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Helicopters of the NATO during the Cold War

By Sakhal

In the 1980s, seven countries of the NATO (Belgium, Great Britain, France, West Germany, Italy, Holland and United States) had or expected to have in service attack helicopters, those whose main mission is general and anti-tank combat. Since time ago, the armies of the NATO already possessed helicopters for reconnaissance and transport of loads and troops, all of them with well determined missions.

But, as it happened with the armies of the Warsaw Pact, the role of attack helicopters started then to be defined, for there was no previous experience on large scale operations of this nature in the European theater. The main role of the attack helicopters of the NATO would be, in any case, to defeat the enemy formations that managed to penetrate through their own lines. The main helicopters available in the arsenal of the NATO during the 1980s to carry this type of missions were the British Lynx, the French Puma, the German PAH-1, the Italian Mangusta and the American Cobra. The AH-1S Cobra was the only model exclusively developed as gunship helicopter, being its main weapon the anti-tank missile TOW, complemented by one 20-millimeter cannon. Its maximum speed in the configuration TOW was 315 kilometers/hour and its operational range was 500 kilometers. The Lynx and the Puma were the result of a French-British combined production program. These helicopters could be modified for a wide range of missions. In gunship configuration, the Lynx AH Mk 1 was armed with one 7.62-millimeter machine gun, six or eight anti-tank missiles of different models (TOW, HOT, AS 11) or two launchers for 68-millimeter rocket. The basic model had a cruise speed of 282 kilometers/hour and an operational range of 540 kilometers. The Puma could carry similar armament with similar speed and operational range. The Italian A 129 Mangusta was the first attack helicopter designed in Western Europe for night and all-weather operations, like the American AH-1S; in that time it was the most advanced combat helicopter designed in Europe, whose concept of modern attack helicopter had no rival in the world except the American AH-64, which was being developed parallely. The A 129 was armed with one 7.62-millimeter machine gun and eight anti-tank missiles TOW. One of the first versions, the A 109, was armed with four TOW or alternatively 19 rockets of 70 millimeters. Its maximum speed was 310 kilometers/hour, with a flight duration of two hours and half for anti-tank missions, plus 20 minutes of fuel reserve. The German PAH-1 was a derivative of the MBB BO 105; in its basic configuration it served as a transport helicopter with capacity for ten soldiers, being armed with six anti-tank missiles. During the early 1980s Belgium and Holland decided to acquire attack helicopters.

Helicopters of the NATO during the Cold War

The Agusta A 129 Mangusta was the first all-weather attack helicopter manufactured in Europe.

Helicopters of the NATO during the Cold War

Diverse configurations of the A 129 Mangusta. From top to bottom: anti-tank, observation/close support, air defense and anti-ship.

In 1981, the NATO had in Europe a total of 600 attack helicopters. It was estimated that in the mid decade the number could reach a thousand or be even higher if the old models would not be retired. The manner in which it were organized and employed the combat capacity of the modern attack helicopters would be at least so important as the quality of the armament used by them. United States, due to its wide combat experience in Vietnam, had the highest organization, denominated Air Cavalry Attack Brigade (ACAB). In the mid 1980s, every American division would include one of these brigades. The ACAB was the result of a series of studies carried between 1978 and 1980, to determine the necessities of the heavy and light divisions, corps and lower levels. The conclusions determined that it would be required to introduce a significant increment in firepower and tactical mobility, both in heavy and light divisions, to be able to carry out the foreseeable missions in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Only helicopters offered the means to reach these advantages with a sole instrument. The 9th Infantry Division, based in Fort Lewis, Washington, was the first unit provided with an ACAB in April 1980. In August of the same year it was validated the usefulness of the ACAB units in the heavy divisions, and from there it started the global process of transition.

Helicopters of the NATO during the Cold War

The United States Army received from 1969 a total of 2200 Bell OH-58A Kiowa, armed with one 7.62 millimeters multi-barrel machine gun. It was indeed a very humble weapon system compared with the modern attack helicopters that would come later.

Helicopters of the NATO during the Cold War

In the 1980s the Bell AH-1 Huey Cobra was still widely used by the United States Army, since this one was in fact the most powerful combat helicopter in service before the arrival of the AH-64.

On the other hand, there was an important change in the employment of the units of American Air Cavalry during the 1970s. The missions of localization and tracking of the enemy, which had been the main role of the helicopters, were being replaced by roles of destruction. Because of that, the two units of Air Cavalry that composed an ACAB were much smaller than their predecessors. Theattack helicopters units became the key of the effectiveness of an ACAB. Its strenght had to be felt in those situations where quickness of response is important, when in the combat area there are insufficient allied ground forces or when said forces lack mobility due to the terrain in which they are. These units were integrated in the tactical planification of the ground command, to take advantage of their mobility, flexibility and long-range heavy firepower. The experience from the Second World War to the 1970s, regarding aviation, advised the strategists of the United States Army to keep unity in the command for all the air units in a division, and on the other hand, to separate the command, control and communications of combat and support forces.

Albeit many doubts existed about the capability of the units of the type ACAB to operate in the sophisticated European theater, a test carried out in 1973 in Ansbach, West Germany, contributed the most reliable data up to that date about the usefulness of combining reconnaissance and attack helicopters. In most part of combat situations, the average of losses in the engagements between helicopters and tanks was 18 to 1 favorable to the first ones, and in the case in which it was considered an attack from helicopters to enemy penetration forces, the relation reached 30 to 1. The definitive data that led to the integration of the ACAB in the ground forces was the discovery, during maneuvers of the NATO carried out in 1979, that the commanders of the aviation battalions considered that their units were excessively large to keep an effective control over them. The Combat Support Aviation Battallion (CSAB) had as purpose to attend both the ACAB and the division globally. In respect of the division, it directed air operations, facilitating data for correcting artillery fire and supplying flying devices for command and control. The artillery advanced observation helicopters were to support all the elements involved. The main maneuver elements of the ACAB were the two Attack Helicopter Battalions (AHB), whose mission was to find, track and destroy the enemy armored and mechanized forces as element of a compound of combined arms.

Helicopters of the NATO during the Cold War

A tactical transport UH-60A Black Hawk of the United States Army.

The basic combat element of the AHB was the company, composed of four reconnaissance helicopters and seven attack helicopters. The mission of the first ones would be to localize the target and to protect the second ones while they carried out their task. Each one of the AHB was composed of three companies of this type. Air Cavalry Squadrons continued performing reconnaissance missions, but with lesser intensity than before. Albeit directed in a centralized way, the ACAB was not intended to be used as a sole unit. Conversely, its normal employment would be the separated utilization of the AHB, along with each one of the two ground divisionary brigades that probably would attack separately (American doctrine was prone to the creation of a third reserve brigade). The Cavalry Squadron would act independently, under the direct control of the division. The commander of the ACAB would determine the combination of reconnaissance and attack helicopters to be used. It could employ all the companies simultaneously to immediately produce the greater impact or employ them rotationally to keep a lesser but continuous pressure. The British conception of the employment of helicopters was generally similar to the one of the United States. In the British Army of the Rhine, the Westland Scout armed with SS-11 anti-tank missiles were to be replaced by five squadrons of anti-tank helicopters, each of them composed of 12 Lynx armed with TOW.

Helicopters of the NATO during the Cold War

A Chinook HC1 of the British Air Force transporting a container of the United States Army.

The units of the British Army had provided a meticulous reconnaissance plan in all those areas under the responsibility of a division in which the enemy could have penetrated. This planification anticipated the coordination of the counterattack by combat helicopters supported with artillery fire, while reconnaissance helicopters would carry out a continuous tracking to localize the targets that should be attacked. The French Puma were organized in five regiments of combat helicopters, with a combination of aircraft similar to the one used by the ACAB. Operating along with the light tank destroyers AMX-10RC and other support vehicles, this force of great speed and mobility supposed a strategic reserve for the OTAN whose power had not been fully appreciated, in the expectancy of more powerful helicopters. Meanwhile, France and West Germany were working in the development of a joint program to produce an improved PAH-2. However, difficulties arose, since France preferred to use light helicopters fitted with night and all-weather sensors, while Germany seemed to prefer a heavier helicopter with greater survivability, fitted with American sensors.

In the mid 1980s would enter service a much more powerful attack helicopter, the American AH-64, equipped with up to 16 Hellfire anti-tank missiles, whose prestations were notably higher than the ones of the TOW, 76 rockets of 70 millimeters and a powerful 30-millimeter cannon with 1200 rounds, rendering the AH-64 an incredible gunship helicopter. It was in fact considered in the moment of its introduction as the most well protected helicopter existing. Its armor - protecting the crew cell - was deemed as resistant to impacts from 23-millimeter projectiles and deemed as invulnerable against 12.7 millimeters bullets. The AH-64 had a high degree of maneuverability and it was capable of flying with only one of the engines working; flight control systems were duplicated and fuel tanks self-sealing. All of these characteristics ensured substantial improvements in respect of the helicopters employed in Vietnam. If the United States Army, in a tactical plane, would trust more in attack helicopters than in tanks, it could reach a higher capability regarding strategical deployment. For this purpose, the operational range of the AH-64 would reach 1500 kilometers, without refueling, as demonstrated by a flight test following the route Newfounland (Labrador) - Greenland - Iceland - Prestwick (Scotland). It was also considered the possibility to refuel in flight. The perspective of a strategic reserve of fast deployment composed of attack helicopters was much more attractive than the existing until then, in which large quantities of heavy armament had to be embarked, part of which could not even be used for training, for them should be always available to depart. For such, the AH-64 was called to transform the combat tactics.

Helicopters of the NATO during the Cold War

The Hughes AH-64 Apache had the impressive price of seven millions of dollars when it was introduced; but despite of this, the United States Army expected to buy more than a thousand of them, the first of which entered service in March 1984.

Helicopters of the NATO during the Cold War

Comparison of combat helicopters from the Warsaw Pact and the NATO, with indication of maximum speed, operational range and troop transport.

Categories: Helicopters - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-01-10

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