Military & Aerospace

The Helicopter as a Combat Platform
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol. 27.2 Apr-Jun 2012 | Date : 13 Oct , 2012

Attack helicopter AH-64D Longbow

The toned-down version, the AH64, which first flew in 1975, was named Apache in 1981. It is perhaps the most significant of helicopters that flew as combat platforms and continues to provide excellent service around the world even today. Amongst its distinguishing features is its chin which houses two of its most important sensors, the Target Acquisition and Designation system and the Pilot Night Vision System. Later developments on the Apache include four FIM 92A Stinger air-to-air missiles.

The Vietnam War served to instate the helicopter as an indispensable and versatile combat platform.

The Cobra and the Apache represented the US lead over USSR in the area of combat helicopters. However, the appearance of the Mi-24 variants in 1973 reduced this lead considerably. Mi-24 variants included guns, missiles and rockets, and one version even carried eight troops. The Soviet entry into Afghanistan in 1979 provided another significant arena for the helicopter. The Mi-8 and the Mi-24 were the protagonists in the bloody battle between the Mujahidin and the Soviet troops. The Soviet tactic was to insert reinforced rifle battalions deep behind enemy lines using Mi-8s with fire support by Mi-24s. The introduction of the shoulder-fired Stinger missiles via the Pakistani conduit reduced the lethality of this combination somewhat and led the US to incorporate measures to counter heat-seeking missiles. The Mi-24 evolved into the export/upgrade variants Mi-25/35 and the experience with them convinced the Soviet military of the need for specialised helicopters. As a result, the Ka-50 and the Mi-28 were born in 1982. These types had design features closer to the US philosophy and indeed, the Mi-28 was similar to the Apache in many ways.

Post Vietnam, the helicopter was used in counter-insurgency roles, often under the auspices of the UN. During the Falklands War, both protagonists used about 200 helicopters in all for long range naval and amphibious warfare. Amongst others, the Gulf Wars, the West Asian conflict and the Indo-Pakistani stand-off have all witnessed extensive use of helicopters for Suppression of Enemy Air Defence, transportation, communication and SAR. According to one account of the Gulf Wars, the Apache was responsible for destroying 837 tanks/tracked vehicles, 501 wheeled vehicles, 66 bunkers, 12 helicopters and ten fighter aircraft on the ground, 120 artillery sites and 42 SAM/AA sites. The combat philosophy of the Apache and Mi-24 was also imbibed by some other helicopter types although high costs and immense complexity kept proliferation to a handful. One prominent type is the Italian Agusta A-129 Mangusta (first flight 1983, service entry 1990), which has day/night and anti-tank capability.

The Mi-6, which first flew in 1957, could carry more than 20 tonnes of load and was the world’s largest helicopter then.

The Future

The first two decades after the first helicopter flight barely saw any progress in terms of performance, design features or employability (roles/ tactics). Thereafter, the pace of development was rapid and today, the helicopter is an aerial combat platform capable of every role that a fixed wing aircraft is capable of with the exception of strategic strike. In addition, its special characteristics endow it with the wherewithal to execute missions like Operation Geronimo. Several types of rotary wing of remotely piloted vehicles also exist.


Development in the field of tilt rotors have produced designs that permit vertical take-off and subsequent in-flight tilting of the rotor system forward to act as thrust-producing propellers, thus permitting high transit speeds in combination with vertical lift off. In general, however, the high cost of development and operation as also increasing design complexity has rendered niche roles passé. Multi-role versatility is the buzzword, with design philosophy having completed one full cycle of revolution. Starting with general purpose helicopters from Bell and Sikorsky, and traversing the specialisation stages of the 1960s, philosophy again focuses on multi-role helicopters.

Perhaps a suitable parting note would be a mention that in several conflict situations in recent years, the first offensive missions into enemy territory have been executed by rotary winged combat platforms.

1 2 3
Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left