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Armament using helicopters will be extremely relevant in future conflicts
 


Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)

The armament using helicopters or combat helicopters can be classified into two categories i.e. the armed helicopters/gun ships and the modern day dedicated attack helicopters (AH). Both are military helicopters, wherein the armed helicopters are normal utility, cargo or reconnaissance modified with weapon mounts for defence against and attacking targets on the ground. The purpose of modification could be field expediency during combat as well as the need to maintain helicopters for missions that do not require weapons.

The AH on the other hand is specifically designed and built to carry weapons for engaging targets on ground and air with special emphasis on anti-tank role.
The weapons include machine guns, cannons, rockets and guided missiles for air-to-ground and air-to-air engagement. Modern day AH have two main roles of providing direct and accurate close air support for ground troops and anti-tank role to destroy enemy armour. Specialised armed helicopters flying from ships at sea are equipped with weapons for anti-submarine and/or anti-shipping operations.

The Concept
The concept of armament using helicopters evolved with the French during the Algerian and first Indo-China wars (1954-62) in the form of modified armed helicopters. The first use of armed helicopters by USA in large scale combat operations was in Vietnam. Until Vietnam conflict, military helicopters were mostly used for troop transport, observation and casualty evacuation. These helicopters while flying missions, often came under heavy fire resulting in the need for arming them. The Huey UH-IC troop transporter was modified with stub wings attached to its fuselage and kitted with machine guns and rockets. The other helicopters modified as armed helicopters were the Sikorsky and Chinook CH-47. This was a quantum jump from the manned door fitted machine guns of the earlier versions of armed helicopter.

During the Sixties the Soviet Union also felt the need for armed helicopters and modified the military MI-8 troop transporter helicopter with weapon pods for rockets and machine guns. This subsequently led to the development of a dedicated armed helicopter/gunship the MI-24 which saw active action in Afghanistan during the Eighties. In our context we had earlier MI-8 and Ranjeet (modified Cheetah helicopter), fitted with machine guns fired from the side doors. Presently the MI-17 and Lancer (Cheetah helicopter) are modified for armed role capable of mounting guns and rockets.
          
 
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  With the armed helicopter/gunship concept battle proven, began the development of dedicated AH with the primary aim of engaging tanks. The late Seventies/early Eighties saw the advent of AH like the American Apache (AH 64A) and upgraded Huey Cobras (AH 1), the Soviet MI-24 and the Italian Mangusta (A-129). While some questioned the relevance of these dedicated AH due to increased cost over gun ships, the 1991 gulf war put at rest these doubts. Fleets of Apaches and Huey Cobras dominated Iraqi armour in the open desert during the war. In fact, the Apaches fired the first shots of war destroying early warning radars and SAM sites with hellfire missiles.
 
The Soviet operations in Afghanistan during 1979-1989 saw the emergence of the MI-25/MI-35 AH, a variant of the MI-24. We have in our inventory the Russian MI-25/ MI-35 AH which are vintage, though certain amount of upgrading has been carried out to make them night capable.

Types of Armament
The most common weapons are machine guns and rockets for use against soft targets on the ground and for self defence while transporting troops over conflict areas. While armed helicopters have mostly used direct firing weapons with bombs considered more appropriate for fixed wing aircraft, certain armed helicopters have successfully lent themselves to use with heavy bombs. The US Army used the Chinook helicopters for dropping bombs to clear landing zones and saturate base camps and infiltration routes during Vietnam War. Armed helicopters today can also be fitted with mine dispenser/mine clearance systems. The mine dispenser system is fitted on the US Black Hawk 139. The system is composed of racks on both sides of the helicopter for up to 40 canisters. Each canister contains six anti-tank and one anti-personnel mine. The rapid airborne mine clearance system is another armament sub system where the intended targets are naval mines. The system comprises of a single modified, 30mm cannon for targeting and neutralising the mines in shallow depth and is fitted on the US naval Black Hawk helicopter.
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