used in Iraq because of fear of casualties.

      If a platform isn't used according to doctrine because, when the time comes in the field, the commanders are afraid to use it even against an overmatched enemy, then I think we need to seriously recalculate the value of the platform and the doctrine.

      That time has come for attack helos.

      It might be their biggest use is in ASW work, against an enemy that's far less likely to shoot back.

  3. This article does a good job summarizing the various weaknesses of attack helicopters but it does not seem to adequately address the advantages that helicopters do have against fixed-wing aircraft. In particular, there seems to be no discussion of the simple fact that a helicopter can hover, whereas a fixed-wing plane simply cannot. Because a helicopter can hover, it can provide constant overhead support. A fixed-wing aircraft needs to constantly reorient itself to attack different targets or re-attack the same target at close range. A helicopter does not need to do.

    This is especially relevant for urban warfare, which is an increasingly important mission for USMC. Having an aircraft that can get down low to distinguish friend from foe is critical. No fixed-wing attack plane can match the low-altitude maneuverability of a helicopter. A helicopter can easily adjust position and altitude to exploit holes in cover. For situations where tall buildings are involved, it may be difficult or even impossible for fixed-wing aircraft to operate effectively. Hell-fires and 70 mm APKWS rockets provide the helicopter with numerous options for engaging targets with minimal danger to nearby friendlies (or non-combatants). A helicopter can also act as a stationary gun platform for situations that require maximum accuracy, which is another thing that a fixed-wing cannot do. Fixed-wing aircraft can attack with guns, but accuracy is limited and if the target survives the plane must turn around to make another pass. For low-altitude close air support, there simply is no better platform than an attack helicopter.

    This article also glosses over the benefits of terrain masking. It is mentioned that helicopters have the ability to use terrain for cover and concealment, but it fails to explore this any further. The advantage is that helicopter can pop up and down from behind a hill or building as needed to conceal its position and protect itself from incoming fire. In 2010, there was even an incident where a Hungarian Mi-24 pilot was able to get the better of two F-15 Eagles using this technique during a war-game. Whenever the Eagles detected the helicopter, it would disappear behind cover before they could achieve lock-on. Eventually, the pair of jet pilots decided to stop trying with missiles and go in for a gun kill instead. When they tried this, the Hind sprung from cover yet again and "killed" both of them with its own gun.

    1. "In 2010, there was even an incident where a Hungarian Mi-24 pilot was able to get the better of two F-15 Eagles using this technique during a war-game."

      Can you cite a reference or supply a link?

    2. Anon,

      I discount the hovering capability of attack helicopters because I am writing from the point of view of high intensity conflict against a peer competitor, not fighting illiterate goat herders, although those men have, on occasion, inflicted considerable casualties.

      The AH-1 and even AH-64 were side lined from their doctrinal role in 2003 by a *broken* Iraqi force: please re-read the post for the comments by Thomas White the then Secretary of the Army. You might also consider searching for comments made by the Commander of the 160th SOAR about that need for improved helicopter speed.

      Our *peer competitors* have large numbers of SPAAG and VSHORAD, and truly massive levels of artillery support: a Russian motor rifle brigade has 36 self-propelled howitzers, and 18 MRLS; its air defenses include 18 SA-15 batteries, six 2S6, six SA-13 and 27 x SA-14s! And then there are the HMGs, mortars, and rocket launchers of the infantry.

      That level of air defense and artillery is in an entirely new realm of threat and makes it extremely difficult to contemplate attack helicopters hovering stationary or “hiding” behind hills or buildings because indirect fire artillery will have no problem hitting those targets.


    3. The ability to hover in place in urban combat only makes you an easier target - see Blackhawk down.

      With UAVs available to any peer opponent scanning so much airspace, Predator style UAVs can shoot at hovering helicopters and smaller UAVs can provide targeting for other enemy assets to engage our attack helicopters that hover.

      Cannot think of a scenario where hovering in place is not suicide.

    4. Thanks for bringing up this simple but hugely important fact Hover ability. Seems yo me this article dances on the edge of apples and oranges

    5. @Anon

      Hover capability is irrelevant and absolute suicide against a peer competitor with weapons like the 2K22.

      The point of ground support is "ground support" - it matters not a wit who or how, but that it is done.

      A single attack helicopter costs as much as an entire battery (six) of self propelled 155mm guns and their ammunition carriers (e.g. the K9, and K10).


  4. As I see this, there is just one reason for using helicopters instead of airplanes: vertical take off and landing. A side effect of this is the ability to hover and get protection behind buildings and hills.

    But it isn't very difficult to deny this last advantage even with traditional field artillery: when you are defending a position you just have to consider in your fire support plan all the places in which a chopper can hide, register such places as prearranged fire missions and fire time fused shells anytime a chopper appears. Argentina did that in Falklands.

    And hovering in sight of the enemy in a high intensity war is one of the fastest way of achieving a KIA status.

    Mr Bustamante does have a very valid point:
    Why embarking attack helicopters on ships with big enough flight decks for fixed wing attack aircraft?

    1. @Tavolari

      Dr. Friedman in his book on Amphibious ships lays down the history of the LHA.

      I think that the Navy Department got this wrong, and keeping serial production of conventional CVEs, and latter CVAs, was a better choice in the long run.


    2. For clarity, the first ships dedicated to vertical envelopment were CVEs pressed into service as helicopter assault ships.


    3. One historical point from a first hand observation -- the original LPH's were actually Straight Deck CVA's (originally launched as CV's during World War II) which were never reconfigured with Angled Decks and which did not have their Hydraulic Catapults replaced with Steam Cats. Either three or four of them including the Princeton and Valley Forge (if I recall correctly) were Home Ported at Pier Echo at NavSta Long Beach in the mid-1960's as were four CVSs -- on one of which I was a Ship's Company Officer.

      The costs incurred in that conversion effort was to reconfigure the Ships interior spaces to carry a Marine (then called) BLT.

      Otherwise, those ships were headed for the scrap yard -- they didn't have sufficient size or the capability to carry and launch the planes of VF and VA squadrons of the 1960's -- and neither did the CVS's which still had Hydraulic Catapults -- incapable of launching a bomb loaded A-4.

    4. @Cliff
      Thetis bay CVAH-1 (ex CVE 90 a Casablanca class CVE)was the prototype helicopter carrier.

      "U.S. Amphibious Ships and Craft" by Norman Friedman, page 350.


    5. I beg your pardon but what you stated is patently untrue.

      "But it isn't very difficult to deny this last advantage even with traditional field artillery: when you are defending a position you just have to consider in your fire support plan all the places in which a chopper can hide,"

      Having participated in field exercises where choppers hid behind the nape of the earth, popped up to release fire and forget missiles on pre layered targets, and dropped back down in a 5 second evolution, i dont think you understand the sheer amount of space you would need to call a fire support mission on. We're talking about literally hundreds of possible positions for every half kilometre front, ridges that string back towards your lines, a chopper could be behind any one of them along a 500 meter stretch, going back 5 kilometres. Thats not a fire mission. Thats wishful thinking.

    6. Keep it polite and respectful.

    7. Nate,

      The first rule of any battlefield is: if you can spot others, others can spot you. To assume otherwise is suicide.

      Did you ask the OPFOR Forward Observers if they spotted the firing positions of the attack helicopters?

      Point is that attack helicopters can be tracked by their acoustic, radar, electronic emissions (radio and radar), and of course optically, to include multi-spectrum. Zero Dark Thirty aside, helicopter rotors give particularly good radar returns.

      Then of course there are the aerial look down radars like the E-3 and JSTARS that can track soil disturbance from tanks and trucks far, far away.

      The Russian and Chinese Armies have spent a lot of effort developing similar, and entirely new systems.

      How good are they? Well, the Army is now calling for suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) to suppress enemy air defenses to enable attack helicopters to fly their missions.

      At this point I throw the BS flag, if you need artillery or TACAIR to perform SEAD; why in the world wouldn’t you use those assets to destroy the target!


  5. Good topic! this is certainly something that is getting a bit more attention in defense media as of late, but it has long been a seemingly taboo topic as I'm sure a good number of officers and contractors will have to admit they were wrong about pushing for so much money for rotary assets.

    We still have the capability to forward base a number of aircraft currently in inventory (A-10, AV-8B, among others) but it appears that the real enemy here is the current leadership's weakness and inability to embrace basic combat risks as a fact of life.

    For example, What I find funny (or somewhat worrying) is that Marine Corps has long been a proponent of forward-based fixed wing attack for obvious reasons, hence why they purchased, then home brewed an improved Harrier.

    The whole point of procuring the Harrier in USMC service is to utilize forward basing in in it's most extreme. However, the USMC have essentially abandoned even training for this concept in the past 15 years. In Afghanistan, where FOB airbases would have been most effective, the Marines simply based the harrier at established airbases, thus nullifying any advantage to even having it in the first place. The reasoning being commanders didn't want to risk the loss of Marine Air assets far out.

    Also, The Marines could have had an opportunity to procure and refurbish all the USAF's discarded A-10s and thus give them them the most effective austere-based aircraft possible for a ridiculous cost savings to the taxpayer (being both cheaper and more effective than the Harrier). Instead, leadership opts in favor of the ridiculously worthless money-sink that is the F-35B, which is hardly suited for the mission Marine Air is supposed to accomplish anyways.

    Point is that many already know the problems and we certainly already have a range of possible solutions (including very quick and/or cheap ones). However, we have a broken procurement system, a corrupt or inept (or both) leadership even at medium levels who refuse to acknowledge the problem exists in the first place, and will never be willing to admit the need for any change and refuse to do what is needed in deploying assets properly in the first place.

    1. Without saying whether I agree or disagree with the points of the comment, this is a very good comment. It furthers the discussion, offers a perspective, and is logical and well written. Thanks for contributing!

    2. St Grendel, great comment. I don't know if you agree or not but I wonder if we (especially US DoD) haven't reached at point where the system is so entrenched, we don't even TRY anymore to have new systems, new ways of thinking, testing new concepts....I don't think it's just a broken procurement system or corruption, although there's probably plenty of both but something even deeper. In this article, we are talking about attack helicopters but there's more than a few weapons around where we keep buying them but is it the best choice? Is it a valid choice today? What about tomorrow?

      Personally, I would like to see USMC or US Army buy a small batch of AT6s or Super Tucanos. If nothing else, it would give us a better idea of operational cost,tactics,, would give us a little bit of an idea to counter them if the bad guys flew them against us.

    3. Just one point -- the Marine Corps is not interested in the A10 because it cannot operate off of Aircraft Carriers or off of selected Amphibs. An operating requirement for the Corps' Fighter / Attack type aircraft and helicopters -- not so for the Army or Air Force. The Corps cannot configure itself as a second Army for obvious reasons and because it would conflict with its mission as Soldiers From the Sea structured for short term interventions ashore.

  6. Just a reminder, but Apaches were the opening act of Desert Storm when they removed 2 radar sites at the start of the air campaign.

  7. Attack helicopters are not strike aircraft, as this article explains.

    This has been known for decades. Few know that during Operation Lam Son 719 in 1971 the U.S. Army lost 108 helicopters while 7 American fighter-bombers were shot down. All of these aircraft were downed with basic AAA weapons as the North Vietnamese had no SAMs in Laos, nor any radar-guided AAA guns, suicide micro drones, or video guided missiles.

    A related article on that site comes to this conclusion:

    "Helicopters are like amphetamines, they make you feel great but are harmful to your health. The late Col. Fletcher Prouty USAF wrote that the heavy use of helicopters was a problem in Vietnam. He noted they required one-third the manpower and logistics and resulted in roughly one third of American casualties. This estimate seems high, but helicopters required huge base camps to protect them from the range of enemy heavy machine guns and mortars."

    And we've repeated this same mistake in Afghanistan. The film Restopo is about an Army unit trying to keep peace in an area. One day some attack helos swooped by and killed several civilians, and a years work of peacemaking was destroyed in a few seconds.

    1. "during Operation Lam Son 719 in 1971 the U.S. Army lost 108 helicopters "

      It should be noted that only 26 of the 108 were attack helos (AH-1 Cobras) which are the subject of the post.

  8. The article makes a point that it might be more averages to procure new ww-2/vietnam vintage Douglass A-1 Raiders. They're faster, carry more and have more range and endurance

    Forgetting the obvious the AH1 apache Longbow was equipped and tasked to carry out over the horizon attacks on armour for which they excel. They well probably dominate the battlespace in that effect more than anything else. The post here concentrates on their greatest weakness. Attacking infantry in a dispersed area. The poster forgets their ability to go low and attack point targets while destroying armour also at will.

    They have value but without understanding they weaknesses. If used properly they have value. The poster also forgot to mention the psychological effect of having on if those circling overhead in Indian territory. Just that value alone saves lives. Again in the end they need to be employed properly

    1. @Howdypartner
      It is hard to make the case for "battlefield dominance" when1) attack helicopters have never been used against a peer competitor, and 2) the combat record of attack helicopters in Iraq, against a broken military, was anything but stellar.

      When the Secretary of the Army Thomas White, said: “I was disappointed that we didn't do better. I mean, this was an Apache [AH-64] raid. We have invested an enormous amount of resources in attack helicopter operations in the U.S. Army. [Emphasis added] … We were very fortunate we didn't lose more aircraft.” - that is pretty damming stuff.

      Point is, the opportunity cost of attack helicopters is enormous, when AH-64D was fielded at ($65-70 million each), you could have bought an entire flight of four (4) SU-25s ($11 million each) and an entire battery of six (6) AS-90 (2.8 million each) 155mm howitzers for the same cost!


  9. I think it would be more appropriate to compare the attack helicopters like AH1 or AH64 to smaller attack planes like the T-6 Texan II, PC-/9/21 OR SUPER TUCANO or even Air_Tractor_AT-802. Comparing helicopters to A10 or SU25 seems to me to be unfair, it's too much of a jump in performance, price and capability, especially combat load.

    These small prop attack/trainers are far more comparable in terms of price, capability and weapons load to attack helicopters, I really don't understand why Western forces don't have them in inventory.

    Is it just institutional bias or they don't want to have anything that threatens the attack helicopter?

    1. That's not a good comparison because props are far cheaper. The newest AT-6C cost New Zealand just $14 million each. From wiki:

      New Zealand
      A RNZAF Texan II

      The New Zealand Government announced the purchase of 11 T-6Cs for the Royal New Zealand Air Force for NZ$154 million, on 27 January 2014 to replace the PAC CT/4 Airtrainer, with all aircraft delivered by February 2015. The first training course using the type is scheduled for early 2016.[22][23] The T-6Cs are expected to remain in service with the RNZAF for 30 years.[23]

      And that was for a tiny quantity purchase. If the US military ordered hundreds of T-6Cs the price should be less than $10 million each! And there are already hundreds of T-6s in our inventory for training, so the maintenance and parts pipeline already exists, and all fixed wing pilots have flown them!

      This site has other details, such as:

      "Since the retirement of the OV-10s, the Army and Marines have used expensive attack helicopters for reconnaissance. An inexpensive OV-6C Ranger has twice their range, twice their speed, and ejection seats."

      A AT-6C is also half the size of an AH-64D and can fly twice as high, so its harder to see and hit. The only advantage is that a AH-64D can VTOL, but still requires heavy ground support for fuel, weapons, and maintenance, so they must be located near good hard surface roads, from which a AT-6C can take off and land anyway!

      The Army can claim roles and missions conflicts with the USAF, but the USMC has no excuse. The Corps F-35Bs are only single seat, so what will replace the two-seat FA-18D for "fast FAC" missions coordinating air support? Will the Corps have a $80 million F-35B overhead with a single pilot attempting fly and coordinate complex air support missions alone?

      Yet another advantage of props is a much smaller heat signature compared to jets, making IR targeting more difficult.

  10. @Nico
    The cost of an AH-64E ($35 million) puts it in direct competition with an SU-32 (~32 million) or an SU-25 ($11 million).

    This is the ugly reality of economics, and why the USAF does not buy attack helicopters!

    Two squadrons (24) of SU-32s would be so much more capable and flexible than 24 AH-64Es.

    1. You are only using the price to compare a attack helicopter AH64 with a fighter jet (SU32) or attack jet (SU25), there's more to it than just the price tag. Operationally, they don't share at all the same missions. I still think we should be comparing a AH64 to a small prop attack/trainer, in terms of performance, they are far more closer.

    2. @Nico,

      This is not a straw man argument, the comparison is valid because joint and Army doctrine says that attack helicopters can perform the interdiction mission past the FSCL just like fixed wing TACAIR.

      Attack helicopters therefore have a mission overlap with A-10s, F-16s, etc. and the ARMY even cites the need for SEAD to enable certain of this missions.

      The problem is, that almost any interdiction mission that calls for SEAD, and even missions in "friendly" airspace may require SEAD when facing s-300 and S-400 missiles, is almost always better performed by fixed wing aircraft.

      Seriously, reread the post and look at what the Secretary of the Army had to say about the performance of the AH-64, and look at what the combat results were.


  11. Having been an Navy Officer I am certainly not sufficiently informed about the Army's views concerning their employment of helicopters and their accompany costs and effectiveness, so I won't express any opinion on that subject.

    However, an interesting question in my opinion would be why didn't / why doesn't the Army take the current opportunity to argue for / propose to expand its Close Air Support capabilities by acquiring the A-10's (and their budgets, pilots, and air crews) and attempt to take full responsibility for providing its own Close Air Support emulating the Marine Corps.

    Some will say that is contrary to the 1948 agreement, however, an almost 70 year old agreement is hardly a valid reason if the Army had been interested in acquiring such a capability -- especially under the current President who has no ties to any branch of the military. In fact, I believe that in 1948 the Air Force noted they would not be opposed to the Army having its own Air Support capabilities. It was not a mission responsibility the wanted for themselves.

    If the Army had complete responsibility for their own CAS, they could configure it to their hearts content. But, again, I admittedly don't know the first thing about ground warfare except how to provide Naval Gunfire Support.

    1. @Cliff
      I think this is a better question for the USMC!

      The marines do the CAS/interdiction/ground support mission better than anyone; their organization understands the Army (the largest consumer) intimately, and they have a strong training and logistics infrastructure that can readily adapt.

      So why doesn't the Corps take over the A-10????


    2. I am not sure I understand the question, but the Marine Corps' mission is to be Soldiers From the Sea for purposes of temporary interventions meant to effect Executive Foreign Policy Needs and Decisions that suddenly arise.

      Having spent a bit of time around the Marines (despite their having done so in Korea,Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan) they have no real interest in a long term or ongoing operational partnership with the Army -- for obvious reasons. That would eventually lead to their being absorbed by the Army. Accordingly, Marines do not view the Army as a "consumer" of Marine Corps CAS capabilities. It is not a service (so to speak) they are selling to other branches of the military. Should the Marines be in a position to provide that service to needy non-Marine Corps units, they would happily so do. However, it occurs due to the temporary happenstance of combat operations -- not organizational design.

      Also, the Marines recognize their tie to the sea and the necessity and value of employing / deploying aircraft designed to fly from Carriers or Amphibs. The Marines select the aircraft that fit their operating needs. The A-10 was designed by the USAF to provide CAS to the Army. It was not designed to be launched from, to land on, nor to be moved around and maintained on board an Aircraft Carrier, which is a vastly different operating environment than a land base. The A-10 appears to be a plane the Army likes -- so, recognizing that I am neither an Army nor Air Force Officer, the question "may" be why doesn't the Army at least attempt to take over the A-10 and organize themselves to totally provide their own CAS at all levels? I neither have an answer to that question nor do I know if it is even a valid question from an Army Officer (not civilian Secretary) perspective.

    3. Cliff@

      Good comments, I note that the USMC has a history of operating non-carrier capable aircraft - the F4 corsair for example.

      The USMC works intensely closely with the Army: in fact the USA is the executive agent for most ground vehicle acquisition programs, most artillery program (HIMARS!) and the Army and Marine Corps have a long history of taking operational control of subordinate units.


    4. For clarity, the USA was executive agent of the USMC MTVR truck buy.


    5. For the record, the Key West Agreement does not allow the US Army to operate anything like the A-10.

      I believe that should be amended.

  12. The army gave up their fixed wing attack component a long time ago. Again when the Army tried to take over the A-10 program the Air Force stopped them again over concerns from the previous 1948 agreement.

    Helicopters might have a use but again they have to be employed correctly. Thei use has shown in the desert their presence overhead during convoy patrols did more to deter attacks than any fast mover ever could.

    As for performance the OP has made a point of using metrics of a airplane vs helicopter debate. Again I don't know why but he has. The Army primarily uses attack helicopters because it HAS too. They can't have fixed wing attack craft. They can fly transports and that is it.

    1. Actually, according to DoD Buzz, and other news outlets the Secretary of the Army stated at a Breakfast Meeting with the Press that they (the Army) were not interested in taking over the A-10, and instead would rely on other options.

      Specifically see (e.g.) DOD Buzz article of February 25, 2015, titled: "Army Not Interested in Taking A-10 Warthogs from Air Force," wherein the Secretary of the Army is quoted as stating to the reporters that:

      "With our own aircraft fleet we’re taking some pretty dramatic steps to reconfigure and become more affordable, and the A-10 mission is not something we considered. That’s an Air Force mission as it should be and I’m sure the Air Force feels the same way."

      Missions are periodically swapped between the Services and one branch often positions itself into an area of responsibility for which another branch is presumably responsible. In this case, it seems the Army has no interest in acquiring Fixed Wing Aircraft for CAS.

      If I had to guess the reason Army Brass is not interested in acquiring responsibility for Fixed Wing CAS, having been a military officer and having had a few friends that were Career Army Officers, I would look to internal Army politics. But that is beyond the scope of this subject.

  13. I should add that posting an argument from a position of irrelevance does not make a valid point. If the Army was free to use fixed wing aircraft again I think the helicopter brigades would have a lot less attack capability and quite possibly there might be a lot less attack helicopters.

    The Army isn't free to use fixed wing aircraft therefore comparing the helo to an aircraft in the present controlled conditions the Army operates in doesn't help innovation or the people on the ground.

  14. @ GAB
    Vertical envelopment is not the point of the topic. But I just want to add that when the Helicopter Carrier was developed (1950s - early 60s), the attack helicopter didn't exist.

    What I wanted to say with my former comment is that if you have a big enough flight deck, you shouldn't embark attack helicopters, but fixed wing aircraft.
    What can you do if fixed wing aircraft can't operate from such flight deck? You should embark those aircraft elsewhere. Where? On an aircraft carrier. With an 65 aircraft air group there is enough room for 2 VMFA.
    In a high intensity war, any relevant amphibious operation will be conducted with the coverage of a CV battle group.
    For minor amphibious operations the LHD/LHA embarked Harriers and F-35s should be enough.

    By the way, I would exchange anytime 4 AH-1 for 2 Harriers/F-35s on a LHD/LHAs. I prefer 8 Harriers/F-35s rather than 6 Harriers/F-35s + 4 AH-1 on them.

    What can you do with AH-1? You can embark them on LPDs for split-ARG operations, and even on LCS for a composite helicopter detachment (SH-60 + AH-1).

    1. @Andres
      Strongly agree with your points about the carrier, but am very strongly opposed to "penny pocket" employment of attack helicopters from small combatants "because we can."

      The Army is correct in choosing to employ attack helicopters "en masse" (by battalion) and to concentrate maintenance, logistics, and administrative functions in large company/battalion structures.

      I disagree with the platform, but the U.S. Army is absolutely correct in its operational doctrine and organization!


  15. A though provoking article with good arguments. Though it feels counter intuitive, the author's arguments are strong and interesting. I do want to pose a counter argument that might put the value of attack helicopters back on track. Or not, we shall see.

    What is not mentioned yet is the fact that arming helicopters started by crews themselves arming transport helicopters. Aparently they felt the need for very close support by helikopter. The pintle mounted machine guns on the side of transport helo's was not enough (surpressing) firepower, especially entering and leaving a landing zone.

    From this situation there evolved the idea of a dedicated armed helo, resulting in the AH-1. The concept of the AH-1 is closely linked to the use of helo's for troop transport and assault. I.e. the AH-1 and presumably the AH-64 can keep up with transport helicopters. In this sense the relation is no different from the relation between the tank and the APC/IFV, or between a carrier and its escorts.
    In this close support/escort role the AH-1 fits rather well.

    That attack helo's are vulnerable in combat does not negate the the fitness of the attack helicopter, because all helicopters are vulnerable. Leaving one type but not the other type of helikopter doesn't make sense.If the attack helicopter is too vulnerable, then perhaps all helicopters are too vulnerable to enter a combat zone?.

    With regard to lethality of the battlefield. Any loitering low flying aircraft is vulnarable to the massed artillery that a near peer can deliver. A fast mover might spent less time in the danger zone, but might not achieve a good enough situational awareness to respond in a timely manner.

    A tricky point here is that the A10 and SU25, might also be too vulnerable in such an environment, never mind the Bronco and the T6.
    (Btw I do like all of them and respect their capabilities)

    That leaves one other point, using the attack helikopter outside its doctrinal comfort zone. In this regard I feel that I must yield to the argument by the author. Attack helikopters have no business in flying interdiction missions, not while their are other, more suitable platforms that can do so much better.

    In closing, the author raises questions that need to be adressed. However, in regard to combat effectiveness his case is not yet closed. Before we write off the attack helikopter we should have a closer look at its doctrinal role and how it fits in that role. (I am assuming that this doctrine is about very close escort to other helo's or to ground combat units). Because there it fits rather well and alternatives would be no less vulnerable and no more effective.


    the vulnerability of helikotpers in combat may result in not using helicopters in combat

    1. @Swen.

      "That attack helo's are vulnerable in combat does not negate the the fitness of the attack helicopter, because all helicopters are vulnerable. Leaving one type but not the other type of helikopter doesn't make sense.If the attack helicopter is too vulnerable, then perhaps all helicopters are too vulnerable to enter a combat zone?."

      Excellent point!

      Too often internet battles fall back on the idea that just because a platform can be destroyed, it is useless.

      Real war is incredibly lethal; what matters is selecting platforms that are 1) able to fulfil their purpose, and 2) do the job *better* (fewer friendly losses, cheaper etc.) than competing solutions.

      Eighty (80) out of one hundred twenty (120) LVTs were shot-up during the invasion of Tarawa, but the USMC never performed another amphibious assault without LVTs because it was the best solution for landing infantry at the time.


  16. I agree with the premise of this article.

    And yes, as others note, the opportunity costs are immense. So is the amount of personnel tied down in maintaining attack helicopters. I'd agree that a Russian Su-34 is vastly better than the AH-64.

    The fact is, against a conventional military that was well equipped and trained, attach helicopters would be very, very vulnerable. Casualties would be very high.

    The one part that I would like to note is that at low speeds, it's not speed that matters the most, it is turning ability and jinking. That is what allows a well designed close air support aircraft to survive. Get down in the weeds and use very high g maneuvers.

    For that straight, thick wings with a high amount of lift are needed. Fast jets would not be able to operate in narrow valleys.

    An A-10 successor is what is really needed. Super Tucano won't do - it's too vulnerable and while it may work against drug gangs, it won't survive a war against a well armed conventional opponent. The Super Tucano doesn't have the cockpit protection, fire prevention, and redundant flight controls of the A-10.

  17. A big problem to is the Key West Agreement, where the army is not permitted to have Close Air support fixed wing aircraft.

    This is a serious failing and should be amended immediately.

  18. I found an interesting (and considering the subject, timely too) article at Military Review which I would like to share.

    The author, an AH-64D/E aviator with deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, proposes that the US Army procure a fixed-wing CAS aircraft to bridge the gap between Army attack helicopters and Air Force CAS aircraft. The author starts with a historical review covering some of the same topics in this post and discusses the effectiveness of multi-role aircraft pressed into the CAS role.

    It's well written and worth a read.

  19. Im confused by a few of the statements made in the original article.
    Is the author lambasting helicopters in general? or just the attack helicopters?
    I dont understand what I'm reading. It starts off talking about the limitations without going into the virtues of the attack platform, or simply glossing over them with a one liner, I dont agree, and then sights several examples of different types of helicopters, one case utility, another assault, and only one in which 3 squadrons of ATTACK helicopters failed to meet their objective and one got shot down.

    I really find this article confusing and disjointed.
    For utility, till we build a viable unmanned air mule, they're irreplaceable.
    For assault, ok, they weren't used in Iraq by gun shy generals in an overmatched war, where casualties were to be avoided as a higher priority than achieving objectives. In vietnam they certainly were used for assault and they worked. Like it or not no 2 wars are the same and Vietnam was completely inaccessible to any other types of vehicle in US inventories then (and now likely).
    If you want a near peer example, in the 67 and 73 wars between Israel and Egypt there were several successful helicopter born assaults. In 69 another which bagged a brand new soviet radar the west was dying to get its hands on (using both assault and utility). In 82 ATTACK helicopters played their part in the Bekka Valley turkey shoot, nabbing dozens of armoured vehicles for no losses...

    I Simply dont see the validity of the arguments postulated. Sighting occurrences where helicopters didn't work and simply ignoring cases where they did does not a valid argument make.

    Is the attack helicopter a political stunt the US army pulled to get some air assets after the white house took away all their toys? If so, then it would seem to be a folly that was adopted by every single other government on earth, as the Russians, Chinese, Europeans and anyone else that could manage to build these things has.
    Im not saying the author is wrong, I'm saying he has not presented a very good case for his claims.

    1. Ouch – tough crowd!

      1. This post is about attack helicopters and what capabilities they bring in the context of a high intensity war against a peer competitor (e.g. Russia, China, etc.) - I could care less about bombing illiterate goat herders.

      2. The cost of a single AH-64E at $35 million+ will buy an entire battery of six, very modern 155mm/52 caliber self-propelled howitzers *and* ammunition supply vehicles – or a flight of four SU-25s! The force structure implications are obvious and should really wake us up. The USAF certainly did and has passed on attack helicopters for 60+ years, even though the USAF has operated helicopters almost since its berth as a service.

      3. On combat effectiveness: please re-read the quotations from a former Secretary of the Army, and the RAND studies; they sum up the situation and raise serious questions.

      4. On vulnerability: the V-22 and FVL programs indicate that the services are putting greater emphasis on speed and high altitude insertions, in large part due to current and future threats (See the RAND study, particularly the casualty assessments and the systems that they expect to do the damage).

      5. On attack helicopter politics: yes, the USA and USAF locked horns in a very nasty fight over control of airpower, the Army lost both the aircraft and OPCON of TACAIR: the attack helicopter is the red haired step-child the army got. The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate, by Douglas N. Campbell, May 1, 2003; and Army-Air Force Relations: The Close Air Support Issue, Rand R-906-PR, 1971.


    2. Thanks for taking the time to respond.
      May is reply thus?
      1. Not talking about murdering illiterate goat herders (a little racist but we'll push on). I was sighting a near peer (at the time) war between several regional powers.
      2. Glossing over costs. Not even talking about maintenance of 4 strike platforms, but just the cost of keeping the 6-8 pilots certified on the type you described would run to close to $5million per year, so its not a fair cost analysis. Same goes with artillery vs CAS. They are supposed to be used in conjunction with one another, neither western nor eastern military doctrine stipulate its one or the other.
      3. Thanks, i did read it, would you like me to trawl up the hundred of positive assessments various generals/Sec Def/States have made over attack helicopters? Its the opinion of one man.
      4. Insertions are always risky, modern warfare has eschewed combat air drops completely, the last paratrooper insertion made was half a century ago, all such air insertions are now heli born. That should tell you something about current strategic thinking. Not saying going forward this will last, as individualised jet packs, hover devices gain commercial traction, I'm sure military applications in terms of insertions will catch up. If not already happening.
      5. That still doesnt answer the question, if attack helicopters are the abortion the USA got stuck with after its planes got taken away, why has everyone else built similar types? Surely they can't have all been taken in by petty internal US politics?

    3. @Nate Dogg
      1. Sorry you are offended, post WWII, the U.S. has a long history of intervention in third world countries where people are generally characterized by low education standard – Iraq being the notable exception, Afghanistan fits the description like a glove.

      2. I will gladly take up a cost analysis comparing the O&M costs of four A-4s or F-5s to an AH-64D/E.

      I would love to point out the mission readiness rates and sortie rates as well.

      In fact from a pure ordinance delivery aspect, I will bet that a flight of four (4) A-4s can deliver 25-50% more ordnance than an entire company of twelve (12) AH-64s over the course of seven days. The fixed-wing aircraft can also deliver heavier, and more specialized weapons as well (HARM, Maverick…).

      If we factor in combat losses the situation becomes untenable for attack helicopters.

      Lost in that analysis will be the fact that the A-4s and F-5s can operate at all altitudes and also contribute to air superiority with SEAD, and air-to-air as well; which could be *decisive* in a campaign. This is where the opportunity cost of an attack helicopter falls flat.

      3. I consider the statement of a former Secretary of the Army, comments made by the commanding officer of the 160th SOAR, the USA and USMC decision to buy into tilt rotor platforms, and most indicting, the failure of attack helicopters in performing their doctrinal role in 2003 against an enemy with no air force and no air defenses to be sufficient.

      4. Off-topic, but you missed the air assault by the 173rd airborne into northern Iraq.

      Going forward, the future of helicopter borne vertical envelopment is very much in doubt; principally due to the performance limitations of helicopters I cited (speed, range, payload): the USMC bought into the V-22, and the Army is buying into FVL, so tilt rotors are what the U.S. defense establishment is buying into.

      I also note, that while vertical envelopment by paradrop is risky against any air defenses, a high altitude brigade sized parachute drop in COIN using O2 and a low opening static line/drogue parachute like the Russian D-10/12 is probably lower risk than a vertical envelopment with helicopters (think the Vietnam battle of LZ X-ray) – but that is my opinion.

      5. I described attack helicopters as niche platforms, not abortions, and stand by that. for the USA, which has no fixed-wing options, attack helicopters are the only air power option; but that does not mean that huge expenditures of resources on attack helicopters makes sense for the entirety of DoD.

      If you can articulate why F-117s were used to hit targets in Panama during “Just Cause” in 1989, or why the 40% of the U.S. Army never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan even when CENTCOM was screaming for troops, then you understand Pentagon politics and can understand why entrenched programs, bureaucracies, doctrine, and force structure survive even in the face of fiscal and operational reality.

      No other army has bought into the attack helicopter doctrine like the U.S. Army, and very few ground forces have integrated attack helicopters as maneuver elements at the brigade level or lower. The British don’t, the Germans don’t…

      Even fewer air forces with the option to buy fixed wing aircraft (there are a few rotary wing aircraft only air forces) have purchased attack helicopters – the RAF is the stand out exception and they operate about 65-70.


    4. Hi GAB

      Im aware that since 1945 the US (as well as all the other permeant members of the UNSC) has participated in nothing but colonial wars.

      Perhaps you are right and the attack helicopter was developed purely for such low end combat. Despite Cold War doctrine being to use Attack helicopters to counter large soviet armoured incursions.
      You raise interesting point. Im aware that fixed wing low end have far lower accident rates then choppers, and can generate far higher sortie rates. Need to read up on the costs of keeping them and their pilots in the field, but i suspect its a little more than you propose. Never mind.
      Horses for courses, ill go do some more reading on the numbers.

      I notice that newer acquisitions are tending to UAV's (instead of newer attack platforms) and i suspect insertions in the future will be more towards the single man vehicle (various hover boards etc).

      We're likely seeing a generational change in terms of newer types of platforms.

      Maybe you're right, you certainly look outside the box.

    5. @Nate

      The Army was/is making the best of the hand they were dealt.

      A quick look at manning shows an AH-64 battalion (24 aircraft) or has an authorized strength of ~328 soldiers, while an A-4 Squadron (14 aircraft) had a strength of ~260 sailors or marines. The A-4 squadron was dependent on higher HQ for a great deal of support, while the AH-64 battalion has much greater self sufficiency.


      The AH-64 had a mission capable rate of ~0.30 during the first Gulf War (and that after six months of preparation!), while the A-4 was about as brute simple an aircraft as you can build.


  20. I have a question about sortie rate. I would have tought that if you are operating close enough to the battle front as a Helo should allow, that the sortie rate would be higher ?

    Could you explain ?


    1. Beno,

      The fastest way to put steel on target (in some cases as little as 30 seconds) is artillery (rocket or tube), or mortar. This is why when ground forces scream about “unresponsive” air power, they really have no one to blame but themselves for not bringing enough artillery.

      Aircraft sortie rate is a huge, often ignored, issue; but technically speaking, air power response is not directly related to the distance from airfield to target.

      Why: normally pilots are not sitting around their aircraft waiting to scramble, they generally fly assigned missions to strike targets, or are put into a holding pattern awaiting assignment to a specific CAS or interdiction mission. Behind the scenes the staff is working hard to synchronize the aircraft tasking plan with the maneuver.

      The strongest argument in favor of the attack helicopter (and one none of the people throwing rocks at my argument have made) is the ability of the attack helicopter units to collocate with, and to speak face to face with the ground units, at will: essentially 24/7. A tough fixed wing aircraft like the A-4, SU-39, F-5, or A-10 that can operate from dirt fields can pretty much do this too, just not as easily as a helicopter.

      Of course collocating aviation and forward ground troops is rarely done, which is silly.


    2. OK, thanks for the response. I have to say I'm quite surprised at that too. Does seem silly.

      Wasn't that a predicate of Blitzkrieg in initial offensives of WW2 ?


    3. @Beno,

      If I recall correctly, right before crossing the Meuse river, Heinz Guderian , "had a chat" with the Luftwaffe Group commander billeted at the same chateau and they sketched out the plan in 2010 or 20 minutes, and that was that. The Germans crossed the Meuse, out maneuvered the allies, and France fell...


    4. @GAB
      Guderian had his aircraft sent piecemeal so that there would be a few constantly attacking, versus in one big air strike.

      The idea is to keep the enemy constantly trying to defend against enemy aircraft.

    5. @AltandMain
      My sole point is the that key battle to cross the Meuse River in France 1940 was worked out by the immediate ground commander - Guderian and the Luftwaffe commander - Loerzer.

      Recall that both Guderian and Loerzer ignored standing orders on the attack; as then ignored as direct orders from their superiors. Guderian got last minite approval from his boss Von Kleist, but Loerzer received a revised air tasking order right before the attack and simply tossed it in trash in favor of the plan he and Guderian worked out.


  21. I disagree with much of this despite agreeing that attack helicopters aren’t really a worthwhile investment.

    IMO: interdiction isn't survivable and raids/assaults are only viable in permissive environments but attack helicopters are best used for front-line, under-the-radar, cover-based(optimally), fire-and-maneuver, anti-vehicle combat. Fixed-wing aircraft can't do that and the examples provided wouldn’t be survivable over-the-radar against peers. The A160/MQ-8C have also demonstrated comparable endurance/ranges to fixed-wing prop planes and the Fieseler does *not* have almost 2.5 times the ceiling of the AH-1Z. The Sikorsky Raider can match the V-22’s speed and an attack role adapted TERN tailsitter might be able to match it too. Ostensibly, unless one believes attack helos could regularly find/engage more vehicles per sortie than the 16(!) Hellfire missiles they carry, then their “lack” of payload doesn’t seem like it’d become an issue. Near-front resupply could further negate any potential range/endurance/payload limitations. Being able to quickly mass to counter potential enemy breakthroughs is also important IMO.

    Nevertheless, I think cover-negating lock-on-after-launch MANPADS, lock-on-after-launch SAMs queued by MAV acoustic sensors networks, ATGM-intercepting active-defenses and ”next-gen-JSTARS”/artillery sensor-shooter networks extending the “front-lines” beyond AGTM ranges are what will/should kill the attack helo.

    1. You say you disagree with much of the post and then turn around a agree with almost all of it. Your only real disagreement is over some specs that you dispute without offering any data or references to support your assertions.

      Your comment about the practical aspects of payload is, potentially, valid and interesting but you fail to expand on it by addressing the spectrum of close air support and how a load of Hellfires compares to guided bombs and large explosives that a fixed wing aircraft can carry.

      All in all, this is a very low quality comment. Offer some supporting data and expand on some areas and make it a good comment.

    2. >You say you disagree with much of the post and then turn around a agree with almost all of it

      I disagree with the main premise. I think attack helos are best operated as an element of ground forces and shouldn’t be compared to fixed-wing aircraft. Even then, helicopters aren’t “high cost” compared to the examples provides because those examples couldn’t operate against peers.

      >you fail to...address...the spectrum of close air support and how a load of Hellfires compares to guided bombs and large explosives that a fixed wing aircraft can carry.

      I don’t think the comparison matters. In high end combat, fighters will likely prioritize fighters/SAMs while attack helos prioritize vehicles near the front.

    3. "shouldn’t be compared to fixed-wing aircraft."
      "I don’t think the comparison matters."

      It's apparent that you don't want to consider the premise. You simply want to reject it out of hand. The author's point is perfectly valid. There are aspects that can be legitimately argued but you haven't done that.

      This kind of post is great for forcing us (those with open minds!) to re-examine what we believe to be true. I would note that the combat record of attack helos is actually pretty poor in any kind of opposed scenario. The Russian experience in Afghanistan bears this out.

      You can summarily dismiss the premise or you can objectively evaluate it and then accept or reject it with the comfort of knowing that you did so based on evidence rather than just preconceived notions and bias.

    4. Anon, I've deleted your reply, not because there was anything wrong with it but because there was nothing worthwhile about it. The author presented data. You presented none. If you disagree, and you clearly do, make a case with data and logic. You simply repeating that the author is wrong is not an exercise in logic and data.

      You postulated that perhaps you're not cut out for this blog and I have to agree. I don't think you are. You seem unwilling to put the work into formulating a data-based argument. I wish you well elsewhere.

    5. >The author presented data. You presented none. If you disagree, and you clearly do, make a case with data surface ceiling = 6,000+ m = 241 kn cruise speed Cruise Speed = 220 kn cruise speed = 15 hours maximum endurance Endurance: 20+ hours, 24 hour goal, 18.7-hours demonstrated

      Is that be good enough, or did you want some other kind of data?

    6. You've just thrown out random factoids. Put together a thesis and support it with coherent, relevant data, as the author did.

      The author examined the cost-value of helos vs fixed wing. If you disagree, assemble a case for helos providing more value (value is effectiveness obtained for a given cost) than fixed wing. Finding one random characteristic of a helo that might be better than a fixed wing does not make a case. You might take a lesson from the author's Table 1. wherein he compares various performance and cost parameters and presents a compelling case.

      Also, make your case for actual aircraft. The A-160, for example, which you cite, is not a service aircraft, as far as I know and therefore has no relevance. Now, you might make a separate case for future developments in helos/UAVs but that's a separate topic.

      This is elementary logic: state a thesis and support it with data.

      Note: I have no stake in this other than the desire to ensure discussions are founded on logic and data. Heck, if you can make a good case I'd be happy to offer you a guest post, as I did for the author.

      This blog is probably different from what you're used to. It requires a degree of homework and effort from readers/commenters that most blogs do not. Some people can adapt and thrive here, some cannot.

      Finally, I would remind you that the subject is ground attack helos, as stated in the title. Thus, aircraft such as the Fire Scout or even the Osprey are not really relevant. Before you do anything else, you might want to go back and slowly and carefully re-read the post to be sure to absolutely understand and grasp what the author's premise is. Your random factoids suggest that you don't have a clear grasp and are just knee-jerk reacting.

      I look forward to a logical, factual, coherent response. Good luck!

  22. >the subject is ground attack helos...aircraft such as the Fire Scout or even the Osprey are not really relevant.

    The author opened the floor to the V-22 and experimental helos when he claimed: “no rotary wing aircraft in production, or on the drawing boards, can keep up with the V-22.”

    >The author examined the cost-value of helos vs fixed wing. If you disagree, assemble a case for helos providing more value (value is effectiveness obtained for a given cost) than fixed wing.

    The author compares fixed/rotary costs but is also “writing from the point of view of high intensity conflict against a peer competitor.” My primary point was/is that attack-helos would naturally find themselves pushed mostly into “CAS-equivalent” roles during high-intensity combat while fixed-wing aircraft would likely find themselves pushed into SEAD/CAP/interdiction roles. Subsequently, my primary issue with the post is that it views rotary and fixed-wing aircraft through the lens of comparable specs despite a reality that would force then into incomparable CONOPS. Therefore, my “thesis” can’t ever be about “helos providing more value than fixed wing” and claiming otherwise would be disingenuous on my part. But for you, I suppose this is just another iteration of how I “dismiss the premise.” Appropriately, I don’t think we’ll ever see eye-to-eye and I guess this is my final farewell.

    1. Go back over your comments. You get that you haven't actually made a case for anything, right? No systematic data, no evidence, little logic … You've just made vague, generalized claims that are unsupported. That doesn't mean that your contention is wrong, just that you haven't presented a case for it. Simply repeating that the author is wrong and you're right, does not make a case. If you objectively read your own comments you have to acknowledge that. If you're fair, you also have to acknowledge that I've tried to guide towards making a case, right? So, if this isn't satisfying to you then it's not the fault of the author, this blog, or me. You may just not be suited to the standards of this blog.


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