This article records some of my thoughts on airmobile forces. Airmobile forces may be taken as those units that utilize the helicopter as their primary means of transportation. Many points of this discussion are also relevant to ground forces that are temporarily relocated by, or assigned to, helicopter transport. The types and design of helicopters needed by a military force in general will also be discussed.
The role usually proposed for airmobile forces in major theatre warfare operations is “vertical envelopment”. The unit leapfrogs the enemy’s ground forces and takes a position where they can menace his rear. A variation of this is using an airmobile force to seize an objective such as a bridge, pass or airfield. The unit lands on or near a location, occupies it and, presumably like paratroopers in World War Two, digs in until relieved by other forces.
The airmobile force’s speed and mobility make it a useful “fire brigade” or reserve that can be rapidly deployed to reinforce areas under threat.
The speed and mobility of airmobile forces makes them useful against elusive foes such as insurgents. Any insurgent of moderate intelligence will hide as soon as he sees or hears a helicopter. It is unusual for an airmobile force to catch insurgents in the open, although there have been occasions when this has happened.
Helicopters can be usefully used to land tracking patrols or dog teams at various locations.
In all airmobile operations, it is prudent for helicopters to make dummy landings at various locations. This will deceive the enemy about the true position of the ground units.
Once an enemy is discovered, airmobile forces can be used to rapidly bring combat power to bear on them or to block escape routes.
Airmobile forces also have a role to play in the destruction of insurgent bases or staging areas. Such camps are often located in places where it is difficult for conventional military vehicles to approach.
Some of these likely roles envision that an airmobile unit will dig in and hold ground. In such an instance, it is highly likely that the forces they must oppose will enjoy an advantage in combat power, particularly in armour.
The unit’s attack helicopters and air support can provide some help against such threats. The ground unit will also need a considerable ground based anti-armour capability. I have seen a TOE for a British Army airmobile battalion from the late 1990s, where each rifle company has two rifle platoons and one anti-tank platoon, the latter each having six Milan teams (12 launchers?). This was in addition to the ATGWs held by the battalion’s support company. Such an allocation of ATGWs for an airmobile force does not seem unreasonable.
The practicality of digging-in “World War Two”-style needs careful consideration. Modern artillery, aircraft and even infantry weapons can bring formidable firepower to bear against any static position. This is a consideration that is not limited to helicopter deployed forces, of course. Positional defence in the future may require frequent movement between a number of alternate hasty fighting positions.
It may not be possible to land airmobile infantry close to their objective. More attention needs to be paid to the fields of air-mechanization or air-motorization. Even if a unit is dug in and holding a position, some ground vehicles will be needed for reconnaissance, patrolling, movement of stores and communication.
An airmobile brigade/group should include a “ground vehicle transportation” battalion. This would consist of a pool of vehicles that can be moved by helicopter.
Lt.Col Michael Robel’s TAB proposal using M113s is a good start towards air-mechanization. A helicopter transported unit may, however, have to operate in areas where vehicles like the M113 might prove too large and unwieldy. Many military forces lack sufficient heli-lift or airdrop resources to move a significant force of M113s.
Insurgents often deliberately locate their bases in areas that are not accessible to standard military vehicles. Lighter vehicles such as the Supacat or a modern version of the Bren/Universal carrier may also be needed, as will quad ATVs and motorbikes.
In many theatres, helicopters are available in scores rather than hundreds. Helicopters are allocated as needed and as available. A full-strength airmobile combat brigade with a full allocation of organic helicopter assets may be a rarity. More practical may be for a helicopter force to be primarily crewmen and technical staff. The unit would also include a small cadre of infantry that are trained in helicopter operations. When the helicopter force is attached to a division, brigade or group, it is brought up to strength using the formation’s own personnel.
What will be the likely size of a fielded airmobile force? An entire airmobile brigade operating as a field force, seems unlikely. More likely is an individual battalion assigned to an areas. The basic unit of deployment may be an assault helicopter/infantry battalion. Units of attack helicopters, heavy-lift helicopter and ground vehicles are attached to this battalion from the airborne brigade, as is seen appropriate. The designed structure of the airborne brigade will need to reflect this mode of operation if this is so.
If the brigade is used to field reinforced battalion-sized units for other formations, this raises the question of what sort of organic artillery assets the airmobile brigade itself needs? In his book “Race to the Swift”, Brigadier Richard Simpkin MC theorizes about an airmobile brigade that includes 20 indirect fire helicopter/vehicles. These would be lift-helicopters that would land small vehicles or pods equipped with rocket batteries. The vehicles would move a short distance from their carriers, fire their rockets and then be recovered and flown to another firing location, reloading during flight.
If an airmobile battalion is serving as part of a larger non-airmobile formation, it can probably rely on that formation for much of its indirect fire support. Another of Simpkin’s ideas was that all armoured, parachute, infantry, marine and airmobile brigades should include an artillery regiment of several battalions’ strength. We now see such an organizational structure in use by some nations.
It is probable, however, that an airmobile brigade would not need organic artillery assets of more than a battalion, and that this would be a mixed unit of helicopter-transportable light howitzers, heavy mortars and rocket batteries.
The prevalence of MANPADS is sometimes raised as an objection to the practicality of modern airmobile formations.
Air-mechanization is a partial answer. A force can be landed some distance from an objective, out of range of likely air defences. The provision of helicopter transportable ground vehicles allows the force to move at speeds faster than a walking pace, and maintain operational tempo. Once air defences are engaged or neutralized by ground units, reinforcements or fire support can be provided by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
MANPADS generally are limited to localized defence. They need to be complimented by cannon and more capable SAM systems.
Many armies lack sufficient anti-aircraft systems to create a comprehensive air defence zone. Defences are localized, allowing airmobile forces to exploit the areas that are undefended. The ground mobility of the helicopter-landed force will be a significant factor in such operations.
The following passage is an extract from an interview with a Soviet soldier who served in Afghanistan and reveals he was not overly concerned with MANPADS:
SP: So you think the effect of the Stinger on the outcome of the War was very minor?
Andrei: Yeah of course. How can you with a shoulder held missile go against lets[sic] say a Grad artillery battery? OK lets say that there is a wing of 6 helicopters and you shot one down. What happens to you and your detachment? Four of the helicopters are gonna come down on you and your detachment with everything they've got. Cannons, bombs, rockets, and the other one is gonna pick up the downed crew. Think about it, they shot at only single, low flying, slow moving helicopters that don't mean shit. Not very often did they shoot one full of troops. Most of the planes shot down were slow moving transport planes, not Mig's. Stingers did not do shit. You can not fight the war on the ground with a shoulder held Stinger. You gotta have tanks, APC's, you gotta have functional weapons, your supplies routes, your logistics have to be in order, your rear echelon has to be there. Not like hide your Chinese AK under your bed, wait and whip it out at night and go shoot some Shuravi (Russians). It's not gonna work that way. The Stingers, although they had an effect, but very minor, and sure as hell did not sway the war towards the rebels. The rebels did not win that war. And talking about Russia loosing [sic] after 1986 due to the Stingers, all you have to do is go on our web site (www.afghanwar.ru) and see how many people were killed during those times. There was no increase in casualties. They were in-line with 1984 and 1985.
There is an obvious lesson in tactics here:
• In threat environments, helicopters need to move in groups.
• All helicopters should have defensive and offensive capabilities.
• At least two helicopters in any formation need to be capable of recovering and carrying downed comrades.
To reduce their visual signature, combat helicopters should be painted a pale grey, the upper surfaces dappled with mid-brown.
In Afghanistan Hind helicopters operated in threes and used a formation that might be termed “two forward and one high”: Two helicopters operated at low-level as a mutually supporting pair. The third used its higher vantage point to direct the pair and observe ground fire.
The Afghans would use high terrain to fire downwards on helicopters. The Hind at higher altitude was in a good position to locate and counter such threats.
Returning to Race to the Swift, Simpkin suggested that an airmobile brigade should have something in the region of 120 helicopters. Sixty of these would be dedicated attack helicopters; forty would be assault/transport and twenty indirect fire.
Simpkin suggests that the majority of this airmobile brigade should be composed of dedicated attack helicopters, such as AH-64 Apache or AH-1 Hueycobras. It must be remembered that Race to the Swift was published in 1985, and the suggestion is in the context of defending the Fulda gap against massed Warsaw Pact armoured forces.
An important role for a modern airmobile formation is counter insurgency, so even in an attack helicopter flight it may be useful if there are aircraft that can pick up allies or non-combatants, or land trackers or other specialists. In the anti-tank role this cargo space may be used to carry additional missiles for reloading, or an infantry team armed with anti-tank weapons.
If a helicopter is brought down, it will be useful if the flight includes an aircraft that can rapidly pick up survivors. The Mil-28 attack helicopter apparently includes a cargo area that can accommodate three people. This seems to be only suited for the emergency pick up of a downed aircrew and is not suited for many of the other missions suggested above.
The above requirement suggests a helicopter flight should include at least two aircraft with passenger-carrying capability to allow for the eventuality that a passenger carrier is the downed aircraft. Rhodesian Fireforce units coordinated attack and transport helicopters with fixed-wing strike aircraft, paratrooper-drops and artillery. In the near future, we may see a similar force also controlling RPVs/UACVs as well. A good case can be made for the command bird in a formation including extra crew members to share the control workload.
These considerations argue against a formation composed only of two-man dedicated attack helicopters with no transport capability.
The attack battalions of the brigade need to be “Pink” formations that combine “Red” dedicated attack helicopters with “White” scout-attack helicopters such as the Westland Lynx. So the pilots of these different types are used to working together, the two types should be organic to the same company or even platoon.
In a another article, Simpkin wrote:
“Rotary-wing machines and their pilots are at once so important and so expensive that I suggest there is only one way to approach the problem-to decide on the true essential minimum and then set about providing that as a matter of priority. I believe it will remain possible to get away with three classes of helicopter-armed scout/communications (which must be Army-flown); utility (Sea King-sized) capable of filling tactical troop transport/lift, anti-tank, ‘gunship’ and assault roles; and a Chinook-class medium lift machine.”
Hammer, Anvil and Net. Richard Simpkin, British Army Review 72, December 1982 (Reprinted in BAR Special Report Vol.1 2017)
Military helicopters are expensive. The development of a good multi-role scout-attack helicopter is more prudent than developing both a dedicated attack helicopter and separate reconnaissance model. The future scout-attack helicopter should have the capability to carry passengers and mission specialists. The capacity of a scout-attack model may be two to three crew plus six to eight pax.
The era of the dedicated attack helicopter may prove to have been a brief one, at least as far as manned aircraft are concerned. It is quite possible that unmanned attack helicopters will have an important role supporting manned scout-attack platforms.
In the past scout-helicopters have usually been adaptations of utility models. The one notable exception that springs to mind was the RAH-66 Comanche. The Comanche only had capacity for its two-man crew, so could not have met many of the roles required of a scout-attack helicopter that I have suggested.
Armour, defensive systems and other necessary equipment should be designed into the scout-attack airframe from the start. For a scout-attack helicopter, sensors and communication equipment are likely to be at least as important as armament.
Scout-attack helicopters will often be required to fly low and use trees or ridges for concealment. The scout helicopter’s primary sensor systems should be mounted above its rotors, rather than in its nose.
Modular design strategies would allow an aircraft to be easily reconfigured for different roles.
Operations in recent decades have retaught the lesson that reconnaissance aircraft should have armament, both for defence and “first response”. Primary weapons of the scout-attack will be rockets and missiles. In the scout role, a light but versatile mix of these weapons for use against air and ground targets will be carried. Heavier loads will be carried in the anti-tank and fire-support roles. The scout-attack model would also make use of reconnaissance UAVs and loitering munitions.
As secondary armament, a .50 machine gun, such as the GECAL 50, may be the optimum with regards to mass and performance. Ideally, this weapon will be mounted in a low-drag turret that provides a 360 degree field of fire. Guns mounted in a “fixed” position, should at least have the option of a measure of independent depression and traverse. If heavier gun armament is desired, there will be provision to mount 20mm, 25mm or 30mm cannon.
In the 1980s, Westland proposed a 2/3 or “2.5 seat” cockpit arrangement for helicopters. Pilot and co-pilot/gunner sit in the front-right and rear-left seat positions. This created space for a third, right-rear seat that could be occupied when needed by a passenger or mission specialist such as an observer, forward air controller, artillery spotter. Such a seating arrangement might prove very useful for a scout-attack helicopter. The scout-attack may also find an optionally piloted mode useful for some environments.
If creating a new model of scout-attack helicopter, consideration should be given to a co-axial and intermeshing rotor configurations. Existing co-axial helicopters such as those of the Kamov Design Bureau have proved the suitability of this configuration for military use. Advantages include increased available power, smaller rotor diameter, reduced noise and increased forward speed. Intermeshing designs (synchropters), such as those by Kaman, have also seen military service and have been noted for their high stability and powerful lifting capability. Both of these configurations eliminate the vulnerable tail rotor. Tail rotor damage has been claimed to have been a significant cause of helicopter losses in Vietnam.
The use of a co-axial configuration would facilitate the scout-attack model being a compound helicopter, along the lines of the Sikorsky X2 Raider or Sikorsky-Boeing SB-1 Defiant, with obvious benefits to performance and utility.
Electric or hybrid-electric technologies may also be worth incorporating in a future scout-attack design, reducing noise signature and increasing range and endurance.
Correctly designed, the scout-attack helicopter could fill a number of roles. Other possible roles include: police patrol, light communication, fast transport, light ASW/ASuW, maritime patrol and boarding-operations.
Earlier in this article, it was explained how a force moved by helicopter would benefit from the provision of ground vehicles in many situations. While an airmobile brigade would include a pool of heavy-lift helicopters, there are obvious advantages if the standard helicopter in the force can transport the lighter vehicles and related systems such as trailer-mounted rocket batteries.
This suggests that a helicopter such as the UH-60 Blackhawk is not the form the standard utility helicopter of a military force should take.
A utility helicopter with a capacity of around 30 pax seems more practical. The model should include a loading ramp to allow the use of light vehicles, towed weapon systems or handcarts. Technologies such as hybrid or electric and compound propulsion would be desirable if practical. The Kamov bureau is planning a thirty-seat compound helicopter for civilian use. Modular design would allow a utility helicopter to be easily reconfigured for different missions.
A number of existing models meet or almost meet these criteria for a multi-role utility helicopter. The HC3 variant of the AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin is used by the RAF for Army transport roles. An earlier equivalent to the Merlin is the Russian Mi-8 and the derived Mi-17 and Mi-38. Although a transport helicopter, the Mi-8 is often referred to as “the most heavily armed helicopter in the world”. It is capable of mounting six rocket pods and four launch rails for a total of 192 57mm rockets and four ATGWs. A flexible 12.7mm MG mounting is provided in the nose, and other machine guns can be mounted in doors and openings.
Although the primary role of a transport helicopter is transport, it must also have the option of being able to carry an adequate armament. Both rocket, automatic grenade launcher and gun systems will be needed to suppress enemy activity on landing zones and to counter-attack discovered air-defence positions.
Other possible roles for the utility class include ASW, ASuW, AEW, AGS, electronic warfare, search and rescue, medivac, fire support and airborne rocket artillery.
It is probable that the majority of an airmobile force’s indirect fire support will be provided by other formations.
Organic indirect fire support capability, if needed, can probably be produced by any helicopter with a suitable loading ramp. Trailer-mounted rocket batteries such as the Brazilian SBAT-70 or similar can be carried in the helicopter and landed at previously scouted firing sites. Weighing 1,000kg when loaded with thirty-six 70mm rockets, one or more launchers can be rapidly wheeled out of each helicopter. They are fired and then returned to their transport to be moved to another firing location and reloaded during transit.
The Rhodesians used Alouette III light helicopters to deploy mortar teams. Once the mortar had been landed, one helicopter would ascend to act as a spotter for the team. The same could be done for rocket batteries, perhaps using a small drone for observation.
If a utility helicopter has hardpoints, it can be used as airborne rocket artillery. Some modern air-to-surface missiles may allow flying helicopters to provide artillery fire against distant target locations.
One of the helicopter’s most important military attributes is its ability to move men and material. It can transport cargoes faster than ground vehicles, or to locations a ground vehicle could not reach. Current helicopter assets are, however, limited as in the size and mass of loads they can move. Lack of ground transportation and heavy equipment severely limits the capability of helicopter-landed forces.
While the Chinook continues to provide good service, something more powerful and with greater internal capacity would obviously be desirable. The CH-56K is one possibility, while the Mi-6 and Mi-26 remain useful, despite their vintage.
The ability to move a combat-ready M113 heavy mortar carrier internally seems a useful objective to aim for in new designs.
The success of the Kaman K-MAX suggests that alternate configurations, such as intermeshing rotors, may be worth consideration.
Any new model of heavy lift helicopter should include a sky crane variant. The use of a pod-configuration may allow the same aircraft to serve as either a sky crane or a large capacity transport. A variety of pod-types would allow easy reconfiguration for different missions.
These three types should meet most military needs.
An additional model, along the lines of the Robinson R44, EC135 or MD 500, will be needed for basic flight training. This model will also be useful for liaison, light transport, light observation and communication.
Any specialized or unconventional applications can be met by the purchase of off-the-shelf models.
By the Author of the Scrapboard :
Attack, Avoid, Survive: Essential Principles of Self Defence
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