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The can-do choppers.

Armed, sensor-equipped utility helicopters are proving of immense value, not only in logistics, but also in search-and-rescue missions, ground convoy protection and attacks on terrorist bases.

In today's conflicts the real need in the context of armed helicopters is for an aircraft with a sizeable cabin and all-aspect defences, a vehicle that can deploy and extract a section of troops, and bring back prisoners or downed aircrew.

On the paramilitary front, such armed utility helicopters are required to deal with the increasingly serious challenges of piracy, illegal fishing and smuggling.

The following review considers some examples of platforms, armament and sensors and that can fulfil such needs.


In the Eurocopter Fennec range, the 2250-kg single-engined AS550C3 and the 2800-kg twin-engined AS555 can accommodate one pilot and five troops. The single-engined 2400-kg EC130B4 can take up to seven passengers. Fennecs may alternatively be equipped with a forward-firing 20-mm cannon and a 68-mm rocket launcher. Other options include air-to-air and anti-tank guided missiles. The AS550 is being operated by Oman, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

China's Z11W, an AS550 look-alike, made its public debut at Airshow China 2008. It has a roof-mounted sight and provisions for four HJ-8 anti-tank guided weapons or Type 57-1 rocket pods, and one 12.7 mm machine gun.

Eurocopter's new 2910-kg EC635, the military version of the EC135 used by the French Customs and Gendarmerie, can take seven troops or carry two 20-mm gunpods.

Developed from the well-established BK117, the 3585-kg EC145 is operated by (among others) the French Gendarmerie and Securite Civile. The Swiss Air Force has ordered 28, 26 of which will be delivered 'green' and will be outfitted by Ruag Aerospace in Switzerland. The EC145 has also become the Eads North America UH-72A Lakota, which in 2006 was declared winner of the US Army's Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) competition.

The LUH is replacing the US Army's Bell OH-58 A/Cs and remaining UH-1s, and some Sikorsky UH-60s. It entered service in 2007, and by the end of 2008 some 51 had been delivered. A total of 128 are now under contract for the US Army and National Guard, plus five for US Navy test pilot training. By 2016 the US Army should have received its planned total of 345, mostly produced by the American Eurocopter facility in Columbus, Mississippi.

The UH-72A is operated by two pilots, with accommodation for up to six passengers. It is unarmed, but in early 2009 it was revealed that, following termination of the US Army's existing Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) programme to replace the Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, Eads North America is seeking a US partner to help develop an ARH proposal based on an armed UH-72.

The 4300-kg Eurocopter AS565UB Panther, which can accommodate two pilots and ten troops, is the military equivalent of the Dauphin operated by the US Coast Guard as the HH-65C Dolphin. It may be noted that the US Coast Guard's MH-65C version for 'airborne use of force' missions is armed with a Barrett M107CQ 12.7 mm anti-materiel rifle and an M240B (FN Herstal Mag 58) 7.62 mm machine gun.

Toward the upper end of the Eurocopter utility range, the 9000-kg AS532AL Cougar takes two pilots and up to 25 troops. Armament options include a side-firing cannon. The Belgian Air Force employs four in the Csar role, plus eight as transports.

The company's new five-bladed 11,000-kg EC725 (originally Cougar Mk2+) increases capacity to 29 troops and is better suited to hot/high operations. Under a recent licence agreement 50 EC725s are to be built by Helibras for the Brazilian Defence Ministry, to provide 16 each for the Naval Air Arm and Army Aviation, and 18 for the Air Force. Deliveries will begin in 2010. In March 2009 the Mexican Ministry of Defense ordered six EC725s.

The French Air Force 'Resco' version of the EC725 has window-mounted 7.62-mm FN Herstal Mag 58M machine guns and an in-flight refuelling probe. These 'Harfang' (Snowy Owl) aircraft of 1/67 'Pyrenees' squadron have twice been deployed to Kabul in Afghanistan. On one occasion 23 wounded troops were evacuated in a single sortie.

The French Army Light Aviation (Alat) version of the EC725 is known as the 'HUS' (Helicoptere pour Unites Speciales), and is operated by the Detachement Alat des Operations Speciales (DAOS).


The 3000-kg AgustaWestland A109 LUH is flown by two pilots and takes six troops. The principal users are the armies of South Africa (30 plus ten on option), Sweden (20, designated HKP15), Malaysia (eleven) and New Zealand (five). The South African contract includes the in-country manufacture of 25 by Denel.

The 5330-kg AgustaWestland Super Lynx 300 with Lhtec CTS800-4N engines and modernised cockpit is the export equivalent of the British Army's Lynx AH9 or Royal Navy HMA8. It can accommodate nine troops and is especially suited to maritime operations. Naval users include Denmark (eight), Germany (24), Malaysia (six), South Africa (four), South Korea (13) and Thailand (four). Recent orders include 15 for Oman and four for Algeria.

The UK Ministry of Defence requirement for the Future Lynx has been reduced to 62 aircraft: 34 for the British Army and 28 for the Royal Navy. First flight is scheduled for late 2009, followed by IOC with the Army in 2014 and with the Navy in 2015.

The new 8000-kg (class) AW149 is an enlarged military derivative of the 6400-kg AW139, to take 15 troops. Users of the AW139 include the Irish Air Corps, Japan Coast Guard, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, the Qatar Emiri Air Force, South Korean Coast Guard, UAE Air Force and US Customs and Border Protection. Over 200 AW139s have already been delivered out of the 430-plus ordered by 110 customers in 40 countries.


The MD Helicopters (MDHI) Explorer is in broadly the same class as the A109LUH, with a gross weight of 2835 kg and cabin accommodation for six troops. The Combat Explorer for the Mexican Navy has provisions for a General Dynamics 12.7-mm Gau-19/A Gatling and Hydra 70 rocket pods.


At the light end of the Bell range, an armed version of the 2720-kg Model 407 is to be adopted by the Iraqi Air Force, with the purchase of 27 via the US Army.

Over 16,000 examples of the Bell UH-1 Huey series have been built, seating up to ten troops. A variety of upgrades are available, including the 4762-kg Huey II and the 8390-kg UH-1Y Venom developed for the US Marine Corps. The equipment of the UH-1Y includes a Flir Government Systems Brite Star sensor turret, and armament options cover the 7.62-mm M240D (Mag 58M) and six-barrel Dillon Aero M134D (Gau-17/A), and the 12.7-mm Gau-16/A (M2 Browning).

The US Marine Corps requirement for the UH-1Y has risen from 100 to 123 units. The first 37 are under contract, and nine were delivered in 2008. The last is due to be delivered in FY16. The UH-1Y was declared operational in August 2008 and full-rate production was authorised the following month. In January 2009 three UH-1 Ys deployed from San Diego, California, with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4).

The UH-1Y enjoys significant commonality with the AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter, of which 226 are planned by the US Marine Corps. Interestingly, there is a plan to replace both types in the long-term with a Joint Multi-Role (JMR) rotorcraft, which would also replace the US Army's Boeing AH-64 and Sikorsky UH-60. and the US Navy's MH-60. This might be seen as further evidence that the dedicated attack category is on the way out. and the armed utility rotorcraft is the way ahead.


The US Army replaced most of its UH-1 series with the 7700-kg Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawk. The H-60 is exported as the S-70A, and over 3000 H-60/S-70s have now been built (of which the US Army has around 1668). The latest version in production for the US Army is the 10,000-kg UH-60M, which will increase the Army's fleet to 1931.

Sikorsky is working with Elbit Systems on armed reconnaissance versions of the H-60. The first result is the twelve upgraded AH-60L Arpia IIIs operated by the Colombian Air Force, with Elbit display and sighting systems and Rafael Toplite II multi-sensor optronic payloads. The Arpia IV proposal is reported to add the Nexter THL20 gun turret and Rafael Spike-ER missiles.

The Israel Defense Force is currently testing a modified S-70A-55/UH-60L Yanshuf 3 with Elbit avionics and Rafael Spike-ERs. The first missile firing was scheduled for February 2009. Upgrading the UH-60L is seen as an alternative to buying a further batch of Boeing AH-64D Sharafs.

An Armed Black Hawk (ABH) demonstrator, as proposed for Australia and South Korea, was first flown by Sikorsky on 9 September 2008.


It might be argued that the Russians pioneered armed utility helicopters in developing the heavily-armoured 7500-kg Mil Mi-24 assault series. This has a pilot and gunner in tandem, and a cabin for eight troops, with window mounts to fire their AKM/RPK/PK weapons. The prototype flew in 1969, and over 5000 Mi-24/25/35s have been built.

Mil also developed a 'genuine' armed utility helicopter from the 12,000-kg Mi-8, which first flew in 1961. Over 11,000 of the resulting Mi-8/17/171 family have been built. Kazan Helicopters produces the Mi-17-1V and Mi-17-V5, the latter having a rear loading ramp, while the Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant builds the Mi-171Sh (Russian Army designation Mi-8AMT). Recent orders for the Mi-171Sh include ten for Croatia and 24 for China, bringing that country's total to over 90. Orders for the Mi-17-V5 include 80 for India (following 40 Mi-8TVs), six for Thailand and six of the 20 planned for Venezuela. Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Malaysia are all reportedly considering the purchase of Mi-17/171s, which are less expensive than the H-60 series and can accommodate up to 36 troops.


As a prime example of lightweight machine guns, the 7.62 mm Mag 58M or M240D produced by FN Herstal fires 700 to 1000 rd/min.

The six-barrel 7.62-mm M134 or Gau-2 Minigun was originally developed by General Electric. It fires at up to 7200 rd/min but has poor reliability. The design was consequently taken over and extensively re-engineered by Dillon Aero. In the US Army's resulting M134D, rate of fire is restricted to 3000 rd/min. It carries the US Navy designation Gau-17/A as a pintle-mounted door gun for the Bell UH-1N.

Applications for the M134D include the BAE Systems 'Remote Guardian System' ventral turret for the Bell Boeing CV-22. Dillon Aero has also developed the lightweight M134DT using some titanium components.

The closest Russian equivalent of the Minigun is the four-barrel 7.62-mm Shipunov GShG-7.62, which has a cyclic rate of 6000 rd/min.

FN Herstal manufactures the M2 and M3 series of single-barrel 12.7-mm guns, exemplified by the pintle-mounted 35.8-kg M3P which fires at 1025 rd/min. The door/ramp-mounted M3M is used on US Navy and Marine Corps assault/support helicopters as the Gau-21.

The Russian equivalent of the M3P is the 12.7-mm Degtyarev Kord, which fires at 650 to 750 rd/min. The Kord meets a need that arose in Chechnya for a new heavy machine gun.

General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products took over most of the GE Gatling series, including the Gau-19/A, a three-barrel 12.7-mm gun, which fires at 1000 to 2000 rd/min. It was developed in response to losses of lightly-armed US Army helicopters during the US invasion of Grenada in 1983.

The original armament for the Mil Mi-24 was the four-barrel 12.7-mm Yaku-shev-Borzov Yak-B or 9A-624. However, in Soviet operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s this gun was outranged by ground fire, so for the Mi-24P the Yak-B was replaced by a fixed twin-barrel 30-mm GSh-2-30 cannon.

In the 20 mm category, Nexter produces the low-recoil 20M621 cannon for helicopter applications, notably in the form of the NC621 gunpod, the THL20 turret and the SH20 retractable door mounting.

The 20-mm General Dynamics M-197 is a three-barrel Gatling firing at up to 1500 rd/min. The M-197 arms the US Marine Corps Bell AH-1J/T/W/Z series and is available in GPU-2/A gunpod form.


Rocket projectiles provide greater range and a variety of more effective warhead types. The most widely used rockets are Russia's 57 mm S-5 (now superseded by the 80 mm S-8) and the West's 70 mm/2.75-inch projectiles, notably the General Dynamics Hydra-70 and the Magellan/Bristol Aerospace CRV7.

Laser guidance kits for standard rocket projectiles are being developed by several companies. The BAE Systems APKWS-II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System), although zero-funded in the US Army's FY2008 budget request, is now being supported by the US Navy. Lockheed Martin has meanwhile unveiled its laser-guided 'Hellfire Junior' or Direct Attack Guided Rocket (Dagr). Kongsberg is collaborating with Magellan/Bristol Aerospace on a precision guided rocket named CRV7-PG. Elbit Systems has announced a Star laser guidance kit for 68/70 mm rockets.

Guided Missiles

Utility helicopters may on occasion require lightweight anti-tank guided weapons. Examples include the 45.4/48.2 kg laser-homing Lockheed Martin Hell-fire II, the 23-kg wire-guided Raytheon Tow-2B Aero, the 24-kg wire-guided MBDA Hot 3 and the 49-kg MBDA Pars-3 LR with imaging-infrared guidance. Whereas the Hot 3 has a maximum range of 4000 metres, the Tow-2B Aero can reach 4500 metres. The Pars-3 LR range is 6000 metres, but it has development potential for 8000 metres, the nominal range of the supersonic Hellfire II.

The 26-kg Rafael Spike-ER employs imaging-infrared guidance, with a fibre-optic link that allows the operator to switch targets in flight. The missile weighs 33 kg in its container, and a launcher with four rounds weighs 187 kg. Maximum range is 8000 metres.

Russia offers several replacements for the old KBM 9M120 Ataka (AT-9). The 50-kg supersonic, laser beam-riding KBP 9M121 Vikhr (AT-16) has a range of 10,000 metres but has not been adopted by the Russian Army. A choice of guidance systems (semi-active radar or laser) is provided by the KBM 9M123 Krizantema (AT-15). The KBP Hermes-A has the remarkable range of 15,000 metres, requiring two-phase guidance (inertial and semi-active laser homing).

Air-to-air missiles may be needed for self-defence or to engage low-speed aircraft. The 43.5-kg Molniya/Vympel R-60M (AA-8) has been used for helicopter applications, but there appears to be concern over its terminal effectiveness.

The best solution appears to be adaptations of man-portable surface-to-air missiles, such as the 10.4-kg Raytheon Fim-92 Stinger, the 10.8-kg KBM 9M39 Igla, and the 18.7-kg MBDA Mistral. Of these, the Mistral delivers the heaviest warhead over the longest range (6500 metres).


One of the leaders in stabilised multi-spectral imaging systems is L-3 Wescam, with its MX- turret series. Examples of Wescam's many competition wins include adoption of the MX-15 for the Royal Netherlands Air Force Boeing CH-47F, the MX-15i for the Spanish Army Eurocopter EC135 and the MX-15 True HD for the Canadian Forces Bell CH-146 Griffon. The company's MX-15D turret has been chosen by Agusta Westland for the UK's Future Lynx. Digressing from helicopters, the MX-20 True HD has been selected for the Boeing P-8A.

Another leader is Flir Government Systems, manufacturer of the Star Safire series of day/night multi-sensor turrets, of which over 1600 have been delivered. Following the six-sensor AAQ-21 Star Safire III, in 2007 the company announced an order for its seven-sensor AAQ-22 Star Safire HD turrets to equip UH-60L Black Hawks of the Colombian Air Force.

Flir Systems' baseline Brite Star laser targeting system saw limited service during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The Brite Star II day/night sensor with laser designator/ranger was chosen for the US Army's initial ARH programme.
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Title Annotation:Aircraft: Rotary-wing
Author:Braybrook, Roy
Publication:Armada International
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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