Vulnerabilities of Vertical Lift

15 August 2011


Boeing CH-47 Chinook

Helicopters have become indispensable to military operations of all kinds, yet helicopters remain vulnerable, if not fragile, pieces of equipment. Thus helicopters are used because they are indispensable, and their use results in fatalities because they are vulnerable. The obvious response to vertical lift vulnerability would be to up-armor helicopters, and of course this has been done — to the extent possible. Helicopters possess the speed and mobility that they do in virtue of their light weight. Heavy armor would defeat that mobility and speed, as well as reduce their carrying capacity, whether for soldiers or for guns and ammunition.

Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk

The vulnerability of helicopters has been dramatically and fatally revealed some years ago in Somalia, during the episode recounted in the book and the film Black Hawk Down, and again just earlier this month when a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter was downed in Afghanistan, possibly by an “Improvised Rocket-Assisted Mortar” (IRAM).

Improvised Rocket-Assisted Mortar (IRAM)

A story in Wired magazine, Did a New Taliban Weapon Kill a Chopper Full of Navy SEALs? by David Axe quotes Army Lt. Col. Thomas Gukeisen as saying, “My biggest headache is vertical lift.” This headache follows logically from helicopter indispensability and vulnerability.

Another Improvised Rocket-Assisted Mortar (IRAM)

One approach to vertical lift vulnerability would be a seek an alternative weapons system. This was precisely the idea behind the V-22 Osprey. Because of its own troubled history the V-22 has not realized its full potential on the battlefield. But the idea is sound. The V-22 in its cruising mode would not be the “Complex, slow and low-flying” targets that helicopters are. Since the V-22 has proved problematic, helicopters remain the primary form of vertical lift for infantry infiltration.

V-22 Osprey

In several posts — The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier, Stealth Helicopter Technology, and More Advanced Helicopter Technology among them — I have emphasized the future role of helicopters on the battlefield, and I do not mean to withdraw my comments on the possibilities of armored air assault taking the place of armored cavalry on the ground. Helicopters possess superior speed, superior mobility, superior flexibility, and in this sense they have local theater advantages over both armored cavalry and fixed wing aircraft.

Nevertheless, helicopter vulnerability remains an Achilles’ heel, and this Achilles’ heel both limits their usefulness and limits their employment in the kind of armored air thrust that I have envisioned. The advent of stealth helicopter technologies represents an important development in light of the visibility and audibility of helicopters, and any significant increase in helicopter stealth will result in a significant increase in survivability. (The stealth helicopter technologies recently discussed were of sufficient interest that it was reported in today’s Financial Times that Pakistan allowed Chinese engineers to look over the fragments of the destroyed helicopter left from the Bin Laden raid.) Next to stealth, the other obvious improvement to helicopter technology which could help them to realize their full potential on the battlefield would be to address the vulnerabilities that have been revealed in recent operations.

Helicopter vulnerability needs to be treated differently for vertical lift purposes and attack purposes. These distinct tactical roles involve distinct dangers and vulnerabilities. Some of these vulnerabilities can be addressed by changes in doctrine specifically formulated to address the threat. Doctrine will be distinct for vertical lift and gunships, so the evolution of doctrine in each case must follow an optimization dictated by the tactical role fulfilled by the aircraft.

The bulk of helicopter operations comprises vertical lift for infantry infiltration. The Black Hawk downed in Mogadishu and the Chinook downed in Afghanistan were involved in vertical lift operations, inserting and removing troops in a hostile environment. For this purpose large numbers of troops ride in the craft and the craft must touch down on the ground to perform its function. This makes all of the soldiers on the helicopter vulnerable.

Vertical lift helicopters could learn something from the experience of ships. Large ships are obviously very vulnerable, and this vulnerability has gone so far as to virtually eliminate the traditional battleship from the world’s ocean. The aircraft carrier is the largest naval vessel (valuable for the air arm it projects, and not for its big guns, which were traditionally the value of battleships), and it is very large indeed. Its size makes its highly vulnerable, and numerous counter-measures are in place to protect the vulnerable carrier. Indeed, the carrier does not merely employ counter-measures, but lies at the center of a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) or Carrier Battle Group (CVBG) that is constituted for the purpose of combined arms defense of the carrier.

All of this sounds rather distant from the concerns of vertical lift, but in an age of rapid technological innovation and miniaturization, counter-measures for vertical lift are not unthinkable. Troop-carrying vertical lift helicopters could be fitted with counter-missile batteries and something like a miniaturized version of the Phalanx CIWS (close in weapons system) to automatically engage with any incoming threats. While with ships radar-confusing chaff is employed to confuse radar-targeting systems for weapons, vertical lift helicopters are more vulnerable to visual line-of-sight weapons, so that counter-measures based on sight-confusing technologies could make the helicopter difficult to target — for example, lasers or sound systems might be employed to blind or deafen those targeting helicopters from the ground.

In the further future, employing technologies not yet available but clearly on the horizon, a vertical lift helicopter could have its own miniaturized equivalent of a combat air patrol. That is to say, miniaturized, automatically controlled drones, little more than guns and missile launchers hovering at a given distance from the central helicopter and networked by a central fire control computer, could scan for threats in the vicinity and, being closer, respond quicker to threats on the ground.

Helicopter gunships designed for attack are smaller, faster, and need not drop to the ground for the insertion and removal of troops. For this reason they are less vulnerable than helicopters used for vertical lift, but they are still vulnerable. Some of the suggestions above could be employed for helicopter gunships as well. A swarming mass of helicopter gunships could itself be linked together in a fire control network including outlying sensor drones perhaps flying lower and slower and therefore more sensitive to threats on the ground.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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