Flick-knifes vs Jungles

In response to the problems of policing the UN ‘no-fly’ zone over Bosnia, the Royal Navy and RAF have been playing ‘hunter’ and ‘hunted’ in the hill of central Wales. A report by Patrick Allen.

IN THE PAST, fast jets were not considered a major threat to helicopters. Air defence lighters were usually busy at higher altitudes, worrying about their combat air patrol (CAP) area and looking for enemy air defence aircraft. Close air support and low-level bomber/attack aircraft usually had their specific targets and were either time or fuel critical as they executed their specific missions. If these aircraft accidentally crossed the path of helicopters, they seldom had the time to waste initiating an attack. If they did have a go, it was normally half-hearted and short in duration.

The temptation to attack opportune targets, such as helicopters, could compromise the original mission and there was always the risk of being attacked by escorting attack helicopters or close air support aircraft, or alternatively from an unseen air defence asset.

Air defence fighters or low-level strike/attack aircraft would seldom waste on expensive air-to-air missile on a low-priority helicopter and would probably opt for a quick, passing attack using cannon/guns. This type of opportune attack would normally take place on the return from a strike mission when the aircraft would have dropped its ordnance and may perhaps, have a few spare minutes of fuel. This was admirably demonstrated during the Falklands War (Operation Corporate) when helicopters were seldom attacked by Argentine fast jets as they attacked their high priority targets.

Fast jet pilots normally report the position of enemy helicopters and allow other more suitable assets, such as attack helicopters/close air support/ground attack aircraft, to engage these types of targets.

If however, helicopter operations are a priority target for the air defence fighter, as demonstrated by the UN ‘no-fly’/air exclusion zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina, life for the helicopter becomes increasingly demanding and dangerous. During the Gulf War (Desert Storm) Coalition strike and air defence aircraft such as the F-14, F-15 and A-10 managed to successfully shoot down Iraqi helicopters by day and night using either guns or AIM-7F/M Sparrow air-to-air missiles. On one occasion, a helicopter was even destroyed using a laser-guided bomb.

Operation ‘Grapple’ Tornado F.3s vs Sea King 4s

The potential battle between air defence fighters and helicopters was admirably demonstrated during a fighter affiliation/evasion exercise which took place in the low flying area (LFA) around Llanidloes, North Wales, in May 1993.

This exercise involved two separate pairs of Tornado F.3s from both 23 and 25 Squadrons based at RAF Learning, supported by on AEW. 1 Sentry (AWACS) from 8 Sqn. Their quarry was three Royal Navy Commando Seo King HC.4s, one from 845 Naval Air Sqn (UN white painted ‘TF’) and two from 846 Naval Air Sqn (Jungle green painted ‘VO’ and W) home based at RNAS Yeovilton, Somerset.

All five squadrons taking part in the exercise are involved in ‘Operation Grapple’. Both RAF Tornado squadrons are due to send aircraft/personnel to join 11 Sqn based at Gioia del Colle, Italy, supported by three RAF 8 Sqn Senfrys plus E-3As from NATO’s NAEWF fleet.

845 Naval Air Sqn is currently based at Split, Croatia, undertaking the UN support helicopter mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, while 846 Naval Air Sqn is based aboard HMS Ark Royal (soon to be HMS Invincible) operating off shore in the Adriatic.

Fighter affiliation

The exercise began at 12.30 local time with the three Sea Kings flying in loose tactical formation entering the designated exercise area. The LFA is located in central Wales in hilly countryside with numerous valleys, reservoirs, moorland and pine forests. Transiting north along the valleys, the Sea Kings flew at heights below 100ft (30m) and with the high risk of air attack planned their route to be as inconspicuous as possible to overhead aircraft.

A radio call from the lead pair of 25 Sqn Tornados (whose call sign was Javelin) informed the Sea Kings (call sign Yankee Formation) that the exercise had begun. Inside the helicopters, radar warning receivers (RWRs) scanned for radar signals and crews kept a watch out for potential air threats. During the second phase of the exercise, 23 Sqn (call sign Jacket) would have the opportunity to attack the Sea Kings.

During fighter evasion manoeuvres the Sea King’s cabin door is opened to allow the crewman to search through the one o’clock to six o’clock positions as well as above the helicopter. A second crewman positioned at the port hand side bubble window, covers the six o’clock to twelve o’clock position. Both pilots can scan the nine o’clock through to the three o’clock position. Talk inside the aircraft is kept to a minimum. This avoids confusion when an aircraft is spotted. Once spotted, the crewman calls out the aircraft’s position in relation to the helicopter and whether or not it looks menacing i.e. turning in towards the helicopter. A contact call should include the aircraft’s (bogey’s) position, left or right, high or low, and if the aircraft is manoeuvring to attack, i.e: «Bogey right, 3 o’clock high, menacing». The pilot will then know which way to turn and where to find the nearest dead ground.

Once helicopters have been located by on AWACs, fighter aircraft can then be vectored into the local area. Fighters can either use their radars to pin-point and track helicopters or they con attempt to locate and attack them visually. The F.3s were confident they could pick up the Sea Kings frying at below 100/150ft (30/45m) in the area using their radars! If fitted with RWRs, the fighter aircraft’s radar emission should tell the helicopters that they are being scanned by a fighter’s radar. The latest ‘thread programmable RWRs can inform the helicopter of the type of aircraft or radar system that is scanning them. The RWR will also inform the helicopter of a ‘lock-on’ allowing the helicopter to take the appropriate defensive action such as firing off chaff to try to prevent a missile lock-on.

It is debatable how effectively a fighter’s look-down shoot-down’ radar can track helicopters, particularly if they are operating at very low level in mountainous country where helicopters can make the most of terrain masking. The latest advanced SkyFlash medium-range radar guided air-to-air missiles and the Sidewinder AIM-9 Mike air-to-air missile are formidable threats to the helicopter. It is boasted that a Tornado F.3 can launch a SkyFlash successfully at a stand-off distance of 20 miles plus (32km)! If helicopters are the primary target for these advanced missiles, life for the helicopter becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous.

Most helicopter defensive aids such as chaff, flares, RWR, missile approach warners (MAWs) and IR jammers are designed primarily to protect helicopters against ground-launched SAMS. They can give some warning and protection against these types of air-to-air missiles, although the long stand-off distances at which these missiles can be launched make it difficult for helicopters to know when they have been acquired by either an IR or semi-active radar guided missile. The majority of fast jet attacks on helicopters are more likely to be at close range, using guns or cannon.

The exercise in Wales lasted one hour, with all three helicopters being attacked by individual pairs of F.3s from both 23 and 25 Sqns. Once vectored into the area by their E-3D Sentry, the F.3s, operating in pairs, used both their radar and Eyeball Mkls to visually locate the helicopters prior to undertaking numerous 27mm cannon attacks on the Seo King formation from all directions.

The white-painted UN Sea King stood out well in the Welsh countryside and proved highly conspicuous. The Jungle green Sea Kings of 846 Sqn were less easily picked out. On several occasions the F.3s stormed up and down the target area prior to finding their quarry with the Sea Kings hovering out of sight in dead ground. There was, however, more numerous occasions when they were quickly spotted and attacked. The F.3s took it in turns to attack in pairs and individually with one aircraft patrolling high, while the other at low level tried to flush the helicopters out onto open ground.

The rules of engagement during this exercise required the helicopters to keep below 250ft (76m) AGL with the F.3s operating down to that level. The F.3s were not permitted to attack the helicopters from underneath. If anyone became unhappy, or had a problem, a call «knock it off» or ‘stop, stop, stop’ would end the exercise. The F.3s proved to be highly manoeuvrable, undertaking some extremely tight turns leaving the helicopters little time to find cover prior to the next attack. One sure sign that the Tornado was acting ‘menacingly’ was watching them sweep their wings forward prior to rolling in and diving into another devastating attack.

Helicopter fighter evasion

There are a number of standard methods helicopters can use to help reduce the risk of being shot down when attacked by fighter aircraft. These are all basically last resort methods.

The main priority for ony helicopter is to avoid being acquired by radar or patrolling aircraft. Helicopters operating low-level, flying nap-of-the earth using the terrain to mask behind, should be difficult to locate, either visually or by enemy radar. In recent years this has been severely reduced by the latest advanced radars and digital processors, AEW aircraft such as the AWACs and E-3D Sentry and thermal images/satellites. Future helicopters will have to become increasingly stealthy.

The use of composite and radar-absorbing materials, plus radar and infra-red absorbing paint can all help reduce both the visual and radar signature of a helicopter. This ‘stealth policy’ has already been applied to several US Army helicopters including modified OH-58Ds, with some success. This low-observable or stealth modification has included the fitting of radar absorbing cuffs over the more prominent parts of the helicopter’s dynamics, including horizontal and vertical stabilisers, a reshaped nose and the windscreen painted in a radar reflective coating to help reduce the helicopter’s radar signature. ECM, radar and infra-red jammers, engine infra-red suppresses, etc, all help to lower the helicopter’s overall signature. The rotor disc remains a major problem although composites have helped in this area.

Helicopters can reduce the risk of being visually picked up by fast jets, by not flying aggressively, which helps to reduce the risk of light glinting on the rotor disc as the helicopter is pulled around the sky. Careful route planning, using any available terrain such as valleys to fly along, also reduces the risk of being spotted. When flying in mountainous terrain, skylining the helicopter should be avoided at all costs. Another giveaway is a helicopter’s rotor down wash, which can leave a trail on long grass or the surface of rivers and lakes when flying very low and fast. Snow and sand is a particular problem and can create large snow/sand clouds giving away a helicopter position for miles around.

When attacked by fighter aircraft the priority for any helicopter is to head as quickly as possible for dead ground and seek cover. This can be anything from a shallow valley to a hill, wood, buildings or any natural or man-made object that will put something solid between the helicopter and attacking aircraft.

If caught in the open, the helicopter should turn towards the aircraft. This helps reduce the helicopter’s aspect and lowers its infra-red signature. Once facing the incoming jet, the helicopter should initiate a gentle climb up to 100/150ft (30/45m) then quickly descend, break hard left or right and roll out at 90 . If fitted with defensive aids and an RWR, the helicopter should know if he has been locked on and should be launching chaff as fast as possible. If an infra-red guided air-to-air missile has been launched the IR jammers should hopefully keep the missile on the aircraft’s bunch roil and not allow the missile to lock onto the helicopter. If the missile is launched, the MAWs should have picked up the plume from the rocket motors and flares should ave been automatically launched. If the fighter is using cannon/guns the helicopter’s evasive manoeuvre should have made the aircraft bunt and then roll as it tries to keep the helicopter in his gun sights.

If the helicopter has survived the first attack, there should, hopefully, be time for it to find some dead ground to hide in. If bounced from the stem, the helicopter should again head for dead ground. If this fails, it should turn towards the attacker, initiate a climb, then a descending break to again make the aircraft bunt then roll. All these manoeuvres should be conducted at very low level — 700ft (213m) and above will guarantee a helicopter being shot down by a fixed wing aircraft. The first sign of an air attack and the helicopter formation will have split, with each helicopter seeking its individual hiding place or dead ground.

There is much debate over whether transport helicopters should be equipped with some form of air-to-air missile or other air defence weapon. It has been suggested that fast jets would be even more reluctant to engage transport helicopters, on an opportune basis, if there was any possibility that they may strike back. Current thinking suggests that transport helicopters should not have their roles confused by any form of armament. This role should be left to dedicated escort helicopters such as the Apache AH-64D or to close air support aircraft like the Harrier GR.7 or A-10 Thunderbolt.

In low intensity warfare or in air exclusion zone operations when large amounts of air defence aircraft and assets are committed against helicopter operations, the life expectancy for the helicopter must be extremely short. Its only hope of survival is to remain invisible. Once located by air defence or strike aircraft a helicopter without its own air defence/strike aircraft, attack helicopter or surface-to-air missile protection stands little chance of survival.

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