Potential acquisition of the Bell-manufactured helicopters both in Poland, within the scope of the Kruk programme, as well as in the Czech Republic, would create an opportunity to establish a joint maintenance and training centre for both states, since 85% of the components, including the instruments, displays and rotors, are interchangeable between the two designs - AH-1Z and UH-1Y.
AH-1Z Simulator in Ostrava
Why did not the AH-1Z Viper helicopter attend the Ostrava NATO Days event? According to Joel Best, ex-US Army helicopter pilot, and regional director of the Military Business Development Department of the Bell Helicopter Company, each example is delivered straight to the operational units of the US Marine Corps all around the world, making it possible to protect the US interests, and the interests of the US allies.
Instead, Bell brought a simulator of the AH-1 cockpit to the Ostrava airport, which made it possible to get fully acquainted with the capabilities offered by the helicopter, its digital avionics and weapons systems.
Bell Helicopters - Polish and Czech Tenders
Bell Helicopter company, which started the development of the attack helicopters in general, currently offers its latest AH-1Z Viper design for the Polish Armed Forces. However, from the Polish point of view, the results of the Czech procurement initiatives is also very important. Bell offers the UH-1Y Venom helicopters for the Czech Armed Forces, in the tender, the aim of which is to deliver 12 light multi-role rotor-craft. However, it was also stressed that the US-based manufacturer is also very keen on selling the AH-1Z helicopters for Prague.
Ultimately, Prague is willing to acquire 30 - 35 helicopters, all of which are going to constitute a replacement for the Mi-8 and Mi-24 rotary-winged aircraft. Should a decision be made, that the Bell products are purchased both by Poland, as well as by the Czech Republic, it would be possible to establish a joint service and maintenance center for both states, since there are significant similarities between the AH-1Z and UH-1Y designs. Both designs share 85% of the components, including the avionics and the engine. Thus, the crews are using a single design of the simulator. The H-1 family helicopters are serviced with the use of the same toolkit, with 4 additional tools required to service the more advanced weapons systems fitted onto the AH-1Z Viper rotor-craft.
AH-1Z - US Marines’ Weapon of Choice - Reliability and Low Costs of Operation
AH-1Z Viper is an attack helicopter developed for the USMC, as a completely new design, loosely tied to the fuselage of the older variants of the Cobra helicopter. Test flight of the first rotor-craft of this type took place in 2000, in 2011 it was announced that the first US Marines unit flying the helicopter has reached the combat readiness status.
The assumption was to blend the combat capabilities, including utilization of the modern armament and electronics, with capabilities of carrying out operations in tough conditions or with limited resources. Expeditionary operations realized by the US Marine Corps often need to be realized in line with the above-mentioned profile.
Representatives of the Bell Helicopter company stress the fact that Viper was designed with years of experience gathered throughout the period, within which the H-1 family helicopters were operated, in mind. The designers were driven towards limited scope of the required logistical support. They were also willing to cut down the costs of operation, which is caused by the tactical concept of the US Marines formation which assumes that the helicopters are going to be used in case of the expeditionary deployments, thus a high level of the design’s autonomy must be provided. The helicopter - with a minimum parts inventory and a few persons of personnel - is capable of carrying out operations autonomously for 90 days, e.g. using the forward operating bases abroad, or operating from the ships, in the maritime conditions.
These properties made the Bell helicopter a perfect choice for the USMC, since the unit values highly its reliability and easiness of maintenance. The above mentioned features also make it possible to significantly cut down the long-term operational costs of the AH-1Z helicopter. Usually, a single AH-1Z helicopter spends ca. 6 hours in the air per day, serving in the US Marine Corps. On average, each example accumulates 200 to 250 flight hours per a single year.
Weapons for the “Viper”
M197 20 mm three-barrell cannon constitutes the fixed armament of the helicopter. Six hardpoints (including four universal ones) make it possible to equip the helicopter with the AGM-114 Hellfire air to ground guided missiles, pods with unguided 70 mm missiles, or their guided APWKS II derivative. The hardpoints may also be used to add additional fuel tanks, prolonging the helicopter’s range. The end of the wingtips may be used to mount the IR-guided AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.
The plan assumes that the helicopter is going to become capable of using the AIM-9X Block I missiles, used by thee Polish F-16 jets. This is going to happen until 2021. The manufacturer also assumes that the Viper is going to be integrated with other weapons systems, including the Spike missiles, should such need be declared by the potential users. The helicopter may use the armament also when it is carrying the external fuel tanks.
AH-1Z Viper is fitted with an integrated Target Sight System, manufactured by the Lockheed Martin company. This suite has been developed for this helicopter, and it is embedded and mounted in a stabilized, rotating unit, at the front of the fuselage. The system is used to carry out operations in any weather conditions, at night and during the day.
3-gen FLIR system is also fitted with a TV camera and laser rangefinder/target designator, along with independent inertial system which is used to increase precision of observing and geographically locating the potential targets. As the representatives of the Bell Helicopters company claim, the range of the system exceeds the range of the Hellfire ATGM. This makes it possible to detect and identify the targets well before they are in the range of fire.
The above-mentioned fire-control system is fully integrated with the Glass Cockpit avionics. It is tailored to be used with the 3-gen night vision devices, complemented by the helmet-mounted Thales TopOwl displays, presenting the most important information gathered by the sensors of the helicopter.
Pilot and Weapons System Officer – Same Cockpit
The cockpit is unified which makes it possible for the crew to switch their roles - as it is indicated by the Bell Helicopter representatives, the above eliminates the classic division between the pilot and the weapons systems operator. This capacity is used by the US Marines Corps. US Marines have been using a reversed configuration of the AH-1Z Viper cockpit for a year now. The pilot sits at the front, since the front seat provides better visibility, particularly in front and down directions, throughout all of the phases of the flight.
Engine and Performance
The helicopter is fitted with two General Electric T700-GE-401C turboshaft engines with a cruise power (30 minutes) output of 1800 horsepower, and temporary power output (2.5 minutes) of 1940 horsepower. The main rotor (14.6 meters in diameter) and the tail rotor are four bladed, the blades are made out of composite materials.
Top speed of the AH-1Z helicopter is 370 kilometers per hour, cruise speed is 257 kilometers per hour. Operational ceiling reaches 6100 meters, while operational payload is close to 3 tonnes. In case of the standard payload (8 hellfire missiles, 14 2.75 inch HE rockets, 650 20 mm rounds, 120 flares) and internal fuel, AH-1Z is capable of covering the distance of 575 kilometers. Two external fuel tanks expand the range to more than 800 kilometers (more than 4.6 hours of flight endurance), they may be used during the combat sorties. Using four external fuel tanks makes it possible to cover more than 1200 kilometers.
Low profile and low weight (5406 kg of dry weight and 8392 kg of maximum weight) improve the maneuverability of the helicopter, raising the level of battlefield survival rate. In order to enhance the helicopter’s survivability, Viper is equipped with the devices that reduce the thermal signature of the engines, along with the self-sealing fuel tanks, landing gear and seats that absorb the impact energy. Finally, the helicopter is covered with a radar absorbent paint. Moreover, the designers also enhanced the protection of the powerplant. The most important systems are additionally doubled. The helicopter structure makes it possible for the Viper to survive even if it is hit with a 23 mm cannon round.
AH-1Z also features an integrated self-defence suite. The system includes the APR-39B(V2) radar warning receiver, AAR-47 missile warning system, and AVR-2A laser warning receiver, along with chaffs and flares dispenser.
So far, the US Marine Corps is the only user of the AH-1Z helicopter. The Marines have received 39 out of 189 ordered examples of the AH-1Z Viper helicopters. Another 19 rotor-craft are scheduled to be delivered for the Pakistani armed forces, along with 15 examples of the UH-1Y rotary-winged aircraft. Australia is also engaged in the talks related to potential acquisition of the AH-1Z attack helicopters.
AH-1Z - Successor of the Polish and Czech Mi-24 Hinds?
AH-1Z Viper design is based on 50 years of experience within the area of the attack helicopters, gathered by the Bell company, assuming that a high level of reliability, limited maintenance needs and limited costs of acquisition and operation are achieved.
The helicopter also has quite strong armament at its disposal (up to 16 Hellfire II or Spike ATGW’s), also within the scope of the anti aircraft weapons. All of the above is complemented with an advanced avionics suite. Viper may turn out to be an interesting choice for the Polish Army.
Potential selection of the H-1 family helicopters, which may be made by the Czechs, would make it possible to start additional military cooperation between Poland and the Czech Republic. This cooperation would surely reduce the costs of training and operation of the newly acquired gunships. However, this is - to a significant degree - dependent on the decisions made by the Czech Armed forces, within the scope of selecting the multi-role helicopter, as well as on the choice which is going to be made by the Polish Ministry of Defence, within the scope of the Kruk programme.