Limitations of helicopters in battlefield

Essay add: 28-10-2015, 15:47   /   Views: 464

Limitations of Helicopters

In addition to illustrating the versatility and utility of helicopters, the experiences of attack helicopters from Vietnam, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan also demonstrated a common thread related to the vulnerability of helicopters. Small arms fire, light AAA and RPGs accounted for a significant majority of helicopter combat losses in these wars. As combat helicopters have become more effective, the threats to helicopters have also become more capable and lethal. Helicopter survivability is a product of several probabilities. A combat helicopter should be difficult to detect, difficult to hit if detected, capable of continuing the mission in the event that it is hit, and, finally, crashworthy if it is shot down.45 Helicopter design is tasked with, in order of priority, saving the man, the machine and the mission. These tasks require that a delicate balance be struck between vulnerability to threats (to man and machine) and payload to accomplish the mission. Recent combat experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have rekindled the now familiar rhetoric grappling with the question of whether the helicopter has outlived its utility on the modem battlefield. These discussions revolve around the vulnerability of helicopters in combat.

Of all modern aircraft, helicopters are the least survivable due to their low altitude and relatively low speed flight profiles compared with jet aircraft, and their high acoustic and radar signatures. These are inherent limitations of rotary wing aircraft, which cannot be easily or affordably designed out.

The survivability issue has yet again achieved prominence with the losses incurred by the US Army in Iraq, and reported constraints being imposed on aid delivery helicopters in Aceh. With the high costs of modern helicopters and the potential for appreciable losses of personal in form of crews and infantry payload, helicopters have remained a popular target for insurgents since the Vietnam conflict.

Publicly available data detailing helicopter losses in Iraq during and since the invasion are a useful indicator of the risks involved. Of the 40 or so helicopters lost to date, around half were reported to have been lost due to hostile fire, the remainder crashing due to midair collisions or other flying accidents. These statistics clearly show that rotary wing combat losses do not dominate over accidental losses, unlike the Vietnam era. To best appreciate the risks helicopters are exposed to it is useful to explore the threat environment versus the roles and missions spectrum performed by modern military helicopters.


The most numerous category of military helicopters are utility or assault helicopters, used to move personnel and materiel around the battlefield. Less numerous are reconnaissance and attack helicopters, used to locate and engage ground targets, either independently or in support of ground forces during an engagement. The 'classical' role for military helicopters is insertion and extraction of infantry and materiel in a combat area, flying in and out of unsecured landing zones. A large proportion of US helicopter losses in Vietnam and subsequent conflicts resulted from utility or assault helicopters performing this role, and their attack helicopter escorts, coming under fire in the area of landing zones by hostile small arms, especially the 7.62mm AK-47/AKM, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG), machine guns - especially the 50 cal class weapons, 23mm guns like the ZU-23 and ZSU-23-4P, occasionally 57mm guns,mortars, artillery of various calibres, and guided or unguided rockets. Enroute to and from landing zones, helicopters were engaged most frequently by small arms, machine guns and Man Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS, or shoulder launched SAMs).

Assessing the lethality of any of these weapons against helicopters can be difficult, as many factors come into play. The type of helicopter, the type of weapon, the impact velocity, round mass, explosive payload, shrapnel/spall mass, velocity and dispersion pattern, all play a role. Since the Vietnam conflict we have seen refinements in airborne assault tactics, but also decreasing numbers of conflicts in which large heliborne assaults are performed. This exposes a shift in the roles/missions spectrum which began during Vietnam and will likely continue over coming decades â€" the use of helicopters for special forces insertion/extraction, and combat search and rescue. While these two roles are usually discussed separately, the trend for some years has been to use the same helicopters and crews to perform either role. The most evolved examples are the MH-47 Chinooks, the HH-53 Pave Low family and HH-60 Pave Hawks, equipped with aerial refuelling probes, long range tanks, extensive electronic warfare and communications systems. Special operations roles of this kind typically involve small numbers of helicopters penetrating often hundreds of miles into enemy territory to insert and recover special forces, intelligence operatives, or recover downed aircrew. As a result helicopters performing such tasks are exposed to a wider range of threats, and frequently these include elements of army or corps level air defences, and national air defences. Performing such tasks, helicopters may be engaged by self propelled guns, point defence SAMs and area defence SAMs, as well as many of the weapons encountered in battlefield assault roles.

The lethality of a larger point defence SAMs or radar guided area defence SAMs against a helicopter can be very high, as these are weapons built to kill high performance aircraft at all altitudes and speeds and weather conditions, often under conditions where direct hits are difficult to achieve. The reality is that a helicopter performing a deep penetration task is an attractive target for an S-300PMU or S-300V series missile battery.

There are also important differences in the mission profiles involved, as helicopters performing assault roles will typically arrive at a landing zone (LZ), touchdown long enough to disembark or load troops, and then immediately depart, with LZs often chosen carefully to minimise exposure. Often special operations and CSAR tasks force the helicopter to hover in an exposed position to winch up personnel, as there may be no viable alternative. The War on Terror and aid delivery operations have both seen an increasing fraction of circumstances where helicopters are exposed to fire. Perhaps the best publicised case study is the loss of two US Army Special Operations MH-60s in Mogadishu, both taken down by RPGs while operating at low speed and altitude over complex urban terrain, largely as a result of poor tactical flying . As the Somalia aid operation demonstrated, delivery of international aid can become dangerous as aid perturbs the economic equilibrium and thus political power balance in such problematic regions. Therefore parties delivering aid become high priority targets for local tribal, nationalist, political or militant religious movements - a problem exacerbated by the mass media publicity which comes from shooting down a helicopter and capturing personnel as hostages.

We should not be surprised if helicopters used for aid delivery in Aceh come under insurgent fire at some point, as the aid operation wins over hearts and minds - at the expense of Indonesia's Islamic extremists. With an increasing shift to urban combat, where opponents rely on the use of complex urban terrain for concealment and 'human shielding' from air attack, helicopters may be confronted with any of the full spectrum of weapons. Urban terrain is often well suited to concealing even larger weapons, such as ZPU anti-aircraft machine guns, ZU-23-2 dual 23mm guns on light trucks or 4WDs, or even the ZSU- 23-4P self propelled air-to-air gun. While insertions and extractions in urban terrain can be problematic as it can be very difficult to secure landing zones, and very difficult to establish beforehand whether an arbitrary area is occupied by hostiles, clever use of urban terrain can also afford some concealment for helicopters.

There are indications that the demand for special operations style profiles will increase at the expense of the 'classical' day VFR battlefield insertion/extraction role, reflecting increased use of special operations forces. With NVG and often good electronic warfare capabilities on conventional utility/assault helicopters, the capability gap between special operations and utility/assault helicopters is much narrower than two decades ago. In practical terms this means that utility/assault helicopters may be pressed into special operations style profiles simply because there are not enough dedicated special operations helicopters available. If we are to map the threat spectrum against the category of operation to be performed, we quickly find that the traditional divisions are beginning to blur. The major roles of the helicopter in the modern battlefield along with the threat they face are given below:-

1. Battlefield insertion/extraction â€" exposure to small arms, machine guns, radar controlled SAMs and semi-mobile AAA, mortars, RPG, artillery, artillery rockets, direct fire from armoured vehicles, and MANPADS. In some circumstances concealed mobile point defence SAMs would also be a threat.

2. Urban combat insertion/extraction â€" exposure to small arms, machine guns, mortar, RPG, artillery rockets, and MANPADS. Hidden armoured vehicles, point defence SAMs may be an issue in areas not cleared by fixed wing suppression of air defence and close air support sorties.

3. Special operations and combat SAR - exposure to the full spectrum of point defence and air defence weapons as well as the full spectrum of infantry and armour weapons. History illustrates repeatedly the attractiveness of setting up ambushes for combat SAR helicopters.

4. Humanitarian and UN Peacekeeping operations - exposure to small arms, machine guns, mortar, RPG, artillery rockets, and MANPADS. As with combat SAR sorties, there is a genuine risk of prepared ambushes to aid delivery sites.


22. The doctrine of the IAF and the more recent joint doctrine of the armed forces do not talk much of the employment philosophy of attack helicopters in the IAF. Infact the term attack helicopter finds just three mentions in the doctrine of the IAF. However, keeping in mind the various exercises undertaken by the attack helicopter squadrons, it could be safely assumed, that the primary roles would be mainly anti-armour and BAS. Additionally there would be escorts to SHBO, SEAD and anti UAV ops. The limitations of attack helicopters in the IAF in the present scenario would include:-

(a) Employment philosophy of attack helicopters.

(b) Limited resources in terms of numerical strength which precludes employment of attack helicopters, enmasse in support of the ground forces.

(c) The recent avionics upgrade of the Mi-35s, have given them a night fighting capability. However the target acquisition is still manually through the FLIR or LLTV.

(d) The MI-35s still lack an IFF system which is absolutely essential to eliminate chances of fratricide when operating in BAS/anti-armour operations.

(e) The Mi-35s have only a vintage RWR with a hardwired threat library. There is no MAWS and the counter measure dispensing system is manual and not integrated. It also does not have a secure and foolproof communication system.

(f) Because of its size, the MI-35 presents a large target to the enemy air defence forces. This makes it vulnerable especially in the desert terrain. In addition as the sensor pod is located under the nose, practically the entire heptr is exposed when using the sensors.

(g) Mi-35s have a very strong rotor down wash and hence, operations from an under/unprepared surface could prove to be hazardous and would restrict its operations especially in the desert terrain and thus reduce its responsiveness.

(h) Greatly inhibited high altitude capabilities.

(j) Lack of a dedicated scout helicopter with necessary Target acquisition and designation eqpt to provide accurate description and location of targets.

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