Among combat helicopters, as well as among humans, there are winners and outsiders. The famous American Comanche is among the latter. This machine was created as a superweapon that has no analogues, and in the end it turned out to be only a museum exhibit. Why did this happen, and what conclusions can be drawn from the sad story of the "invisible" helicopter?
The "killers" of Soviet tanks
The Comanche was designed as a reconnaissance and attack helicopter to replace the Bell AH-1 attack helicopter, the multipurpose Bell UH-1 Iroquois, as well as the Bell OH-58 and Hughes OH-6 reconnaissance helicopters. The new machine was created as part of the Light Helicopter Experimental competition, which started in the first half of the 80s. In 1991, the joint Boeing / Sikorsky team was declared the winner. The project was really large-scale, because it was supposed to build up to 6 thousand vehicles in reconnaissance and multipurpose versions. Light Helicopter Experimental claimed the role of the most expensive helicopter program in history: $ 2.8 billion was to be spent on development, another $ 24-36 billion was allocated for the purchase of new combat vehicles.
The Americans deliberately went to such expenses. In the 1980s, the Cold War did not even think to come to an end, and the light Bell OH-58 and Hughes OH-6 helicopters quickly became obsolete. The vast experience of the Vietnamese campaign prompted the United States that the country needed a new helicopter that would operate in conjunction with the AH-64 Apache. The latter took to the skies in 1975, and entered service in 1984. Its main enemy has been known for a long time - these are Soviet tanks. But the tank divisions of the USSR had good air defense cover, and it would be dangerous for US pilots to work "blindly", to put it mildly. Therefore, maneuverable, light helicopters were assigned the role of scouts, transmitting data to the AH-64 pilots, who, in turn, inflicted strikes on the ground. But in practice, things might not be so favorable. The US military itself admitted that both the Bell OH-58 and the Hughes OH-6 could hardly survive under Soviet air defense fire. This is how the idea appeared to create a stealth helicopter suitable for reconnaissance and destruction of ground targets.
An attack helicopter is a highly specialized rotorcraft designed to provide fire support to ground units and destroy enemy armored vehicles. The first serial helicopter of this class in the world was the American Bell AH-1 Cobra, which was widely used in the Vietnamese campaign. The famous AH-64 Apache - the most massive attack helicopter in the world - became its "ideological" follower. We also note that in terms of the sum of its characteristics, the AH-64 Block III (the latest modification) is the most advanced attack helicopter in the world.
One of the most important requirements for it was high speed, and, I must say, Boeing / Sikorsky managed to achieve this. The maximum speed of the RAH-66 Comanche was 324 km / h. For comparison, the attack AH-64D Apache Longbow (one of the newer modifications) develops up to 265 km / h, and the light OH-58 Kiowa can gain only 222 km / h in horizontal flight. In other words, Comanche, which took to the skies on January 4, 1996, turned out to be one of the most "agile" helicopters, possessing both good speed and high maneuverability.
But none of this would make any sense without the stealth requirements that are central to the entire Comanche concept. It was about reducing the visibility in the radar, infrared, optical and acoustic spectra. For this, the latest composites were widely used in the design of the machine. The front part of the helicopter, for example, was made of epoxy carbon fiber, and a special radio-absorbing material was also applied to the surface of the fuselage. In accordance with the requirements of stealth, some of the weapons were retracted into the internal compartments (by analogy with the F-22 fighter).
An external suspension was also assumed, and a 20 mm cannon was installed in front.Suspension options, obviously, had to change depending on the level of enemy air defense and mission objectives. With a high saturation with anti-aircraft weapons, emphasis could be placed on reducing the visibility of an aircraft (aircraft), and vice versa, the absence of powerful air defense would allow the use of external suspensions unmasking the vehicle.
The American engineers coped with the task of reducing the visibility brilliantly. The Comanche's effective scattering area turned out to be 360 times less than that of the AH-64A (at least when it comes to the front hemisphere). The new helicopter turned out to be much less visible to radar than one AGM-114 Hellfire missile: its length is less than 2 m and its width is barely more than 170 mm. But the new helicopter was far from a small rotary-wing machine.
As you can see, the Comanche had powerful weapons, not too inferior in firepower to specialized attack helicopters, such as the already mentioned Apache or the domestic Mi-28N (the latter can carry up to 16 anti-tank missiles). So the RAH-66 could well be used both as an attack helicopter and as a reconnaissance helicopter. To protect against enemy aircraft, he could use FIM-92 Stinger missiles, and the Comanche was capable of hitting unarmored targets with a cannon or unguided missiles.
Despite the abundance of innovative solutions, the traditional (for attack helicopters) scheme was chosen for the machine. The helicopter has one main rotor and one tail rotor.
The armored cockpit is made according to the "tandem" scheme - when one crew member is immediately behind the other. This solution is very popular, because in this case both the pilot and the gunner-operator have excellent visibility. "Comanche" received a perfect sighting system: there was an infrared and television system for viewing the front hemisphere. In the future, they wanted to equip the car with a nadvulochny radar circular view of the millimeter range, which was created on the basis of the radar of the AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter. Such a solution would allow hitting targets with Hellfire missiles on the “fire and forget” principle and without their visual detection. This would reduce the risk to the vehicle and its crew. Note that, unlike the AH-64D, this principle was never implemented on domestic attack helicopters. Therefore, it is still difficult to put both the Ka-52 and the Mi-28N on a par with Apache.
Closing a project
The program turned out loud, and "Comanche" was on everyone's lips. Suddenly in 2004, the US Department of Defense announced the closure of the project, by which time only two RAH-66 helicopters had been built. One of the main reasons for the refusal was its price - according to some sources, at the time of closing, $ 8 billion was spent. At the same time, the total costs could rise to 40 billion: an impressive amount even for the US military budget.
But there was one more reason, and it was she who became the main one. By 2004, the Americans already had a wealth of experience in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and new technologies were decisively marching forward. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) became one of them. In the 1980s, when the Light Helicopter Experimental program first appeared, few people took drones seriously. Even in the 90s, they were just beginning to be widely used. Everything changed dramatically in the 2000s: you just need to look at the numbers to understand it. Nowadays, UAVs make up the lion's share of the entire American military fleet. In 2016, the US military had more than 9,000 unmanned aerial vehicles, and this number has only increased since then.
Arsenal "Comanche" was very wide, but its main "caliber" was the ATGM (Anti-Tank Guided Missile) "Hellfire". It is highly effective against all armored targets and has been used successfully in many conflicts involving the United States. The missile guidance method is semi-active laser or active radar. The latter is of particular interest, because in this case the Americans managed to implement the principle of “fire and forget”. Simply put, the pilot does not need to visually identify the target and illuminate it with a laser until the missile hits. All this is done for him by electronics.
First of all, the UAVs took on the role of reconnaissance - the very one for which they wanted to use the Comanche. The benefits of such a solution are obvious: there is no risk for the pilot, and the operation of a drone is much cheaper than the operation of a manned aircraft. Another plus is autonomy. The MQ-9 Reaper reconnaissance and strike UAV, for example, can stay aloft for up to 28 hours. Of course, no reconnaissance or attack helicopter is capable of so long in the sky. UAVs also took over some of the strike functions, and the combat load of modern reconnaissance and strike drones is not much less than the load of attack helicopters.
This raises a quite natural question: was the creation of "Comanche" a mistake? This may sound strange, but it cannot be answered unequivocally. By the time the Comanche program began, it fully met the requirements of the current day, and only the development of new technologies, which no one could have foreseen, forced to abandon its development. As for the huge price of the project, there is nothing strange here either. All military programs of recent decades, be they American, Chinese or Russian, require huge sums of money.
Andrey Chizh, an employee of the flight simulator studio Eagle Dynamics, an expert in the aviation field, shared his opinion on the Comanche helicopter with Naked Science magazine: in the first half of the 80s of the 20th century. The program was very ambitious, with a high degree of technical novelty of the project, which involved the creation of a new generation of helicopter. For reference, today's attack helicopters, both in the United States and in the Russian Federation, have not yet crossed this line, that is, this is the generation of the 80s of the 20th century. At that time, the development of such a program made quite clear sense - increasing the effectiveness of attack helicopter systems in the face of the growing threat from the East.
As we know, for a number of reasons, the program was closed in 2004. The main factors that influenced this were the economic aspects - the high cost and high risk of the program. But, in addition, it can be assumed that the closure of the program was not least influenced by the assessments of the operational characteristics of the helicopters and the assessments of threats. It is very difficult to maintain the condition of helicopter special coatings in forward-based conditions. At the same time, one of the main threats - the Tunguska missile and gun system of the Russian Army Air Defense Forces - has an optical missile guidance channel, which eliminates the low radar signature of the helicopter.
Despite the closure of the program, efforts to develop new structural materials, engines, avionics and control systems were not in vain. Many ideas and developed components were later implemented in other helicopters: T800 engines are used in Super Linx, Mangusta helicopters and the new experimental high-speed X2 rotorcraft from Sikorsky; components of sighting systems and avionics went to the Apache modernization program.
We should also mention the secret helicopter of the American special forces Silent Hawk, created on the basis of the Black Hawk. During the elimination of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, one such helicopter crashed, and the whole world saw photographs of the tail section of the super-secret helicopter, which bears some resemblance to the Comanche design elements. It should be assumed that Sikorsky's firm used the results of the RAH-66 stealth training when designing the Silent Hawk."
And this point of view is held by a specialist in the aerospace field, candidate of physical sciences Pavel Bulat: "Comanche" is a helicopter, of course, interesting from a technical point of view, but it is a typical representative of the American "miracle weapon" of that time. This also includes the B-2 strategic bomber, the Seawulf submarine.All of these are technically perfect, but very expensive and at the same time almost useless in modern warfare models of weapons. The Comanche program started as the development of a reconnaissance helicopter, then it was transformed into a reconnaissance and attack helicopter program, that is, as in the case of the F-35, they tried to "cross a snake with a hedgehog." And, of course, make it unobtrusive as well. Where can the "miracle weapon" be without this? What happened in the end? Obviously, there should be 10-20 times fewer such helicopters than purely attack helicopters, that is, not many. But the cost of the program is $ 20 billion. And how much would such a car cost? The Comanche had the worst flight performance and, unlike the K-50 and Mi-28, had almost no armor. True, it surpassed them with on-board equipment and could operate successfully at night. But for this, again, a new helicopter was not needed, it was enough to make the "Night Apache", which they did. What remains? Stealth.
Indeed, for a scout, this is an important parameter. In the radar range, the Comanche has a signature 600 times less than the Apache. But the helicopter operates on the principle of "see-attack-shoot", and the maximum range of its "operation" is 10 km. ZARK will still see him at such a distance and will destroy him, i.e. The main way to fight for the survival of the reconnaissance helicopter is to camouflage behind the edge of the forest, in the folds of the terrain, etc. Quick access to position and energetic maneuvering, and this requires, above all, high flight data. It is much easier to issue target designation to attack helicopters from a UAV. They are much cheaper, unobtrusive, there can be many of them and they can be networked."
Our answer to Chamberlain?
If any helicopter could compare in its futurism with the Comanche, it is only the Ka-58 Black Ghost. A 1:72 scale model of this car hit the shelves in 2000. At that time, not everyone had the Internet, and the books did not contain any information about the helicopter. It is not surprising that the "Black Ghost" was immediately overgrown with a huge number of myths and legends, especially since no information was received from the "Kamov" company.
The website of the Zvezda manufacturing company says the following about the model: “The newest Russian helicopter is invisible, equipped with the most powerful complex of modern weapons, which makes it possible to conduct combat operations at any time of the day and in any weather. Manufactured using stealth technology."
The helicopter has a coaxial rotor layout, which is usual for "Kamov" machines, and the crew members sit side by side. Conceptually, the Ka-58 is seen as a more "advanced" version of the strike Ka-52, which is now actively operated by the Russian Aerospace Forces.
Another similar case indirectly speaks in favor of the fact that the Ka-58 is a fictional helicopter. The Italian company Italeri, which produces aircraft models, once presented an amazing Soviet stealth fighter, the MiG-37. Like Black Ghost, it was just a product of the dark genius of a model company, but millions of people around the world believed in its existence. According to one of the hypotheses, in the depths of the Soviet design bureau, something similar was really created, but the matter did not advance beyond the sketches.
The main question can be formulated as follows: do we have a toy or a concept of a combat helicopter of the future? Obviously, the Ka-58 is just the brainchild of the violent imagination of the designers of the model manufacturer. Its appearance pushes us to this conclusion. Even those not interested in aviation will notice the poor detailing of the product and a number of solutions directly borrowed from the RAH-66 Comanche. We are talking, for example, about the internal compartments and the general "stealth" look. Note that the first truly unobtrusive domestic vehicle was the PAK FA, which took off in 2010. Until the start of work on it, Soviet and Russian engineers devoted relatively little time to stealth development. With all this in mind, the creation of the Ka-58 looks at least thoughtless.
The surplus arsenal of the "Black Ghost" seems unusual - not a single rotorcraft in the world carries such a number of weapons. Apparently, the creators of the toy just wanted to attract the attention of the public. The real development of such a helicopter would cost the Russian budget unthinkable funds, which it did not have either in the 90s or in the early 2000s.
Word for the Celestial Empire
Projects of American and Russian "stealth" helicopters have sunk into oblivion (provided that the latter existed at all). The concept itself is seen in our time as far from being the most optimal.
However, the difficulties, apparently, do not frighten the engineers from the PRC. In September 2015, the Chinese media announced the development of a new generation of stealth attack helicopter by China. The novelty was named WZ-12. It is supposed to complement the WZ-10 attack helicopter, which is actively operated by the Chinese army.
The main difference between the WZ-12 is the reduced visibility of the helicopter in the radar, infrared and acoustic ranges. To improve the stealth indicator, ventral weapons containers can be used. A special system will monitor engine exhaust to reduce IR signature.
According to the President of the Aircraft Corporation of the People's Republic of China Lin Zomin, the new helicopter "will change the structure of military operations." The official said about the high mobility and good firepower of the WZ-12. The Chinese Armed Forces will be able to receive it after 2020, of course, provided that the WZ-12 transforms from a concept to a production model. The likelihood of the latter is low: the Chinese are unlikely to follow the path that other countries have long abandoned.
Unfortunately, most of the characteristics are still kept secret. By analogy with the Ka-50, the helicopter must be operated by one person, while the machine itself (as opposed to the "Kamovskaya") is made according to the traditional scheme. Outwardly, the helicopter resembles a cross between the Ka-58 and the RAH-66. This kind of borrowing is generally typical for China. On the other hand, you can't call the WZ-12 a "copy" either. In recent decades, the Chinese industry has moved from blind copying "detail to detail" to borrowing conceptual solutions. Perhaps someday the Chinese will dictate their own rules of the game to the world.
Andrey Chizh, employee of the development studio of flight simulators Eagle Dynamics, an expert in the aviation field.
Pavel Bulat, specialist in aerospace, candidate of physical sciences.