Explaining The Role of Helicopter (Gunship) in Modern Combat Environment


Nov 19, 2017
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Aviation wing is an integral part of Armed Forces around the world. Fixed wing aircrafts, rotary wing aircrafts, unmanned aerial vehicles, and other kinds of flying machines form the aviation wing. The ability to cross all the barriers of the land swiftly is unparalleled by all other arms of the Ground force. These provide the mobility required, to not only transport troops and equipment across the battlefield but also provide the necessary surveillance, observation, and firepower to monitor and engage the enemy. The terms such CAS (Close air support) and CCA (close combat Attack) were born with the advent of the aircrafts armed with weaponry, supporting troops on the ground.
The Beginning

The first rotary aircraft flight took place in 1907, but it was the flight of single engine, tail rotor, vertical lift, IGOR Sikorsky VS-300 in USA in 1939 that gave an indication of the coming of the helicopter, although Flettner FI 265 had already taken its first flight in 1938 in Germany, while later on an improved FI 282 Kolibri was also produced in 1941. The FI 282 was put in service for ferrying items and also for artillery spotting in the battlefield in WW2. Similarly the Americans and the British put H-4 and H-5 in use during the war for med-evac, supplying front lines and laying communication cables.

The Korean war brought the major tactical deployment of Helicopter in troops deployment role. Operation Summit saw the transportation of 224 US Marines to an inaccessible hill top. Operation BumbleBee further expanded the deployment of 1000 US Marines using H-19 Helicopters, each H-19 carrying up to 15 passengers. Meanwhile the French Forces (ALAT) deployed in Algeria created two Helicopter groups to counter the insurgents in 1954. The French used 7 H-21’s for transport and 1-2 Alouettes for observation and back up. This way company strength of 100-150 troops could be inserted at one time near the combat zone. Since the H-21 was smaller, the French sought out H-34 as an armed version of the helicopter and two MG’s were mounted on the windows of H-34 for Gunship role. The French started using Special Forces (SF) to hunt the insurgents, by cutting off their retreat from all directions through deployment of commandos by helicopters. This is depicted in “The First Helicopter War” by Charles Schrader.

The Gunship was now in the making !
A Dedicated Gunship as Support Weapon

The weaponisation of H-34 was not enough to provide the fire power needed to support the ground troops. The Advanced Aerial Fire Support System (AAFSS) program was born which led to arming of the UH-1 Huey as well as gave birth to AH-1 Cobra Gunship in 1967. The AH-1 followed the concept of Aerial Rocket Artillery (ARA), this concept was envisioned in 1950’s but not implemented until 1968 when AH-1 was deployed in Vietnam. AH-1 Cobra used the engine of UH-1 Huey, forward looking cannon and rockets on stub wings.

On the other side of the world, the Soviets were studying the AH-1 and the tactics employed for the effectiveness of gunships. The Mi-8 was used an air assault platform which could lift more than UH-1 but less than a CH-47 Chinook. The development of Mi-24 started which developed in a helicopter which truly had firepower and transport capacity without any compromise, a quality which UH-1 Huey also didn’t have. The troop compartment had to be compromised with loading of ammunition when the UH-1 went into the role of the Gunship. The Mi-24 mounted a 12.7mm and later a 30mm cannon with stub wings capable of carrying rockets of different calibers, it saw extensive action in Afghanistan theater of war where each sector was allotted a contingent of Spestnaz (VDV), attack helicopters Mi-24’s and transport helicopters Mi-8’s.

With the Mi-24 operations in Afghanistan, the impact of MANPAD’s like Stingers FIM-92 also comes to mind. Though the Stinger SAM (Surface to Air Missile) gave a tough time to the Mi-24’s pilots and crews, yet as the war progressed, the pilots had devised different strategies and tactics to counter or evade the threat of SAM’s. The Mi-24’s flew either at very low altitude to jam the guidance system of the missile or at high altitude to stay out of range of the missile. The Gunship operations were now conducted at altitude of 2000 m instead of the previous 500 m altitude. The Mi-24’s were also installed with Flares for protection.

The Era of Gunship as a Maneuver Weapon

The Gunship had fared very well so far as a potent support weapon for the ground troops. It could be called into the action and could stay with ground troops for longer duration than fixed wing, providing fire support as needed. The Military thinkers, both in the western bloc and the Soviet Bloc now started to envision a bigger role for the gunship as well as the transport helicopters for air assault/airborne operations.

The new gunships were to be designed to strike deep into enemy territory and also form part of the maneuver forces, leading own troops in the skies above them. They were to be installed with more sensors and guided weapon to counter different types of threat on the battlefield. The recon role was to be sustained, whether by the gunship itself or by a lighter helicopter, where as the fire support and maneuvering was to be conducted by the modern gunship itself. The US AAH (Advanced Attack Helicopter/ AH-64 Apache) program and the Soviet Mi-28 Havoc now entered the arena through the requirements of this doctrine.

The 1973 Arab-Israeli war had shown the lethality of the ATGM (Anti Tank Guided Missile) as an effective weapon to stop enemy Tanks and armored vehicles. The concept of mass armored attack by Soviets on the European plains now had an effective solution in the form of ATGM installment on the gunship. The AH-64 was first designed specially keeping the threat of Tanks in mind, and thus the main purpose of AH-64 in early years of its deployment was to hunt and destroy Tanks. The Mi-28 retained the transport capability of Mi-24 although reducing the number of passengers from 8 to 3, and still carried enough payload to attack western tanks and armored vehicles.

The Soviets grasping the concept of maneuverability started inducting the Air Assault Brigades. This meant mass production of attack and transport helicopters to be used along with Armored and Infantry Vehicles. The Brigade consisted of Mi-28’s and Mi-17s, with their own para troopers (VDV) and Mechanised Infantry using air transportable armored vehicles (BMD’s). The ground elements could be transported by aircraft or helicopters with the full brigade strength around 2500 troops. This air assault brigade could be deployed deep inside enemy territory with air cover from long range Soviet heavy fighters (Su-27) and long range bombers to clear the landing zone. The US Army on the other hand brought the AH-64 out of its famed “anti-tank role” and inducted it in Aviation Brigades along with UH-60 Blackhawks transport Helicopters, with recon role going to OH-58 Kiowa. The aviation Brigades had 2 Attack Helicopters Battalions of AH-64 (36 in total)and a transport battalion (24 UH-60 Blackhawks) with infantry. The 101st Airborne Division specialized in the air land maneuvers and became a land mark for such brigades. The combined arms approach was put aside and the helicopters now could operate with their full potential, independently from the slowest vehicle in the combined arms formation.

Helicopter Gunship in Urban Operations (MOUT, Military Ops in Urban Environment)

The urban battlefield offers unique challenges to attack helicopters employment, as well as opportunities which they can capitalize on. The effectiveness of attack helicopter engagements in the city depends on the nature of the target and the tactics employed as well as the type of weapons and ammunition used.

Target Acquisition:

A challenging aspect of urban combat engagement is the process of acquiring the target. Rapid acquisition of target results in lesser exposure time for the Gunship which in turn increases survivability. The attack Helicopter can acquire and attack a target autonomously, but that is normally not the case. Scout helicopters or other attack helicopters performing the aero-scout role usually first acquire the target, make positive identification, hand off the target to the Gunship by radio transmission or data transfer.

a. Gunship’s Sensors:

Modern target acquisition systems are a great help to the pilot in finding and identifying the target. Acquisition systems vary among different types of gunships. Conventional Gunships (AH-1, AH-64, OH-58D) all feature an image enhancing/magnification system integral to the gunners sighting device, although they may vary in capability. AH-1’s telescopic sight unit features a I3X magnification. Sensors on the OH-58D have a magnification of 25X, while the day television system or DTV on the AH-64 magnifies the target up to 127X. AH-64 and OH-58D along with other special operations helicopters mount thermal imager sensors (FLIR, Forward Looking Infra Red) which detect Infra Red energy (Heat). This system proves critically effective in an urban area at night. Around lighted areas like Buildings, street lamps, the Night vision Goggles of the pilots can be degraded by the excess light. FLIR helps the pilot and gunner overcome this degradation and more easily identify points and targets. Night vision enhancement in the AH-1 Cobra is limited to night vision goggles worn by the crew. This makes AH-64 more suitable for night operations than AH-1 Cobra in urban environment.

b. Correct Flight Characteristics:

The flight profile of the aircraft also affects target acquisition. An aircraft flying at lower altitudes will have a more difficult time acquiring targets at ground level because the line of sight to the target is masked by buildings and structures. Navigation within the city is similarly affected since check points may not be visible to the Gunship until it is almost over the top. The vertical development or height of a structure plays an important role when flying at terrain flight levels (Below 100 feet above ground level or AGL). Check points with a high degree of vertical development such as high rise buildings and towers will be much easier to see at lower altitudes. Higher altitudes provide a much larger view of the terrain, although with less details. When the SAM threat will allow flight at higher altitudes, a technique used could be to split the flight, with one or more aircraft operating at higher altitudes to provide scope as well as details.

c. Effect of Clutter:

Urban background clutter also has impact on target acquisition. The degree of clutter impacted acquisition is based on the type of urban structure found in the target area. The richness of visual cues could often lead to “information overload” with the pilot unable to filter and process data in time to conduct a successful attack. Target acquisition in residential areas characterized by houses of similar shapes and sizes, with fewer distinctive landmarks, was the next most difficult.

d.Target Acquisition Team:

Target acquisition can be much easier however if a ground observer is available. Located in a protected position where he can see the objective, an observer can mark it with smoke, laser designator or tracer fire, talk the pilot in to the target, or simply describe the target and its surroundings. These additional cues help the pilot find and positively identify the target more quickly in the urban clutter, shortening the exposure time of the aircraft as well as reducing the risk of fratricide. The CAS doctrine requires:

1. An observer e.g. Air Liaison Officer ALO

2. Forward Air Controller FAC

3. Fire Support Officer FSO

In their absence, the Gunship commander may fill this role when other Gunships are providing the supporting fires.

Engaging the Target:

Many aspects of the actual target engagement are similarly affected by urban environment. When attacking the target, the Gunships may employ hovering fire, running fire, or diving fire. The type of attack selected depends on the threat, type of target weather, terrain, the weapon to be fired, and the weapons effects required on the target.

Hovering fire is the most common method of engagement when firing TOW or Hellfire missiles, as the Gunship is less stable at a hover, cannon and rocket fire are less accurate. The stability of the Gunship increases with forward movement, however making running or diving fire more accurate for gun and rocket engagements because of the lessened effects of rotor down-wash, diving fire is the most accurate method of engagement for unguided ammunition. Discounted as a viable technique when the proliferation of the shoulder fired SAM’s worldwide made aircraft survivability above terrain flight altitudes questionable, diving fire is effective as the reduced size of the ordinance impact zone beaten zone reduces the chance of ammunition landing outside the target area, minimizing the chance for unwanted collateral damage.

A combination of running and diving fire is routinely practiced by special operations gunships and is applicable to all attack helicopter types. The gunship starts in a terrain flight mission profile to provide protection from SAM and other air defense threats. As the pilot approaches the target area, he initiates a maneuver called a bump, which is a slight climb to a higher altitude to bring the target in sight and begin the engagement. The bump altitude is dependent on the nature of the target and its surroundings but should establish a clear line of sight (LOS)/ Line of Fire (LOF) for a diving fire attack on the target.

Using Stand-Off Weapons:

Another common attack technique that requires modification is on the use of stand-off weapons. Attack crews are trained to use stand-off engagements to enhance their self protection. Ranges of 3750 meters for the TOW and 8000 meters for Hellfire missiles support the use of stand-off. However, such engagements are unlikely in the MOUT environment. Depending on the type of urban terrain, numerous obstructions such as buildings, towers, and power lines will likely interfere with both the line of sight between firing platform and the target and the flight path of the missile at long ranges. A moving target is especially difficult to engage at long ranges.

The guidance wires that control TOW missile can droop 12-18 feet at a range of 2000 meters, any contact between the control wires and high voltage power lines or water can cause uncontrolled missile flight and/or damage to the TOW system. In case of Hellfire, the abundance of reflective surfaces such as glass or shiny material found in built up areas may degrade the effectiveness of laser designators significantly, as can smoke and haze.

Stand-off weapons engagements can still be conducted in MOUT. Cities commonly contain large open expanses around industrial/transportation areas, and streets may be wider and straighter in some part of the city than in others. But helicopter Gunship crews must be prepared to engage targets under the least desirable conditions as well.

Positioning the Gunship:

Gunship engagements are normally made from one or more battle positions. With-in these battle positions are multiple firing positions which allow the attack element to mass fires against the target. Among other characteristics, appropriate battle positions should have adequate maneuver area, favorable engagement ranges, good fields of fire, cover, and concealment.

The cities mostly provide only one gun line to a target, so tactics designed for the massing of aviation fires are useless. Tactics involving stacking helicopters in the battle positions to the right and left of an objective and then massing fires on the objective don’t work. It was then considered to cycle gunships into battle than mass Gunships and that was possible through a clear gun-target line for laser designation and firing.

Gunship formations can also be broken down into 2 or 3 helicopter sections, which then enables more room to maneuver in the battle position while allowing mutually supporting positions when target gives an opportunity.

Why use a Gunship in Urban Environment?

Attack Helicopters were not designed originally for urban combat. Their sensors, systems, weapons, and tactics were designed to engage massed armored vehicles in open terrains, rather than picking up individual targets such as snipers, small vehicles, rooms of a building etc. Yet Gunships have proved play a significant role in all types of roles conducted in challenging environments.

Infantry plays majority of the role in urban environments. Tasked to clear buildings, hold positions, man check points and control movement on the ground. Other combat arms such as Artillery, aviation, armor etc can also take part in this conflict and support infantry operations. Major problems faced by the Gunships are Manpads as well as small arms fire. It is always useful to send in a Gunship with advance protection systems (AH-64) such as ECM, jamming etc but even if older Gunships (AH-1) are used, they can follow terrain flight characteristics to reduce effectiveness from threats on the ground. It’s the direct fire weapons whose range gets affected in urban combat.

Noting the usage of ATGM on ground by Infantry in urban environment, majority of targets are usually found between the ranges of only 0-50 meters, rarely are there any targets found more than 100 meters away. Human targets are mostly found in the range of 35 -50 meters and hardly any human targets are found more than 50 meters away. It becomes complex for ATGM systems to attack targets at such a close range. This makes the ATGM ineffective to be chosen in much of the urban combat environment.
Another issue is the firing position; the elevated position gives superior observation and field of fire. On the ground, the ATGM elevation limit (min and max) comes into play along with dead space and weapon back blast concerns.Missiles line of flight is also an issue as a vertical clearance of 11 meters is required to clear fences, walls, parked cars and any other obstruction found in urban areas.

Armor employed in the urban areas employ main cannons to support infantry but their mobility and turret traversing capability is affected. The elevation of main gun can be problem to provide fire on targets hiding in higher levels of an apartment type building. These vehicles are also susceptible to ambush if infantry is not covering them.

Air force fighter-bombers can also face a difficulty in bombing certain areas. Although un-guided munition gives accuracy problems when dropped from high altitudes, especially when released above 1000 feet to avoid buildings. The clutter also affects dropping LGB’s at slant ranges on targets, as the Line of sight for lasing target with laser gets disrupted.

Artillery faces technical difficulties such as target acquisition, adjusting fire and trajectory angles caused by high buildings in urban areas. The collateral damage can also increase with indirect fire.

The Gunship Advantage in Urban Environment:

1. Gunship has maneuverability in open air space which means it can align itself to get the best line of fire, angle, and aspect to choose the a weapon to engage target. The maneuverability also allows them to evade attacks from the ground. Maneuvering also helps in choosing a position to fire from a location which doesn’t endanger friendlies or non-combatants.

2. Gunships can choose precision engagement from a distance to engage selective targets minimizing collateral damage.

3. Since the process of engagement for Gunships are different so the pilot/WSO must see the target, identify the target and then engage the target, which again not only helps reduce collateral damage but positive identification through sensors and magnifying helps in confirmation of destruction of target.

4. Gunships have at least 3 weapons at their disposal; nose mounted cannon, rockets and missiles. The pilot/WSO can choose an appropriate weapon at his disposal to engage the target.

The Millimeter Wave Radar:

The most important systems of a gunship which separates it from other helicopters are its sensors and weapons. For detection and identification of a target, sensors play their part where as to engage and destroy the target, the gunship needs related weaponry.

The millimeter wave Radar or Mmw Radar, allows Gunship to detect and attack targets when rain, fog, or smoke would compromise sensors and laser designators mounted on older Gunships. It also allows the Gunship to control Mmw-Radar compatible missiles, fired by other Gunships. The AH-64 Block III FCR LongBow Radar is capable of detecting 256 targets. The radar will track up to 128 targets and prioritize the top 16 targets. The Mmw Radar is a very low peak power, which has extremely low side lobes due to a very large relative antenna size. The low emitted power provides a range of the order of 10 km in clear conditions, which is near to undetectable by established RWR technology.

The radar can employ real beam mapping and Moving Target Indicator (MTI) techniques, to provide the automatic detection, tracking and non-cooperative identification of surface targets, with a secondary capability against low flying aircraft. Target identification algorithms in the radar's software can look at the shape of possible targets, and their Doppler signatures, to identify aircraft, helicopters, SPAAGs, SAM systems, tanks, AFVs, trucks and other wheeled vehicles. The RFI is essentially a compact ESM style passive targeting receiver which can precisely measure bearing to an emitter. This allows it to detect and engage a battlefield radar, SPAAG or SAM system typically from outside the threat's detection envelope.

The radar can detect targets which cannot be seen behind radar transparent camouflage or foliage. Targets are automatically prioritized, with anti-air assets being accorded the highest priority, followed by armor and soft skinned vehicles.

The RAH-66 Comanche is a next generation armed reconnaissance helicopter. It was the first helicopter designed and developed specifically for this mission. The Comanche was being designed to stealthily penetrate enemy airspace and conduct reconnaissance throughout the extended battle field.

As part of heavy division/corps attack helicopter battalions, the Comanche’s primary roles would be to seek out enemy forces and designate targets for the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter at night, in adverse weather, and in battlefields obscured by smoke and dust. In air cavalry troops and light division attack helicopter battalions, the RAH-66 was supposed to replace the Army’s current fleet of AH-1 Cobra light attack helicopters and OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters performing the attack mission as well as reconnaissance.

Critics of the Comanche program argue that there is no need for a highly sophisticated, very low observable armed reconnaissance helicopter in today’s threat environment. They contend that Comanche’s capabilities and mission requirements were developed in response to a Cold War threat environment that no longer exists. Furthermore, the Apache and Kiowa helicopters performed very well as a hunter-killer team during Operation Desert Storm (1991). Critics also argue that the Comanche’s role and capabilities are too similar to the Apache’s to justify the costs of the helicopter’s development and production. They would cancel the RAH-66, and use the savings to upgrade the OH-58 aircraft and the AH-64D Apache’s Longbow target acquisition capabilities.

Proponents of the RAH-66 agree that the Cold War threat has disappeared, but counter that today’s low-intensity regional conflicts (such as Kosovo and Somalia) place even greater burdens on Army aviation. U.S. Forces must be more deploy-able, less reliant on forward bases, and more versatile than they were during the Cold War. Supporters argue that Comanche satisfies all three criteria. Furthermore, proponents argue that Comanche is an unparalleled force multiplier. It makes the whole force more effective and will reduce the Army’s maintenance burden. This perspective, proponents argue, is supported by initial results from a recent Army “Analysis of Alternatives.”

This study compared attack and air cavalry squadrons equipped with AH-64D Longbows and OH-58D Kiowa Warriors to units composed of Apaches and Comanches.

The force equipped with Comanche reportedly demonstrated better situational awareness, survivability, and lethality than the other force. The study suggested that the most significant gains were achieved when the Comanche replaced the OH-58D. The Comanche provided better sensing, range, agility, and versatility than the Kiowa. Comanche also improved the effectiveness of the Longbow when the two aircraft were mixed in attack units.

The primary recommendation of the “Way Ahead” program is to meld today’s 24-aircraft lift helicopter and scout/attack helicopter battalions into 30-aircraft battalions composed of both lift and scout/attack helicopters (10 Apache Longbows, 10 Comanche and 10 UH-60 Blackhawks). The Army would need only 40 of these composite battalions. The “Way Ahead” program would also phase out legacy helicopters more quickly than previously planned.

Close Air Support VS Close Combat Attack:
To analyze the difference between both terms, it’s important to go through the definitions which explain the fundamental difference, which comes out to be the responsibility, whether by the Aircraft controller on the ground (CAS) or the Pilot/WSO (CCA).

Close Air Support (CAS): Close Air support is air action by fixed-wing (FW) and rotary-wing (RW) aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces, and requires detailed integration of each air mission with fire and movement of those forces.”
Close air support is indirect fires from aircraft near soldiers that requires detailed coordination to prevent fratricide or civilian casualties. The person calling for fire is responsible for the fire’s effects.

Close Combat Attack (CCA): “A hasty or deliberate attack by Army aircraft providing air-to-ground fires for friendly units engaged in close combat. Due to the close proximity of friendly forces, detailed integration is required.”
The definition of close combat attack is similar to close air support; the main difference is the consideration of close combat attack by the Army as a direct fire weapon system in which the aircrew/Pilot and WSO is responsible for their fires.

The CAS Model

Close air support is the Air Force model for commanding and controlling Air Force assets delivering munitions within close proximity to soldiers. This model is the set of steps that enable commanders to implement close air support at the proper time and place to achieve the desired effect on the battlefield. This model incorporates the Air Force processes and Army elements that compose the theater air control system, and the Army air ground system (TACS/AAGS).

Air Force assets dedicated to the close air support mission depend on how scarce resources are allocated and apportioned. Allocation and apportionment ties into the commander’s operational art and how they want to synchronize their assets to conduct tactical actions with respect to time, space and purpose. Once aircraft have been apportioned to perform the close air support role, they are managed through the close air support command and control process. The next step in the command and control process is the air support operations center, typically located at the Army tactical headquarters. The air support operations center is immediately subordinate to the air operations center and has the ability to control all allocated close air support aircraft if delegated the authority to do so by the commander Air Force forces. The air support operations center integrates with the Army tactical operations center to “coordinate the requirements for close air support employment within the unit’s area of operations.”

The CCA Model

The Army model for applying organic air assets is somewhat different from the Air Force model. The Army process is unitary because all active duty divisions have organic combat aviation brigades (CAB) they can assign missions to. The Army’s aviation arm by nature of their relationship to the supported unit, is already more integrated into the planning process. The planning process also depends on type of relationship combat aviation brigades have with other Army units. In a general support relationship, the combat aviation brigade supports the division as a whole. In a direct support relationship the combat aviation brigade is able to support other units directly or break up into aviation task forces and provide smaller elements to support Army units. This section details both of the planning processes defined by the relationships, but is limited to applying CAB assets within the division construct.

In a direct support relationship the supported unit establishes the priorities; in the case of an aviation task force supporting a brigade combat team, the brigade combat team establishes priorities. The parent unit in a general support relationship establishes the priorities; in the case of a combat aviation brigade, the parent unit is the division.

The Final Word:

Today, the Helicopter Gunship is a modern potent weapon, a combination of firepower and information while retaining the role of a modern-day cavalry for supporting ground forces, as well as an untiring work horse for all the services of Armed Forces. Its versatility is reaching new bounds while it constitutes an indispensable capacity in correspondingly strong demand. The same will apply tomorrow as it manifests into every desirable role of air cavalry, with extra benefits for countries that are able not only to integrate their air mobile forces into land maneuvers, but also to take full advantage of the possibilities offered by digitization and real time, whether in air-combat itself, in cooperation with UAV’s or in the conduct of joint air operations.

Help for facts and figures was taken from:

1. Helicopter Warfare by Etienne de Durand

2. Close Air Support Vs Close Combat Support by Major Patrick Ryan Wilde

3. Attack Helicopter Operations in Urban Terrain by Major Timothy A Jones

4. The RAH-66 Comanche Helicopter Issue by Christopher Bolkcom

I had a long write up but kept cutting it down for ease of understanding without getting boring to read. I tried to bring forth the information which is not regularly discussed. Please point out any mistakes so i can correct them.

Thank you for reading.

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