A rotorcraft often referred to as a rotary-wing aircraft, is a heavier-than-air aircraft with rotor blades that rotate around a vertical mast to generate lift. Rotor blades mount on a single mast as a set. Rotorcrafts, such as helicopters, have one or more rotors that provide thrust during flight. As early as the Korean War, the chopper delivered a substantial contribution to military operations, but more than anything else, Vietnam was the place where it truly matured. In addition to transporting infantry units, troops could transport artillery and amphibious vehicles. They served as a ground-attack craft.
Helicopters are high-value assets for military leaders because of their mobility, operational flexibility, quick deployment, and lethality. Helicopters are fragile and high-value items that need to be handled with great care to ensure safe transit. Flying straight is also one of the most challenging aspects of aviation since it requires more power and control than conventional fixed-wing aircraft. Although the military remains the primary purchaser of helicopters today, several manufacturers also produce smaller training helicopters for general aviation.
Huey, also known as the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, was the backbone of US Army combat troops in Vietnam. As early as 1962, Army pilots began installing automatic 40mm grenade launchers, skid-mounted rocket pods, and remotely trainable 7.62mm machine guns in their turrets. During these operations, which assisted helicopter assault operations, the AH-1G HueyCobra, the first purpose-built helicopter, was developed. McDonnell Douglas AH-64 Apache replaced HueyCobra. Apache is a heavily armored anti-armor helicopter with an advanced navigator, electronic countermeasure, and fire-control system. They were first deployed in 1986 and proved exceptionally successful during the Persian Gulf War.
Helicopters are available in many sizes and types, ranging from two-person private helicopters to giant passenger helicopters that easily carry massive loads to inaccessible locations. Although all helicopters follow the same principles of flight, the tactics for flying them vary due to the specific attributes of the rotor and control systems. Other vertical-lift aircraft use controls and tactics similar to conventional aircraft and helicopters. While they are a small part of the overall picture of flight, they are becoming increasingly important.
According to the worldwide standard, helicopters fall into the categories of light, medium, and heavy-lift. Helicopters with a maximum gross weight of fewer than 12,000 pounds are considered light helicopters. Weighing between 14,000 and 45,000 pounds is deemed a medium-lift. Helicopters that weigh more than 50,000 pounds qualify as heavy lifts, while helicopters that weigh more than 80,000 pounds are considered heavy lifts. The United States Army’s largest helicopter is the 54,000-pound CH-47D Chinook, also known as a medium-lift helicopter.
Helicopters increase in value as they grow in size, either in the purchase price and operating cost. Globally, over 95% of civilian helicopters are “light” due to cost and use. During the first two decades of helicopter development, the military used commercial designs. The ‘big four’ domestic manufacturers of military helicopters are Bell, Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, and Sikorsky. As a general rule, military helicopters are typically larger and heavier than civilian helicopters, with many more “systems” on board, such as sensors, armament, communications, and crashworthy features.
The modernization of the vertical lift fleet is the third top priority of the United States Army, after long-range precision fires and next-generation combat vehicles. The United States Army plans to have an FLRAA (Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft) and a Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft on the ground by FY30. In response to the retirement of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters, the FARA program will address a critical capability gap currently filled by AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and Shadow drones. The Raider X, a coaxial rotor blade design based on the S-97 Raider, is Sikorsky’s proposal for the FARA project. Bell announced its proposal, the 360 Invictus, at the 2019 AUSA annual conference.
The French and German armies adopted Franco-German Tiger combat helicopters in 2009. Originally conceived as an anti-tank platform, it evolved into a versatile attack helicopter, with many variants produced to meet the needs of its operators. France and Germany formalized the Tiger’s modernization as a new defensive stage for Europe in May 2018. Airbus Helicopters, Thales, and MBDA are certified by the European Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR) to perform risk reduction activities on France’s, Germany’s, and Spain’s behalf. Immediately, all Mk3 units should prepare for joint combat.
The Manned Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) system, which allows a helicopter to fly a drone, will be included. The French military could exchange intelligence with the new Scorpion-class frontline battle vehicle by using Tigers.
The competition for the Schwerer Transporthubschrauber (STH), or heavy transport helicopter, will satisfy Germany’s military goal of awarding a contract for the rotorcraft by the year 2030. In 2020, the Bundeswehr requested heavy-lift capacity from the industry. Germany’s aging fleet of Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallions, currently in service with the Luftwaffe, will be replaced by the new aircraft. The expectation is that the final contract will cover 40 to 60 aircraft valued at over €4 billion.
Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd has begun work on a 10-12 ton attack helicopter that would be ready by 2027, comparable to some of the world’s top medium-lift military choppers, such as the Boeing Apache. To replace the Mi-17 fleet, the Indian Army is developing a 10 to 12-ton helicopter. The platform will be homegrown with a production capacity of 500 helicopters. They will have twin engines and can fold their blades for use on the deck.
Helicopter missions include air assault, air transport, combat logistics, and combat search and rescue. A formidable arsenal of weapons will sit on the chopper. The Mi-17 helicopters are the backbone of the Indian Airforce helicopter fleet, with plans to phase them out by 2032.
In mid-2020, US aerospace giant Boeing will hand over the final five of 22 Apache assault helicopters to the Indian Air Force amid rising tensions between India and China.
As part of the assets, the fleet operates from critical air bases along the Line of Actual Control. Mid-2020, Boeing will also deliver 15 Chinook military helicopters to the Indian Air Force, demonstrating its commitment to meeting the operational needs of the Indian armed forces. The AH-64E Apache is one of the most advanced multi-role combat helicopters in the world. Chinooks can transport troops, artillery, equipment, and fuel vertically. India is one of 17 countries to select the Apache, with the AH-64E Apache being the most sophisticated model.