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Attack Helicopters

The Army Ground Forces Board at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, documented the first formal test of an armed helicopter on December 14, 1945. The purpose of the test was to determine if a recoilless rifle could be mounted on a helicopter and fired in flight. Test results show that when fired, the backpressure of the 75mm rifle broke the Plexiglas windscreen and slightly buckled the tail cone of the test aircraft.

Shortly after the Korean War, Colonel Edward L. Rowny, an instructor in infantry tactics at the Army Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia, conducted a series of theory sessions involving the use of armed helicopters. Rowny's extracurricular activities were brought to the attention of the Army Chief of Staff by Army reserve Captain, Congressman Henry Jackson (WA) who, having attended one of the sessions, was so impressed that he wanted Rowny's ideas established as Army doctrine. Soon after, Rowny was summoned to Washington where he was admonished for exacerbating interservice rivalries and ordered to cease the sessions, even though he had been careful to run them on a voluntary, off-duty basis only. The Marines also began the process of experimenting with armed helicopters as early as 1950, but these arrangements remained informal until the Vietnam War.

In 1963 Edward L. Rowny headed the Army concept Team in Vietnam (ACTIV), testing new concepts for counterinsurgency operations, including introducing armed helicopter into Vietnam. [In 1979, Rowny protested the signing of the SALT II Treaty and resigned from the Army as a Lt. General. From 1981-1984, he was appointed chief negotiator for the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START).]

The Army began arming UH-1As in mid-1962 with 2.30-caliber machineguns and 2.75-inch rocket launchers. UH-1As armed with two .30 cal. machine guns and two eight-tube 2.75 inch rocket launchers were first used in Vietnam in late 1963. The UH-1A was armed with various combinations of 7.62mm machine guns, 20mm cannon, and a chin-turret mounted 40mm grenade launcher. Some early Huey gun ships were armed with quad M60C 7.62mm machine guns mounted on the M6 aircraft armament subsystem. With the fielding of the larger UH-1D as the Army's primary utility helicopter, the smaller UH-1Bs/UH-1Cs assumed the gunship role as their primary mission. UH-1B/UH-1C Hueys were used in Vietnam with moderate success as a gun ship with door mounting M60D 7.62 machine guns on the M23 armament subsystem. They could also be armed with a pod or side-mounting six-barrel minigun and seven-tube XM157 or M158 2.75 inch (70mm) rocket launcher on the Emerson Electric M21 armament subsystem, and the M5 chin-turret mount for a 40mm grenade launcher.

The UH-1E was the Marine Corps' first attack helicopter in Southeast Asia. A late 1963 proposal to arm the UH-1E had run aground on the controversy over using helicopters as attack aircraft. In late 1964 this problem was resolved by specifying that arming the UH-1E was for self-defense. A month later, after the program was underway, it was expanded to include escort missions. By such means the gunship concept was slipped into the Fleet Marine Force where it has remained. The UH-1E was first delivered in March 1963.

The development of the Bell AH-1G "Huey" Cobra dates back to the 1960's, when the need was recognized for a light fast armed escort helicopter designed specifically to carry weapons and be able to target them very accurately. The Cobra was created for the purpose of providing landing zone support. The UH-1 (Huey) door gunners were not able to provide enough fire support while dropping off troops or supplies landing with their M-60 machine guns. The war in Vietnam demonstrated the need for fast gunships. Bell Helicopter-Textron began design of the model 209 AH-1 "Huey" Cobra in 1965 as a successor to it's UH-1B/UH-1C "Huey" in the gun ship role. The result, incorporating the best features from the UH-1C "Huey", and many parts in common with the UH-1D, was the World's first attack helicopter.

The experience in Vietnam revealed key deficiencies with the Cobra. The AH-1's engine a times could not provide the power to carry the full load of fuel or ammunition to the fight. The Cobra was also vulnerable to ground fire, an issue of particular importance to the Army because the anticipated combat environment. An adversary with modern air defenses on the plains of central Europe promised to be even more hazardous to helicopters than Vietnam.

The first attempt to build an improved, more survivable attack helicopter was failure. The Advanced Aerial Fire Support System program, begun in the mid-1960s led to Lockheed's AH-56A Cheyenne. The Army tested Cheyenne prototypes, but ultimately rejected it. The Cheyenne was an improvement in some respects, but suffered assorted technical shortcomings. The Army had reassessed the threat environment and aviation needs. The Cheyenne was designed to engage ground targets by making swift passes, the way the Cobra had been employed. This tactic was made significantly more dangerous by the proliferation of effective, man-portable, antiaircraft missiles. The North Vietnamese forces had some success against US helicopters with the SA-7 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile, a type of weapon the Soviet bloc would have in great supply. These losses, and subsequent experience that showed that helicopter gunships could adjust and sustain low-level operations. This prompted the Army to focus on new helicopter tactics and the capabilities that the next aircraft would need for them.

Following the cancellation of the Cheyenne, the Army refined the role of the attack helicopter in a confrontation with the Soviet Union. Given the increased lethality of small arms and the increased threat from air defense systems, the new concept was a stand-off tank killer. The Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) program requirements were defined around the tactical concept of the helicopter remaining below the tree line whenever possible, rising only to fire antitank missiles. The AAH program was initiated to develop an attack helicopter for anti-armor operations in day, night, and adverse weather conditions. The AAH program issued a request for proposals to industry in late 1972. Submissions were received from Boeing-Vertol, Lockheed, Sikorsky, Hughes and Bell.

DOD picked two of the initial five bidders - Bell Helicopter Company and Hughes Helicopter Incorporated - to enter a competitive development phase in June 1973. The Bell Model 409, designated YAH-63, was based largely on the firm's earlier, privately-developed Model 309 King Cobra. Like the Model 309 the YAH-63 seated its two man crew in tandem within a narrow fuselage, though the Bell design teamed reversed the generally accepted seating arrangement by putting the pilot in front. The AH-64 was first known as the Hughes YAH-64. The twin-engine, two place attack helicopter was Hughes Helicopter's (now Boeing) entry in the US Army Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) competition which ran from 1973 to 1976. In December 1976, Hughes was awarded the contract to build the new AAH.

The laser-seeking Hellfire was a major upgrade over the wire-guided TOW missiles carried by later Cobra models. By 1982 AH-64 procurement costs had increased by 40 to 50 percent from the $4.8 billion reported in the September 1981 Selected Acquisition Report. This major increase created an affordability problem and the Army intended to reduce the total program quantities from 536 to 446 aircraft. With this change, the projected AH-64 unit production cost exceeded $13 mllllon.

Although undergoing many changes since it was started in 1982, the RAH-66 Comanche helicopter (formerly the Light Helicopter) was the centerpiece of the Army's aviation modernization plan. When fielded, it was to replace Vietnam-era scout and attack aircraft that the Army considered incapable of meeting existing or future requirements. At the termination of the Comanche, only two aircraft had been built, and $6.9 billion spent since 1983, said the Pentagon official. If the Army had continued to fund the program it would cost $14.6 billion more to purchase 121 aircraft by 2011 and up to $2 billion more to add the survivability equipment being added to the rest of the Army's fleet. In February 2004, the Department of the Army cancelled the RAH-66 Comanche program.




Hellfire 1 TOW 1 Air-
km (Max)
8 3.75 5+ 8 2 2 2 4
UH-1M       14 +      
AH-1 2   8   76     750  
AH-1W/Z 5 +     +     +  
YAH-56   +   +   +   +
OH-58D 2,3 4   4 14   500    
AH-60 +   + +   + + +
AAH   12           1,000
YAH-63 16     76       +
AH-64A 3 16     76       1,200
AH-64D 3 16 4   4 76       1,200
RAH-66 14   28 56     500  
ARH-70       38   +    
Numbers in each column indicate the maximum load for each system.

1   The AH-1 uses the TOW missile as its armor engagement
weapon instead of the Hellfire missile.
2   This aircraft carries one weapon system on each side
(Hellfire, TOW, or both; air-to-air Stinger; and 2.75-inch rocket).
3   Aircraft has a laser for target designation and an ATHS.
4   Hellfire/Hellfire II.
5   USMC helicopters will have varied weapon loads.

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Page last modified: 01-07-2016 13:18:21 ZULU