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)|
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).
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
; 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 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 South Vietnam : Iraq
“During the course of planning for ground operations in
, the Iraq 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.” 
It is worth recalling that the Iraqi military in 2003 was broken. Yet the decision of the
, UK , 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. USA
“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.”
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
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). 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
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
in Naval Postgraduate School . 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. Monterey, California
 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.
 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.
briefing DB472, “Assessment of Navy Heavy-Lift Aircraft Options,” page 87. http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/documented_briefings/2005/RAND_DB472.pdf
briefing DB472, “Assessment of Navy Heavy-Lift Aircraft Options,” page 87.
 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.