This work horse of war has continued to be used in counter-insurgency and similar campaigns across the continent. World Airnews correspondent Helmoed Heitman looks at the role of military helicopters in Africa.
The helicopter made its first appearance towards the end of World War II, in small numbers being used by both German and American forces but really came into its own during the Korean war.
Here it was used for casualty evacuation, reconnaissance, command and control, light cargo delivery, aircrew recovery and some insertion and extraction of special forces teams.
The French counter-insurgency campaign in Algeria brought air-mobile infantry supported by armed helicopters, which concepts have been applied in every counter-insurgency campaign since. This peaked with the US air cavalry during the Vietnam war and saw the first true attack helicopter, the Cobra, and also in the Russian war in Afghanistan, which saw the debut of the Mi-24. Both types remain in service today in the form of modern variants, albeit focused on the anti-tank role as are their successors.
Africa has continued to see the use of helicopters in counter-insurgency and similar campaigns across the continent. Most familiar are the fire force operations of the former Rhodesian forces and the South African expansion of that concept as well as their combination of mobile ground forces with helicopter ‘gunships’ – armed Alouette IIIs – in close support. Less well known are their ‘Butterfly Operations’, which saw heliborne infantry in Pumas supported by gunships attacking multiple targets in quick succession. Also not well-known is the Egyptian use of helicopters to deploy Sagger anti-tank missile teams behind the Israeli Suez Canal positions in 1973, which successfully fended off the first armoured counter-attacks. Even less well-known is the Cuban use of Mi-6 helicopters to lift BMD-1 and ASU-57 combat vehicles into the rear of Somali forces during the Ogaden war (1977/78), which collapsed the Somali defences.
Thus, Africa saw the first truly tactical use of helicopters in Algeria, the use of helicopters to position anti-tank teams in the rear of enemy positions, the use of heavy-lift helicopters to move light armour into the rear of an enemy force, and the development of tactics combining mobile ground forces and armed helicopters against guerrilla forces.
More recently the Algerian air force used its upgraded Super Hinds to good effect, including firing beam-riding Ingwe missiles into caves used by opposing guerrillas, while the South African air force detachment of Rooivalk attack and Oryx medium transport helicopters transformed the operations of the MONUSCO forces in the east of the DRC.
History shows us how few African air forces have helicopters in any tactically or operationally useful numbers. South of the Sahara, it is really only Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe that have helicopter fleets of a useful size and reasonably coherence, although those of Nigeria and South Sudan are rather small for the countries and that of Zambia rather mixed.
Then there is Kenya, which has made good use of armed Hughes 500s in its army air wing, being complemented by Cobras, and a useful fleet of Puma transport helicopters in the air force. Most other African countries have tiny helicopter fleets and usually too mixed to form a coherent force, while also presenting a difficult maintenance challenge.
North of the Sahara, Algeria, Egypt and Morocco have large fleets of attack and transport helicopters, Tunisia has a small and very disparate fleet and Mauretania has almost no helicopter force to speak of, which is perhaps understandable given the size of the country and the dispersed location of towns.
One part reason for the scarcity of helicopters in sub-Saharan Africa probably lies in the simple fact that helicopters are expensive to own and operate. A second could be those helicopter pilots are not that easy to train and develop and often find better-paid work in the commercial sector.
There are, however, also practical issues that affect the military utility of helicopters in Africa. The key one being that few helicopters are happy under ‘hot and high’ conditions, one or both of which apply in most theatres of operation on the continent. The size of most African countries is another factor; helicopters are not ideal for long-distance missions, which can make it difficult to deploy them to where they are needed and most types lack the combat radius to be effective in large operational areas.
That same factor of distances, however, also limits the utility for fighter and attack aircraft. By the time even a fast jet can get from a proper hard runway airbase to the scene of the action, it will often be too late. Turboprop types like the Super Tucano can be based closer to where they might be needed, being able to use gravel runways, but are slower and so will also not be the answer. The former mostly also lack the endurance to stay on station for a useful period and even with a type like the Super Tucano there will be an unhappy period for the forces on the ground while the aircraft go back to re-arm and refuel.
An attack or armed utility helicopter can, by contrast, deploy with the ground forces, resulting in much shorter response and turn-around times, and making it possible for the ground forces commander to brief the crews directly. This assumes that the helicopters can be deployed to the area of operations and that fuel and ammunition can be brought forward.
Much the same problem set applies in the case of moving troops to where they are needed. A transport aircraft can fly them into the nearest airfield, but that may be quite far from where they are needed, requiring additional lift to bring in vehicles. And then the lack of good roads and viable bridges can still restrict mobility and certainly slow down the movement of forces.
A transport aircraft can also deliver paratroops, but once on the ground, they are limited to their own legs for mobility, extremely vulnerable if the opposing force was underestimated, and will be stymied if the drop was in the wrong place.
Again, transport helicopters are the more flexible alternative, able to deliver troops precisely and to move them around the area as the engagement develops, as well as being able to deliver supplies and extract casualties. But they too will face the challenges of getting to the area of operations and obtaining fuel sufficiently close to the action to allow a quick response as the situation develops.
Finally, light utility helicopters also have their roles – reconnaissance, command and control and as scouts for attack helicopters. In some cases, an armed variant will also suffice in the role of ‘gunship’, as both the Alouette III and the UH-1 did in their various respective wars. But, of course, they also face the challenge of getting to where they are needed and being able to refuel close to the scene of the action, the former being complicated by the generally limited ferry range of the light types.
The challenge of distances requires either helicopters with a good ferry range, for instance the Blackhawk and Oryx medium lift helicopters and the Apache and Rooivalk attack helicopters, the establishment of refuelling points en route or the availability of transport aircraft that can fly helicopters to the area of operations without so much disassembly that this becomes a major challenge of its own. The SA air force, for instance, lost that ability with the retirement of the C-160 that could transport an Oryx with just the rotor head removed and the cancellation of the A400M acquisition.
Chartered heavy lifters are not the answer as a charter will inevitably telegraph what is being done. In a country like the DRC with its river network, there is also the option of moving helicopters forward using river vessels and even the option of developing a river-mobile forward base for helicopters.
The matter of supporting the helicopters in the combat area is, arguably, simpler. The ground forces can carry fuel and ammunition in their supply vehicles, transport helicopters can move fuel and ammunition up from an existing base or from an airfield, with transport aircraft flying the supplies in as required. Where there is a navigable river or major lake conveniently close to the scene of the action, an afloat base could be used or at least barges could bring up fuel and ammunition.
The bottom line is that helicopters will in many situations be more flexible and more useful than fixed-wing aircraft but will need to either be supported by transport aircraft or form an integrated part of the ground forces. Simply put, helicopters will be at their most useful when part of an integrated team.
The answer to that question is simple: Africa has not achieved the ‘1000 year peace’ and is, in fact, seeing an escalation and spread of conflict involving irregular forces, be they guerrillas, terrorists or criminal groups with similar capabilities. Many African countries will, therefore, require forces optimised for operations against such groups, and in many cases, helicopters will be well or even ideally suited to such operations.
The most obvious requirement is for medium lift helicopters to allow for the quick deployment and redeployment of troops in contact, to resupply them and to lift out casualties and, indeed, also to lift out prisoners for prompt debrief.
The geography of most African countries will argue for a type that offers both a good ferry range – with additional tanks if necessary – and a good combat radius to allow effective air assault and tactical redeployment of troops, as well as the ability to carry a useful number of troops over useful distances in these ‘hot and high’ conditions.
The South African Oryx is perhaps the class leader in that respect, but various Puma/Cougar variants, the Blackhawk and the Mi-17 family are also well-proven and rugged types.
For those air forces with the funding, there is the option of adding heavy lift helicopters to move heavy cargo for use as a support for assault and attack type helicopters.
The CH-47 Chinook is well-proven in both roles, has a very useful ferry range and combat radius, is good in ‘hot and high’ conditions and, lacking a tail rotor has been particularly useful in mountainous areas, being able to perch on a hillside to land its troops or cargo.
Then there are the CH-53 Super Stallion and the very large Mi-6 and Mi-26, which can carry an armoured personnel carrier internally. But all are costly to have and to operate.
The second priority must then be armed helicopters to provide close support for the ground forces, to protect the trooping helicopters and suppress enemy in the landing area, and also to stop movement by the opposing forces. Those could be armed light utility or medium lift helicopters or true attack helicopters. Which is needed will depend on the situation and the nature of the opposing forces.
With irregular forces increasingly well-armed and in many cases also led by former regular military officers, the day of the armed utility helicopter may have largely passed, it being too vulnerable for use in any but fairly benign situations. The requirement in many cases will be for a type that has the optics – day and night – and weapons to acquire, identify and engage targets at ranges that keep it out of range of likely weaponry on the ground, and with good agility and some armour protection.
With conflict increasingly moving into populated areas and even into towns, there is the added requirement to minimise the risk of firing on civilians in error. That will demand positive target identification and precision engagement, preferably with weapons with directional or contained terminal effects.
Depending on the particular situation, that will not necessarily demand a large and costly attack helicopter. The Kenyan Army has made good use of its armed OH-6s – as have the various US special operations forces – and the French army has used its armed Gazelles to good effect in many operations.
Other situations will require dedicated attack helicopters with the agility to make themselves a difficult target and the hardening and armour protection to survive hits by light weapons and by fragments. One can recall here the loss of a French Army Gazelle to fire from a rebel convoy during operations in Mali in 2012, which led to the deployment of Tiger attack helicopters. That said, dedicated attack helicopters are not invulnerable, the Chad air force having lost at least one to fire from rebel ‘technicals’. That reality also suggests that there will be real value in integrating attack helicopters with UAVs to carry out initial reconnaissance and perhaps even target designation for the helicopter.
Best known among the attack helicopters are the Mi-24 and its descendants, the US Apache and Cobra and the Eurocopter Tiger. Less well known are the Mangusta and the Rooivalk that are at opposite ends of the light/heavy attack helicopter spectrum, and the various Chinese types and India’s light attack helicopter. The Apache and Rooivalk arguably offer the optimal combination of ferry range and combat radius, with the latter also being particularly suited to ‘hot and high’ operations.
There is clearly no lack of variety of either transport or attack helicopters that offer useful levels of performance.
Unfortunately one can also say that of some African air forces that would seem to like variety in their helicopter fleets, or lack tacticians who can explain the advantages of a helicopter force that is coherent in terms of speed, range, combat radius and ‘hot and high’ performance, or logisticians who can convincingly spell out the maintenance headache that comes with that.
The selection by an air force or army air corps should be based on a careful appreciation of the geography of their country, the likely opposing forces and the trend in their competence and weaponry as well as a coherent operational and tactical doctrine for operating helicopters. This must be based on a clear understanding of the logistics of maintaining and sustaining a helicopter force. None of that is difficult, but the selection will often also be driven by political considerations and by treasury restrictions. The trick is to establish a useful helicopter force despite those constraints, and then to develop the means to deploy and support them effectively during operations distant from major bases – logistics will, as so often, in many cases trump tactics.