Top 10 attack helicopters in service today
The design formula of the attack helicopter evolved since its introduction, in the shape of the American Bell AH-1 Cobra in 1967. As of 2020, a modern attack helicopter has shaped itself into a universal combat platform that follows the same mainline design principles and elements. A modern, dedicated attack helicopter is most likely to include all of these elements: tandem seat (usually a gunner in the front, a pilot in the rear), narrow-body, little to no cargo space, armored crew compartment, employing 20 to 30 mm cannon, shaped charge guided anti-tank missiles (ATGMs), unguided smaller diameter rockets (usually high explosive-fragmentation), and nose-mounted sensor suite. With unmanned aerial vehicles becoming more and more prominent, most are integrating short-range air defense elements, such as, in the case of Western designs, Sidewinder missiles on the tips of the weapons’ pylons or Stinger missiles on the hardpoints.
Attack helicopters are an expensive and burdensome luxury from a financial and developmental perspective; therefore, only the leading nations can develop and deploy their own designs. Consequently, the absolute majority of current attack helicopters make this list as options are somewhat limited even worldwide.
10. Denel Rooivalk
The South African Rooivalk is based on French Aérospatiale SA 330 Puma. As such, the design is highly dependent on French technology and spare parts. With the bold intention of manufacturing one of the best attack helicopters globally, Denel Aviation succeeded in producing an aircraft on par with its rivals. Armed with highly sophisticated indigenous Mokopa ATGMs, the Rooivalk outmatches everything South Africa could potentially face in its geopolitical region.
With only 12 examples produced and financial difficulties shadowing operational readiness, the Rooivalk is a far-reaching idea, but Denel’s technological reach somewhat exceeds its grasp.
9. CAIC Z-10
Lighter than its contemporaries, The Chinese Z-10 was designed with input from the Russian Kamov design bureau. It is the first indigenous attack helicopter produced in China. A Fresh design with an introduction dating back to 2012, numerically, it already covers the needs of Chinese armed forces. The Z-10 is yet to receive its trial by fire. So far, over 300 have been produced for the People’s Liberation Army.
8. Mil Mi-24 Hind
The recurring aerial image of Asian and African conflicts for the past 40 years, the aging design is a multifunctional platform used by countless nations and paramilitary groups. Mi-24 to helicopters is what AKM is to assault rifles. A Cold War-goes-hot classic with an incredible staying power. Being an attack/transport helicopter hybrid, it is far larger than the succeeding designs. Heavily armed and armored, although less nimble by today’s standards, it is still relevant today.
As of August 25, 2020, a new variant, the Mi-35P, is starting serial production for an undisclosed foreign customer. With over 60 users worldwide and 2600+ units manufactured, it is the most produced attack helicopter to date.
7. Agusta A129 Mangusta
The Italian A129 is the first attack helicopter to be manufactured in Western Europe. The lightest one among its global counterparts, the Italian design was reshaped following the end of the Cold War. As NATO did not intend to face Soviet armor onslaught anymore, the aircraft was simplified, ballistic protection lightened. At the time, it was considered comparable to the American AH-64 Apache. The A129 uses standard NATO weaponry, including Hellfire and TOW ATGMs. Sixty units were manufactured, of which 30+ are still operational today.
Image by Aldo Bidini, CC BY-SA 4.0
6. TAI T129 ATAK
A Turkish modernization of the Agusta A129 Mangusta, the T129 shares only the fuselage with its Italian counterpart. The internals are proprietary Turkish technology with upgraded avionics, airframe, and weapons. Around 60 units are in service today, with the capability to build 32 more if deemed necessary. With interest from multiple nations, including Qatar, the Philippines, and Pakistan, T129 is a seemingly more successful international version of its Italian predecessor.
5. Eurocopter Tiger
A joint Franco-German development, the Tiger is the second and the most recent attack helicopter to emerge from Western Europe. With more than 180 units produced, it is the most successful and widespread European design. Employing a composite layout, 80% of the airframe is made of carbon laminates, Kevlar, and honeycomb-shaped structures. Configured with a plethora of Western missiles, rockets, and a French cannon, the Tiger is employed by German, French, Spanish, and Australian forces.
Image by Peng Chen
4. Bell AH-1Z Viper
The American Viper is a third-generation descendant of the venerable Bell AH-1 Cobra, the predecessor of all modern attack helicopters. The US Marines Corps’ asset traces its lineage back to 1965. The latest model in the class-defining design, the Viper proves to be a competent and long-lasting platform. Introduced in 2010, the Marines are planning to employ 189 Vipers. With fresh orders from Bahrain and the Czech Republic, the platform keeps the momentum in its favor 55 years on.
3. Mil Mi-28NM Havoc
The newest Russian attack helicopter is supplementing the iconic Mi-24 and the unique Ka-50 series. With exceptionally long development time, from the first flight to introduction having passed 27 years, the Havoc has finally shaped itself into an all-around efficient design. It is primarily known for its armor, with windshields withstanding a hit from 14.5×114mm cartridges.
The Havoc just had its successful combat debut in Syria during the battle of Palmyra. As of 2020, it is in service with Russia, Iraq, and Algeria, with more orders expected.
2. Kamov Ka-52 Hokum-B
Probably the most unique attack helicopter in service today, the Ka-52 is a wildly unconventional design, with tandem side-by-side seating, ejection seats, dual contra-rotating main rotors, and no tail blades. It is one of the most maneuverable helicopters of any kind in the world today. With an advanced battlefield management system, the Ka-52 can serve a command and control role for a larger helicopter group of Mi-24s and Mi-28s as a target detector and designator. In addition to its unique characteristics, the Ka-52 employs all the firepower expected from a modern attack helicopter, albeit its autocannon is mounted in a fixed position, lacking the flexibility of a turret.
1. AH-64E Apache Guardian
The US Army’s workhorse, the Apache is the most numerous and widespread attack helicopter of the Western world and its allies. As of 2020, over 2400 were built for the US and its partners, including Israel, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and others. The most experienced and proven Western warfighter in its category today, the Apache has seen action in every major American and NATO conflict since its introduction. The holy trinity of trusty offenses: Hellfire missiles, M320 chain gun with 1200 rounds of 30 mm ammunition and Hydra rockets - a highly reliable and successful platform, the Apache is here to stay at least until 2048.
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