The past few months have once again highlighted the dangers of flying helicopters in a war zone. The Russian Air Force has suffered two catastrophic helicopter losses in Syria, one Mi-25 and a Mi-8AMTSh, along with several fatalities.
The fog of war, and inevitable Russian secrecy, means that the cause of both crashes remains unknown, although reports suggest both were shot down.
The shooting down of the Mi-8AMTSh, apparently on a humanitarian mission, is particularly noteworthy and provides some food for thought. Mainly, that despite it being fitted with a state-of-the-art self-protection suite – known as President-S – that can counter heat-seeking missiles, it still succumbed to ground fire, most likely from one or several heavy calibre machine guns fired by rebel forces.
The incident shows that no matter how sophisticated your EW technology, it often can’t protect against even the most basic of anti-aircraft weaponry.
Of course, this is not just a problem for Russian forces in Syria, but militaries across the world. The US experienced one of its worst losses in Afghanistan when an RPG hit a CH-47 Chinook in 2011, killing 38 personnel including a significant number of SF operators.
Is the answer to add more systems that can protect against unguided threats? Ideally, yes. Industry has already proposed several solutions including hostile fire indicators and even a hard-kill solution, like those being developed for armoured vehicles. Some of the technology is already being rolled out, along with advanced laser-based technologies that can protect against heat-seeking missiles.
Here lies the problem: many frontline helicopters are now at the limit of their performance capabilities thanks to years of bolting on equipment, without upgrading powerplants.
For some platforms, any additional equipment is likely to severely degrade the aircraft’s performance further, with many helicopters today already struggling in hot and high conditions. Regions of the world that are mountainous or in hotter climates are becoming inaccessible.
Every new piece of technology also takes up valuable payload capacity, often translating into fewer weapons or soldiers being carried or a reduction in range.
The US Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk, for example, is now over a ton heavier than when it first entered service because of the addition of various equipment, mainly during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
If trends continue, it would mean that by 2020 it would take between 15 to 20 helicopters to move a single platoon. That is an unrealistic prospect. The weight problem extends to other US Army platforms as well, including the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter.
Now, some militaries find themselves in a situation where even if they wanted to add equipment to increase survivability, they can’t. Those responsible for making equipment decisions have to make an unenviable choice between potentially degrading performance and payload, or increasing survivability.
Manufacturers are responding by reducing size, weight and power of equipment, but not nearly at the pace that some militaries desire.
Many current generation helicopters will have to gain more engine power to incorporate additional equipment. Boosting power ensures platforms can integrate more systems when the operational environment demands it.
The Royal Air Force, for instance, has upgraded the engines on its Puma HC2 helicopter, allowing it to deploy to the hot and high environments such as Kabul, Afghanistan.
The US Army is planning to upgrade the engines in the Black Hawk and Apache, as part of the Improved Turbine Engine Program. The new 3,000hp engine will provide 50% more power at the same weight of the current engines, according to the service.
This will ultimately allow the integration of more protection systems and may be one way to avoid a similar incident to the Russian helicopter losses in Syria, particularly as western forces are still operating in conflict zones across the world.
What needs to be avoided is simply adding more equipment to protect the crew, without thinking about decreasing power margins or the effect on the helicopter’s performance in the long term.
We delve further into self-protection for combat helicopters in the upcoming September/October edition of Defence Helicopter.