The invention of the parachute, cargo glider and the helicopter created a new strategic option for commanders, which is known as "vertical envelopment". Rather than breaking through a foe's defensive line it was now possible to jump over it and land a force of useful size in the heart of his territory. Here they could seize vital objectives, destroy vital rear areas and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Or so the theory goes.
In practice paratroopers or air assault units are landed with few if any ground vehicles. Only moving as fast as they can march they can easily be out maneuvered by enemy units with access to trucks or cars. Limited to what they can on their backs makes them highly vulnerable to enemy forces with even modest quantities of light armour. Does it have to be this way? In a word, No.
For several decades Russian airborne divisions have fielded a large number of armoured combat vehicles capable of being air-dropped or helicopter transported. These include assault vehicles, armoured personnel carriers and support vehicles. Currently US airborne forces have no such vehicles. This is not because the US lacks any suitable systems. The M113 can be air-dropped and transported by CH-47 Chinook. Thousands are in US service but few are in the hands of the 82nd Division. The M8 AGS, has been type classified, can be parachute inserted and offers 105mm firepower, but has not been adopted. The German Wiesel vehicle can be inserted by smaller helicopters. The tools are there, but not being used.
Another intriguing suggestion is the Very Heavy Lift Helicopter (VHLH) proposed by Prof. Gabriel D. Boehler and Maj. William C. Schneck in a paper to the American Helicopter Society's 52nd Annual Forum 1996.
Briefly, this paper indicates that it is possible for a helicopter with a pair of Mi-26 type engines in a Chinook style configuration to lift a weight of 70 tons and carry it 100 nautical miles.
The potential of such a system is impressive. One of the practical applications of this is that a battalion of such VHLHs can insert a Battalion strength Armoured Task Force of Bradleys, 155mm SPHs and M1 Abrams MBTs deep into the enemy rear area. Just four sorties of such a helicopter can supply the same force with all its logistical needs for a day.
If a VHLH can transport a 70 ton tank 100 miles it can obviously move lighter vehicles or loads a greater distance.
The VHLH has many other applications other than vertical envelopment. The VHLH's ability to lift large quantities of stores makes it a useful resupply platform for any ground unit, not just those deep in the enemy's rear. The VHLH could carry large pre-fabricated buildings, making it very useful in disaster relief operations or the establishment of field hospitals. On a more commercial note, Logging companies have shown an interest in the VHLH and it may see applications in construction projects.
Major Schneck was kind enough to send me a copy of the paper, and below are some of the comments I made:-
"The paper arrived last night. Very nicely done and very readable. I kept thinking of points only to see you covered them a paragraph or so later. The term "State of the Art" is used often, which to me seems to imply that the idea is just beyond our tech level or very difficult. In fact, building the VHLH is more a matter of scale the Transmission being the only part that might have a few pencils chewed. I've made a quick sketch, within the limits of the paint program. This is all fairly arbitrary since I'm no aeronautical engineer, but I think it provides a better illustration than the picture with the underslung pod in the paper.
As you can see, most of the airframe is built from steel girder work. Would not hurt if you have a civil engineer familiar with bridges for this part of the design. This construction cuts down weight and drag. It will also provide less resistance to crosswinds and many types of AA fire will just whistle through.
The red circle is the control cabin. I see no reason why you can't use that of a Chinook or Sea Stallion for this part.
Between the landing legs are aerofoil wings. These provide extra lift in forward flight, particularly if flying close to the ground.
The jet pods also help provide more efficient forward propulsion. With vectored thrust they might also provide reserve power during take off. (In a later paper Maj. Schneck points out that the engines for a 737 would be very suitable for the propulsion of a VHLH and that by using these and add on fixed wings the VHLH would have transcontinental deployability, flying like a conventional aircraft.)
I've drawn this with twin co-axial drives, as I've suggested. The blue pod on top of the mast is a "look up" sensor to spot threats from a higher altitude (ie-fighters).
You'll notice that I've made the cargo area bigger than a M1 Abrams. You've mentioned applications for the logging industry, and 70+ tones of wood takes more space than an MBT. In a military application the VHLH could carry three M113s as shown, even if they were up-armoured models. Alternately this configuration could carry a large pallet or trailer of supplies in addition to a M2 Bradley or a M8 AGS. Making the VHLH slightly bigger in this way means the task force can be positioned with less sorties, decreasing the chance of loosing VHLHs and giving a quicker build up of force.
The VHLH could also be used in fighting forest fires. I've some vague idea of using the suction created by the engines to pump river water into a water pod more quickly.
On the topic of escorts. I'd go as far as suggesting that the VHLH battalion have its own organic squadron of escort copters. I'm not sure that the Apache is that suited to this role. The Cobra or Commanche might be better wrt armament. Of course, "escort" will infact mean very aggressive screening ahead and to the flanks of the VHLH force. G2mil has covered the concept that Anti-radiation missiles suitable for use on helicopters exist, but are not used. Many enemy ADA units would be very vulnerable to a mixed bag of Hydra FFARs. A ripple of smoke, chaff, flechette and bomblet should disrupt them long enough for the VHLHs to get by or for the escorts to close within cannon range. Many fixed wing aircraft may be suitable for escort duty. The A-10 possibly, and the Skyraider if we still had them. This may be another role for the Buzzard or the pure attack variant I've suggested.