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An attack helicopter is a military helicopter specifically designed and built to carry weapons for attacking targets on the ground, such as enemy infantry, armored vehicles and structures. Weapons used on attack helicopters can include autocannons, machine-guns, rockets, and guided missiles such as the Hellfire. Many attack helicopters are also capable of carrying air to air missiles, though mostly for purposes of self-defense. Today's attack helicopter has two main roles: first, to provide direct and accurate close air support for ground troops, and the second, in the anti tank role to destroy enemy armor concentrations. Attack helicopters are also used to supplement lighter helicopters in the armed scout role.
In the mid-1960s the U.S. Army concluded that a purpose-built attack helicopter with more speed and firepower than current armed helicopters was required in the face of increasingly intense ground fire (often using heavy machine guns and anti-tank rockets) from Viet Cong and NVA troops. Based on this realization, and with the growing involvement in Vietnam, the U.S. Army developed the requirements for a dedicated attack helicopter, the Advanced Aerial Fire Support System (AAFSS). The aircraft design selected for this program in 1965, was Lockheed's AH-56 Cheyenne.
As the Army began its acquisition of a dedicated attack helicopter, it sought options to improve performance over the continued use of improvised interim aircraft (such as the UH-1B/C). In late 1965, a panel of high-level officers was selected to evaluate several prototype versions of armed and attack helicopters to determine which provided the most significant increase in capability to the UH-1B. The three aircraft ranked highest during the evaluation; the Sikorsky S-61, Kaman H-2 Tomahawk, and Bell Huey Cobra, were selected to compete in flight trials conducted by the Army's Aviation Test Activity. Upon completion of the flight evaluations, the Test Activity recommended Bell's Huey Cobra to be an interim armed helicopter until the Cheyenne was fielded. On 13 April 1966, the U.S. Army awarded Bell Helicopter Company a production contract for 110 AH-1G Cobras.
The Cobra had a tandem cockpit seating arrangement (vs UH-1 side-by-side) to make the aircraft a smaller frontal target, increased armor protection, and greater speed.
In 1967, the first AH-1Gs were deployed to Vietnam, around the same time that the Cheyenne successfully completed its first flight and initial flight evaluations. And while the Cheyenne program suffered setbacks over the next few years due to technical problems, the Cobra was establishing itself as an effective aerial weapons platform, despite its performance shortcomings compared to the AH-56,
and design issues of its own. By 1972, when the Cheyenne program was eventually cancelled to make way for the Advanced Attack Helicopter (AAH) , the ''interim'' "Snake" had built a solid reputation as an attack helicopter.
After Vietnam, and especially into the 1990s, the missile-armed attack helicopter evolved into a primary anti-tank weapon. Able to quickly move about the battlefield and launch fleeting "pop-up attacks", helicopters presented a major threat even with the presence of organic air defenses. The gunship became a major tool for both the US Army and their Warsaw Pact counterparts in tank warfare, and most attack helicopters became more and more optimized for the antitank mission..
[Mazarella, Mark N. [http://cgsc.cdmhost.com/cgi-bin/showfile.exe?CISOROOT=/p4013coll2&CISOPTR=1135&filename=1136.pdf#search=%222007%22 "Adequacy of U.S. Army Attack Helicopter Doctrine to Support the Scope of Attack Helicopter Operations in a Multi-Polar World"]. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1994. Accessed on 12 December 2007.] The US Marine Corps continued to see the helicopter, as well as its fixed-wing aviation assets, in the close support role, although the Marines did dedicate a close-support helicopter in the form of the AH-1 Cobra and AH-1 Super Cobra. Soviet helicopters retained troop transport capability rather than being attack-only.
While helicopters were effective tank-killers in the Middle East, attack helicopters are being seen more in a multipurpose role. Tactics, such as tank plinking, showed that fixed-wing aircraft could be effective against tanks, but helicopters retained a unique low-altitude, low-speed capability for close air support. Other purpose-built helicopters were developed for special operations missions, including the MH-6 for extremely close support.
The "deep attack" role of independently operating attack helicopters came into question after a failed mission, during the 2003 Gulf War attack on the Karbala Gap.
A second mission in the same area, four days later, but coordinated with artillery and fixed-wing aircraft, was far more successful with minimal losses.
Modern attack helicopter
British Army Westland WAH-64 Apache Longbow
During the late 1970s the U.S. Army saw the need of more sophistication within the attack helicopter corps, allowing them to operate in all weather conditions. With that the Advanced Attack Helicopter program was started. From this program the Hughes YAH-64 came out as the winner. The Soviet armed forces also saw the need of a more advanced helicopter. Military officials asked Kamov and Mil to submit designs. The Ka-50 officially won the competition, but Mil decided to continue development of the Mi-28 that they had originally submitted.
The 1990s could be seen as the coming-of-age for the U.S. attack helicopter. The AH-64 Apache was used extensively during Operation Desert Storm with great success. Apaches fired the first shots of the war, destroying enemy early warning radar and SAM sites with their Hellfire missiles. They were later used successfully in both of their operational roles, to direct attack against enemy armor and as aerial artillery in support of ground troops. Hellfire missile and cannon attacks by Apache helicopters destroyed many enemy tanks and armored cars.
Today, the attack helicopter has been further refined, and the AH-64D Apache Longbow demonstrates many of the advanced technologies being considered for deployment on future gunships. The Russians are currently deploying the Ka-50, and Mi-28, which are roughly equivalent though these attack aircraft are not linked into a command and control system at a level which is quite comparable to current U.S. equipment. Many students of ground attack helicopter warfare feel that linking into a network is a requirement of today's modern armies, since attack helicopters are being increasingly incorporated as part of a linked support element system by most of the armies of the world. This doctrine is known a Network-centric warfare in US military circles.
Modern examples include:
* TAI/AgustaWestland T-129
* AgustaWestland AW129
* AH-1 SuperCobra
***AH-1T Improved SeaCobra
***AH-1W SuperCobra (Whiskey Cobra)
* AH-1Z Viper (Zulu Cobra)
* AH-64 Apache
* Denel AH-2 Rooivalk
* Eurocopter Tiger
* Kamov Ka-50
* Mil Mi-28