‘Fighter pilots who face a trained, deadly and sneaky adversary in an attack helicopter will always see its missiles and guns, and never see a fleeing bunny to add to the kill list,’ Nick Lappos, former US Army AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter pilot.
An attack helicopter is an armed helicopter with the primary role of an attack aircraft, with the offensive capability of engaging ground targets such as enemy infantry, military vehicles and fortifications.
Modern attack helicopters are able to provide security to ground forces, fixed based operations, and aerial escorts; conduct reconnaissance to provide situational awareness to ground forces and higher headquarters; and decisively engage single or multiple enemy combatants to allow freedom of maneuver or protection. They maneuver into enemy territory to conduct deep attacks on strategic targets to set the conditions for favorable ground commander operations.
In 1978/79 US Army and US Air Force conducted a joint experiment called Joint Countering Attack Helicopter (J-CATCH). J-CATCH focused on dissimilar air combat between jet fighters and attack helicopters. To the surprise of many involved in the program, the helicopters proved extremely dangerous to the fighters when they were properly employed, racking up a 5-to-1 kill ratio over the fighters when fighting at close ranges with guns.
‘Ironically, Army aviation dominated the air,’ explained Caleb Posey, AH-64E Crew Chief at US Army, on Quora. ‘Air Force pilots were “shot down” without even knowing the helicopters were there. Apaches can hide in the radar clutter at tree top level, and use the INCREDIBLY sophisticated Longbow system to track literally hundreds of targets simultaneously. If I remember the numbers, the helicopters shot down ~5 fixed wing for ever chopper that got hit. Granted, this tested helos that were loaded with air to air weapons (NOT typical), but still… the Air Force left with the overall idea of “leave enemy helicopters the f**k alone.’
‘A well equipped attack helicopter flown by a trained crew will defeat most fighter airplanes in 1v1 air combat, should the fighter be foolish enough to drop down to try and engage,’ Nick Lappos, Technical Fellow Emeritus at Sikorsky and former US Army AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter pilot, said on Quora. ‘A helicopter immersed in ground clutter is very hard to detect by almost any means, and so is hard to engage. Meanwhile, the helicopter can be equipped with air to air missiles and large caliber guns that easily engage fighters as they maneuver at low altitudes against a blue sky in their attempts to engage the helicopter. The helicopter if properly flown will always maneuver to cut off the angle from the airplane, forcing impossibly steep closure maneuvers for the fighter. Typical helicopter turn rates are 30 to 40 degrees per second, three times that of the fighter, even at high g, so the fighter will find the helicopters weapons always engaging it during any serious contest. If the helicopter gun and missiles were selected for anti-aircraft (like the 30mm guns on the Mi-24 and KA-50/51), the results are that the attack helicopter becomes like a rapidly mobile SAM site, a very dangerous target.’
‘It must be said that the fighter is only vulnerable if it drops down from its normal altitude to engage the helicopter. If the fighter stays high and prosecutes its normal mission, it is nearly invulnerable to the helicopter’s weapons.
‘I have personally flown many such engagements in trials, and the facts are obvious to fighter and helicopter pilots who know. The folks at MAWTS-1 pioneered the concepts I discuss above.
‘When I said clutter, I really meant “intelligent tactical use of clutter, obstructions and terrain”. In the blue sky you always envision, there is nowhere to hide and terrain is to be avoided as a potential threat, in Army combat, terrain is your friend, savior and battle buddy. Fighter pilots who face a trained, deadly and sneaky adversary in an attack helicopter will always see its missiles and guns, and never see a fleeing bunny to add to the kill list. While the fighter is in a blue sky, exposed to everybody within 10 miles, that attack helicopter is now sneaking below the ridge line with no clear line of sight, ready to pop up when the fighter shows its two hot tailpipes. And as far as Doppler radars seeing rotorblades, I have hundreds of hours in a 4th gen helicopter that made that statement quite problematic.’
‘I have no idea why a fighter would engage an attack helicopter, and I can assure you if your erstwhile target is an Apache, KA-50 or Super Cobra with ATA missiles, expect to be surprised.’
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and Capt. Raymond Geoffroy / U.S. Air Force