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Helos vs Jets

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Helicopter vs Jet in air combat will surely raise noise levels in any military bar. Paul Kennard examines the issue and provides some answers.

In the seminal Western “A Fistful of Dollars”, gang leader Ramone warns “Joe” (Clint Eastwood) that “When a man with a .45 meets a man with a Rifle, the man with the pistol is a dead man”. Popular opinion places the crew of a helicopter at a similar disadvantage if they come across a Fast Jet aircraft intent on shooting them down. Certainly, the historical record seems to support this contention. Iraqi helicopters were shot down by Coalition aircraft in the first Gulf War, helicopters of both sides were shot down by fixed wing aircraft in the Iran/Iraq and Falklands conflicts and the little reported Angola Bush War saw the SAAF have considerable success engaging Angolan helicopters. However, as with all historical lessons, the key factor is context. An understanding of the terrain, the training, the tactics and the technology used in historical engagements is important; examining them exposes several themes that can help us understand why those engagements were successful for fixed wing crews, and guide us how we could train and equip helicopter crews to survive their threat in the future. We’ll also discuss why many forces don’t…..

Helicopter Vulnerability

Concerns over helicopter vulnerability to fighter attack are nothing new. As early as 1944 the Luftwaffe, as early adopters of helicopter technology, expressed concern committing helicopters into a potential hostile fighter environment. A trial was commissioned which pitched a Me109 and FW190 against a Flettner 282 Kolibri (“Hummingbird”). Both fighters were equipped with gun cameras and told to spend 20 minutes trying to shoot down the helicopter. To the astonishment of many, not a single hit was recorded by either fighter. The fighter pilots encountered extreme difficulty in detecting a well-camouflaged slow-moving helicopter operating at low level. With no radar to guide them, the fleeting “spots” could not be turned into attacks due to the speed differential and the manoeuvrability of the helicopter. Thus from the very dawn of helicopter operations, fly low and use good camouflage and terrain seems a pretty good defence against fixed wing aircraft. It still works too; I’ve flown several hundred “engagements” against non-radar equipped jets (such as Hawks/Alfa Jets/Jaguars/Harriers) and in a large percentage of those engagements, even having told the jet where we were, I’ve had to vector the jet into the merge to get the training benefit – he/she simply couldn’t visually acquire us[1].

More recently, the emergence of the Mi-24 Hind in the mid 1970s drove the US Air Force to commission an investigation into the potential threat it could pose to fixed wing aircraft in the Central Front area of Europe. The evaluation was started in 1978 and titled “Joint Countering Attack Helicopter” (J-CATCH). The first phase looked at data gathering and simulation, then led to three flight phases. Phase one looked at Helicopter vs Helicopter (HvH) and Phase Two examined Helicopter Vs Fighter (HvF). To replicate the capabilities of the Hind, the USAF turned to the CH-3E “Jolly Green Giants” of the 20th Special Operations Squadron (the “Green Hornets”). The crews were given access to the latest classified information on the Hind’s capabilities and TTPs (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) and practiced flying the “Jolly” as a Hind before commencing Phase 2. Additionally, the “Mini-TAT” sighting/gun camera system from a Canadian UH-1 was installed to offer a reasonable facsimile of a turreted gun facility and to provide post flight analysis in the form of “gun tape”[2]. The spirit of the USAF Aggressor squadrons was adopted; the aircraft were repainted, red scarfs were created out of cleaning rags and the crews started painting their helmets to help “get inside the mind” of their Soviet equivalents. The HvH phase pitched US Army AH-1s against the CH-3Es; for Phase 2 the USAF employed a variety of frontline types including the venerable F4 Phantom as well as the more modern A7 and A10 and including the then brand new F15A Eagle. Two weeks of simulated combat sorties ensued. After the first week, the “kill ratio” was in favour of the helicopters. The Jet crews immediately complained that the helicopter crews were not “calling their shots” (eg transmitting “Guns”) when engaging and didn’t realise they were being shot at until the post mission debrief. Therefore, for week 2 the helicopter crews transmitted when they fired – the kill ratio went up further. By the end of the trial the kill ratio was 5:1 in favour of the helicopters. Of the jet aircraft, the only one to achieve parity was the A10.

True Life

The results were somewhat shocking; even the premier new fighter, the F15, had proved vulnerable to helicopters inside guns range. The big tactical “take away” for the Fast Jet community was that shooting down helicopters was not a “white scarf”[3] mission but rather a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) one. Phase 4 of the trial had looked at the “BVR to merge” effectiveness of the two radar equipped jets; the F15 ratio was a more encouraging 2.9:1 using AIM-7 Sparrow at range, though the F4 was still on the wrong end of a 0.7:1 result. The primary conclusions from J-CATCH were that firstly, if possible, Fast Jets should stay well away from helicopters in the low level environment and that, secondly, if tasked to prosecute rotary wing targets they should do so from long range with a radar guided missile. This still presented problems for 1970s radars due to the amount of “clutter” at low level and for the early versions of the Sparrow due to chronic unreliability.

How then, given that historical trials suggest that helicopters are such difficult targets, have recent conflicts suggested to reinforce the stereotype of helicopter vulnerability? In my opinion it comes down to a number of reasons.

  • 1.Ignorance - “It Will Never Happen”. Senior officers and politicians don’t like spending money on capabilities they feel have little utility. “We’ll never send aircraft into a hostile fighter threat” may be the opinion of Senior Officers but it’s impractical in reality. SF aircraft will need to penetrate hostile airspace to deliver their troops and in several recent campaigns “Green” helicopters have been engaged due to fluid front lines. The Falklands Conflict was seen as an “exception” – the loss of the 3BAS[4] Scout to a Pucara on 28 May 82 was largely overlooked in the greater scheme of the air campaign. Likewise, the A10/F15 “kills” in GW1 were lost in the noise of a much larger conflict. The Iran/Iraq war has largely been marginalised by Western militaries and the circa 40 helicopter losses to Fast Jets largely unknown. Western prejudice against the Apartheid regime in South Africa has resulted in that campaign being almost totally ignored. In short, these “exceptions” have happened a lot….helicopters, therefore, have met jets in several recent wars; often with adverse results. Given that the Luftwaffe and USAF trials seemed to indicate that helicopters are difficult to find and kill, why is this the case?

  • 2.Fatalism – “We’ll Lose Every Time”. If Trials suggest helicopters will not lose every time, why does the record suggest otherwise? The answer lies firmly with the Environment, Equipment, Training and TTPs. For example, a Hind was successfully engaged by an F15E during GW1. The Hind was detected on radar by an E3 AWACS that vectored the F15E to the location whereupon the jet located the Hind on its radar. A visual “Tally” (using FLIR) was obtained with the Hind on the ground[5] (the radar was tracking the blades, helped by a paucity of clutter in open desert). The crew selected a LGB over a AIM9 as the former outranged the missile from the height they were at and the Sidewinder was struggling against the hot desert floor to lock the target. The Hind lifted but was well inside the “frag envelope” when the bomb landed and was destroyed. A similar engagement from an A10 flight saw a Mi-8 Hip downed by gunfire after they’d been vectored by AWACS and were flying too low, leaving a visible dust trail behind them. So, fighters 2, helos 0; pretty damning. Training, TTPs & Equipment might have helped both crews. It’s an assumption that neither aircraft was equipped with a RWR[6] with an up to date MDF[7] so they may not have been aware they were being tracked by the E3. The Hind crew appear to have been unaware of being locked by the F15E’s radar. A RWR is a key component of a modern helicopter DAS against both ground and air based radar threats. It also provides valuable Situational Awareness [8] . TTPs should have also included not flying low enough to kick up a dust trail (visible from miles away at height). There is a propensity for helicopter crews not to be “air threat aware” and concentrate the vast majority of their attention on ground based threats – it is essential to maintain a good lookout. TTPs didn’t help the Angolans against the SAAF; their Hips were flying at medium altitude to remain clear of ground fire (a valid tactic in isolation) and were escorted by MiG-21s flying behind. Those of us that have co-ordinated RW escort know how hard it actually is for a FJ to escort a “slow mover package” – it requires a lot of thought, training and co-operation. The Angolans clearly thought that the mere presence of the MiGs would deter the SAAF. By flying at medium level the Hips provided a clear, sky-lined target. SAAF Impala jets were able to fly in at low level (using clutter and camouflage to avoid detection) pull up to engage the Hips and then dive back to low level before the MiGs could intervene. The Scout shootdown in the Falklands is instructive; ambushed by a pair of Pucaras, one aircraft was shot down after a successful initial evasion. The second Scout evaded multiple gun/rocket runs afterwards thanks to a little bit of training and superb crew co-operation. A modest amount of training can go a long way to protecting RW crews.
  • 3.Risk Aversion – “It’s Too Dangerous to Train”. A glance at my logbook reveals that I’ve flown over 200 dedicated Evasion sorties over 10 years against a broad spectrum of threat aircraft as a QHTI trainee, front line QHTI and QHTI Staff Instructor. Absolutely, flying “hi energy” manoeuvres close to the ground can be dangerous but that is why when we teach HvF it starts in the flight simulator[9] as a 1v1 with very “canned” manoeuvres. As the trainee progresses the complexity is gradually increased (live flying, more jets, wingmen, radar threats, E3 support etc) but care needs to be taken not to overload the trainee. It is essential to have a well-briefed adversary aircraft who understands the training that’s being delivered and is not a “white scarf” merchant only interested in his/her own training. Often the sortie is a trade-off between the Helo and the Fighter’s training needs. Lastly, strong supervision is required to ensure that the crews are capable and competent to conduct the evolution. This requires an element of SQEP[10] that is hard earned but easily lost.

  • 4.Cost – “It’s too Expensive”. This covers both the bill for the dedicated training outlined above and equipment for the aircraft. The key equipment for surviving in a hostile air environment are a RWR, Missile Warning System (MWS) for declaring A-A missile shots and suitable Countermeasure Dispensing System (CMDS) to dispense Chaff/Flare and to cue DIRCM and RF Jammers as appropriate. Much of this equipment is exactly the same as a helicopter requires to operate in a “Mud” environment with RF SAMS and MANPADS. Therefore, it comes down to priorities – where do countries spend their money and what do they demand of their helicopter fleets?


Combat History seems to suggest that Ramone was right – the helicopter is “a dead man” when it meets a fast jet. However, it important to remember how Joe defeated him; he placed an iron plate over his heart and goaded Ramone into shooting at it[11]. So utterly convinced of his belief, Ramone refused to acknowledge what was happening. This let Joe close to pistol range and win the engagement. In the Helicopter world a good RWR, SPJ[12]/Chaff capability, MWS, DIRCM/Flares are the iron plate. These let you get into the merge (“pistol range”) – once you’re there you just might get a lucky shot, but your opponent can’t turn his “rifle” quickly enough and will be thinking “fuel, enemy fighters, don’t like that tracer…” and will likely disengage pretty quickly. For the helicopter survival is “winning”.

Only one “winner”? No. But if you don’t invest in training, TTP development and kit on the aircraft be prepared to lose…often.

Paul “Foo” Kennard was a Chinook Qualified Helicopter Tactics Instructor (QHTI) in the UK RAF for over a decade. This included acting as a Staff Instructor and senior supervisor on the UK QHTI course, during which he taught Helo vs Fighter and Helo vs Helo tactics to trainees and standardised other instructors. He continues to lecture as a civilian on the UK and EDA QHTI/HTI courses, presenting a treatise on tactical development from the 1940s to the present day.



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