Attack helicopter

Attack helicopter

An attack helicopter, also known as a helicopter gunship, is a Military helicopter armed for attacking targets on the ground such as enemy infantry, armored vehicles and structures, using autocannon and machine-gun fire, rockets, and precision guided missiles such as the Hellfire. Many attack helicopters are also capable of carrying air to air missiles, though mostly for purposes of self-defense. Today's attack helicopter has two main roles: first, to provide direct and accurate close air support for ground troops, and the second, in the anti tank role to destroy enemy armor concentrations. Attack helicopters are also used to supplement lighter helicopters in the armed scout role.


Weapons fire delivered by helicopter began informally in the Korean War, and evolved through the Algerian and early Vietnam Wars, in the form of armed helicopters: general-purpose military helicopters that were modified to carry various weapons. In the Vietnam War, the first purpose-built attack helicopter, in the form of the AH-1 Cobra appeared, intended for close air support. After Vietnam, and especially into the 1990s, US Army, and some Soviet, attack helicopters became more and more optimized for the antitank mission.cite paper
author = Mazarella, Mark N
title = Adequacy of U.S. Army Attack Helicopter Doctrine to Support the Scope of Attack Helicopter Operations in a Multi-Polar World
publisher = U.S. Army Command and General Staff College
date = 1994
url =
format =PDF
accessdate =2007-12-12
] The US Marine Corps continued to see the helicopter, as well as its fixed-wing aviation assets, in the close support role, although the Marines did dedicate a close-support helicopter in the form of the AH-1 Cobra and AH-1 Super Cobra. Soviet helicopters retained troop transport capability rather than being attack-only.

While helicopters were effective tank-killers in the Middle East, attack helicopters are being seen more in a multipurpose role. Tactics, such as tank plinking, showed that fixed-wing aircraft could be effective against tanks, but helicopters retained a unique low-altitude, low-speed capability for close air support. Other purpose-built helicopters were developed for special operations missions, including the MH-6 for extremely close support.

The "deep attack" role of independently operating attack helicopters came into question after a failed mission, during the 2003 Gulf War attack on the Karbala Gap.Citation
last = Scarborough
first = Ryan
author-link =
title = Apache operation a lesson in defeat; Army choppers hit without air cover.
newspaper = Washington Times
pages = 1
year = 2003
date = April 2003
url =
] A second mission in the same area, four days later, but coordinated with artillery and fixed-wing aircraft,citation
page = CRS-36
url =
title = Iraq War: Defense Program Implications for Congress
author = Ryan O'Rourke
date = June 4, 2003
publisher = Congressional Research Service
accessdate = 2007-12-12
] was far more successful with minimal losses.

Modern attack helicopter

During the late 1970s the U.S. Army saw the need of more sophistication within the attack helicopter corps, allowing them to operate in all weather conditions. With that the Advanced Attack Helicopter program was started. From this program the Hughes YAH-64 came out as the winner. The Soviet armed forces also saw the need of a more advanced helicopter. Military officials asked Kamov and Mil to submit designs. The Ka-50 officially won the competition, but Mil decided to continue development of the Mi-28 that they had originally submitted.

The 1990s could be seen as the coming-of-age for the U.S. attack helicopter. The AH-64 Apache was used extensively during Operation Desert Storm with great success. Apaches fired the first shots of the war, destroying enemy early warning radar and SAM sites with their Hellfire missiles. They were later used successfully in both of their operational roles, to direct attack against enemy armor and as aerial artillery in support of ground troops. Hellfire missile and cannon attacks by Apache helicopters destroyed many enemy tanks and armored cars.

Today, the attack helicopter has been further refined, and the AH-64D Apache Longbow demonstrates many of the advanced technologies being considered for deployment on future gunships. The Russians are currently deploying the Ka-50, and Mi-28, which are roughly equivalent though these attack aircraft are not linked into a command and control system at a level which is quite comparable to current U.S. equipment. Many students of ground attack helicopter warfare feel that linking into a network is a requirement of today's modern armies, since attack helicopters are being increasingly incorporated as part of a linked support element system by most of the armies of the world.

Lessons learned about limitations of independent attack helicopters

On March 24, 2003, US V Corps launched a raid, by 32 Apache helicopters, against Medina Division armor in Karbala, with an attack plan that would fly through the Karbala area. "Army officials now believe that the aviation assembly areas the Army established in the Iraqi desert had been under surveillance by enemy observers, who noticed battle preparations on the night of the 24th." The corps commander told reporters that post-strike analysis revealed that the Iraqi observers had alerted the defense using cellular telephones.citation
url =
journal = Air Force Magazine
date = October 2003
volume = 86
issue = 10
title = Ambush at Najaf: Was it just poor tactics or some deeper problem that caused the failed Apache mission?
first = Richard J. | last = Newman

As they approached, the power grid in Karbala was shut off, and the night went dark. The Apaches were taken under heavy antiaircraft fire. One was shot down (with the crew captured by Iraqi forces. They were later recovered by US forces), and enough of the others were damaged such that the raid was aborted.

Two days later, the Army again used Apaches to carry out another nighttime deep attack. Tactics used, however, were quite different than those on March 24. The damage done, "The results of the attack were respectable, if not spectacular: seven Iraqi air defense guns destroyed, along with three artillery systems, five radars, and 25 vehicles or other weapons systems. Not one Apache was shot down. Shortly afterward, the 3rd Infantry Division slashed through the Medina on its way toward Baghdad."

On March 26, other systems supported the attack, beginning with a four-minute artillery bombardment to distract the gunners. As the helicopters moved through the Najaf area, the lights again went off, and the intensity of antiaircraft fire increased as they approached the target.

Two different things were done. "The Apaches fired back on the move—rather than using the Army’s typical tactic of hovering over the battlefield. That made them harder to hit from the ground but reduced their accuracy." Also, fixed-wing fighters protected the Apaches' flanks and suppressed more air defense. As the helicopters moved in, they radioed the locations of air defense targets to the fighters.

The March 24 raid is still being analyzed, with Air Force officers suggesting that the AH-64 alone is simply not effective for deep attack without support from conventional aircraft. Other analysts think this mission was poorly planned and the Iraqis had good intelligence on their route of attack. Nevertheless, the Apache mission generally changed from deep attack to direct support of troops.

One of the most important lessons learned about the abortive raid on Iraqi tanks in Karbala, Iraq, was that the AH-64 is resilient enough to function effectively even when damaged. It was also made clear, however, that attack helicopters, without coordinated SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense), cannot penetrate an alerted defense.

pecial operations variants

In the last 20 years US Special Operations Command has been developing the armed special forces gunship, using the MH-60. These helicopters are to be used as an attack element with Special Operators to do the clean up, or to deliver the operators and support them on the ground. They were used successfully during the Scud Hunt.

Other Army Special Operations include the MH-6 and AH-6 "Little Birds". The MH-6 carries special operators on benches outside the helicopters, from which they can move quickly. The AH-6 is for close-in fire support. The MH-47 Chinook helicopter has been used to carry special operators using long-wheelbase Land Rovers and other vehicles in and out of an area of operations.

For longer-range special operations, the Air Force operates the MH-53 Pave Low helicopter, which has extensive avionics for navigation, flying at very low altitude, and electronic warfare. It can also be refueled in midair.


Modern examples include:

* AH-1 Cobra
** AH-1 SuperCobra
** AH-1Z Viper
* Mil Mi-24
* AH-64 Apache
** Westland WAH-64 Apache
* Agusta A129 Mangusta
* Eurocopter Tiger
* Mil Mi-28 Havoc
* Kamov Ka-50
** Kamov Ka-52 Alligator
* Denel AH-2 Rooivalk
* HAL Light Combat Helicopter
* CAIC WZ-10
* Kawasaki OH-1
* AH-6 Little Bird
* RAH-66

ee also

* Armed helicopter
* Army aviation


Further reading

*Duke, R.A., "Helicopter Operations in Algeria" [Trans. French] , Dept. of the Army (1959)
*France, Operations Research Group, "Report of the Operations Research Mission on H-21 Helicopter" (1957)
*Leuliette, Pierre, "St. Michael and the Dragon: Memoirs of a Paratrooper", New York:Houghton Mifflin (1964)
*Riley, David, "French Helicopter Operations in Algeria" Marine Corps Gazette, February 1958, pp. 21-26.
*Shrader, Charles R. "The First Helicopter War: Logistics and Mobility in Algeria, 1954-1962" Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers (1999)
*Spenser, Jay P., "Whirlybirds: A History of the U.S. Helicopter Pioneers", Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press (1998)

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