With Taiwan in Mind, China Observes Attack Helicopter Operations in Ukraine

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With Taiwan in Mind, China Observes Attack Helicopter Operations in Ukraine

China has invested heavily in a large force of modern military helicopters, so its military strategists are watching closely as Russia’s helicopter fleet takes massive damage.

With Taiwan in Mind, China Observes Attack Helicopter Operations in Ukraine
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/mjordan_6

In shaping patterns of future warfare, there is little doubt that militaries across the world will be seeking to absorb the key lessons of the Russia-Ukraine War, ranging from the employment of tanks to the use of anti-ship cruise missiles and the ubiquitous drones. For the Chinese military, these lessons might even assume a greater importance, since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lacks recent major  combat experience, and has also leaned heavily on Russian weapons and doctrine for its rapid modernization over the last few decades.

Chinese media coverage of the war in Ukraine has been extensive. The close nature of the China-Russia “quasi-alliance” means that Chinese military analysts have not engaged in the ruthless critiques of Russian military performance that have been commonplace in the West. Yet, Chinese military analyses are still probing deeply for lessons to understand the shape of modern warfare. They have taken particular interest in the U.S. employment of novel weapons and strategies. 

To fully grasp the scope and depth of these Chinese analyses it is important to take assessments from a full range of Chinese military media, which is more extensive than is often appreciated in the West. These articles are generally associated with research institutes that are directly involved in the Chinese military-industrial complex.

This exclusive series for The Diplomat will represent the first systematic attempt by Western analysts to evaluate these Chinese assessments of the war in Ukraine across the full spectrum of warfare, including the land, sea, air and space, and information domains. Read the rest of the series here.

Over the last 20 years China has invested in building up a massive force of modern military helicopters. Chinese sources explicitly state such forces “were largely designed around cross-sea flight operations” – namely for the Taiwan scenario.

China’s ambitious rotary-wing revolution includes multiple designs of transport, anti-submarine, scout, and attack helicopters. The buildup has touched all branches of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as well as the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and the Chinese Coast Guard. The PLA created the Army Aviation Corps in 1988. This force now has many hundreds of attack helicopters, including at least 250 Z-10s. There is little doubt that this force is squarely aimed at Taiwan, with Chinese army aviation now exercising for coastal attack on a very regular basis.

With this large expansion of capabilities in mind, the PLA has been closely observing Russian attack helicopter operations in the war in Ukraine to better understand how helicopters perform in a “high intensity war of attrition.” This article will review a special issue of the Chinese-language defense magazine “Shipborne Weapons” (舰载武器, published by the Zhengzhou Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering) that examines the future prospects for Chinese helicopters in light of the Ukraine War and, in doing so, asks some hard questions of Chinese military planners.

In any battle for Taiwan, PLA helicopters are likely to play a starring role. After an initial “firepower campaign” consisting of ballistic and cruise missiles, drones, and aircraft, the massive helicopter force would provide additional close air support. Most critically, they would also be employed to land and cover special forces and airborne units securing key locations, notably in the island’s interior.  That could be important for breaching and even circumventing the island’s coastal defenses. Not only are helicopters able to leap the narrow Taiwan Strait with relative ease, they can also mobilize into forward, austere staging areas rapidly, allowing for a sudden surprise attack.

The analysis in “Shipborne Weapons” is candid about the vital role for helicopter operations: “Especially when the Taiwan security situation is deteriorating day by day, Army Aviation will be responsible for important cross-sea landing support missions.” It is also suggested, moreover, that the design of PLA attack helicopters had “to consider the issues of cross-sea operations and anti-helicopter operations, and therefore, have higher requirements for range and maneuverability.” As discussed below, such requirements have led to designs that favor range over armor, allowing these platforms to stay engaged in the island combat zone for at least 30 minutes, according to this analysis.

As noted in other pieces in this series, Chinese sources are reasonably candid about evident Russian combat failures, including with respect to helicopter operations. The Chinese assessment concludes that Russia appears to have lost over 30 Mi-24/28/35 and Ka-52 helicopters in the first two months of the Ukraine War. These figures “include shoot downs [and] damaged forced landings. If considering the overall number of helicopter dispatches, sorties and combat time of the Russian army, this loss rate has exceeded the generally acceptable range.”

The article suggests that “most of the losses of Russian helicopters have been caused by problems in the Russian military’s thinking and actual combat practices.” Yet, it is also recognized that “even with the suppression of intermediate and long-range air defenses, when using helicopters… to perform low-altitude and ultra-low-altitude assault operations, they still face grave threats from man-portable air-defense systems.” Moreover, it notes that the problem is especially acute for helicopters flying at slower speeds.

While the Chinese assessment generally describes Russian military operations as “not exhibiting a 2020s level of ‘modern information warfare,’” this series of Chinese articles may indeed suggest some soul-searching regarding the PLA’s own substantial investments in rotary-wing aircraft.

Beijing’s helicopter designers seem to have faced certain challenges related to engine power. With lower performance, flight range, and load carrying abilities, weight has had to be reduced. As such, the original Z-10 had less armor. “The cockpit fuselage is lined with composite armor of Kevlar, ceramics, and armor plates. However, due to the weight and thickness restrictions, this armor cannot compare with… the thick armor plates used on other heavy attack helicopters. It can, however, stop 12.7 mm rounds and high-speed missile fragments.” The PLA clearly viewed this situation as suboptimal and temporary as China worked on more advanced engines.

More recently, upgrades that have increased the power output of the WZ-9 engines have allowed for increased armor and improved survivability. “Beginning in 2020… Z-10s have added armor on the sides of the cockpits and engine compartments. Although the total area protected is relatively limited, due to new advances in technology this additional armor is resistant to 20 mm shells,” states the assessment.

This assessment also notes these aircraft have both passive and active defense capabilities. In addition, it explains, “With the pilot using the night vision helmet, the Z-10 has a powerful night combat capability.” Indeed, PLA helicopter forces regularly exercise at night.

With respect to avionics, this assessment explains: “The Z-10 does not use the most advanced fly-by-wire system. The digital-analog hybrid system, while of a slightly lower class than a traditional hydraulic control system, offers greater precision, faster response, and superior reliability. As a result, maintenance is easier and survivability higher.” In addition, the analysis notes that new Chinese attack helicopters have borrowed from a stealthy U.S. futuristic helicopter design (which was never put into serial production).

Firepower has been a core emphasis in the development of Chinese attack helicopters. Armor has traditionally been traded for weapons carrying capacity; there has also been an emphasis on improving missile armament. One of the main Chinese observations of Russian attack helicopter performance in the war in Ukraine pertains directly to the limitations of Russian missiles.

In another major Chinese defense journal, the point was made, “The anti-tank missiles currently in use are all models developed in the 1970s and 1980s. They… have two major shortcomings: short range and lack of ‘fire and forget’ capability. This leads to helicopters having to enter anti-aircraft kill zones… and greatly reduces survivability on the battlefield.” The Chinese, on the other hand, note that the most recent Z-10 attack helicopters have “a new-generation of upgraded long-range, multi-purpose air-to-ground strike munition. This new weapon not only has an increased range of more than 20 kilometers, but also uses an advanced millimeter wave/infrared multi-mode guidance system with fire-and-forget capability and strong anti-jamming technology.”

The Z-10 can carry up to 16 anti-tank missiles. However, even in regard to firepower, tradeoffs have been made to reduce weight: “[The] 23 mm cannon under the nose… [was chosen] instead of the 30 mm cannon commonly used by foreign attack helicopters.” Nevertheless, the analysis states that these helicopters will be effective in destroying adversary “reinforced fortifications and bunkers.”

With the realization that Russia has taken heavy losses in Ukraine, the Chinese analysis observes that “In the future, the Z-10… will face the threat of more than 2,000 American-made Stinger missiles… if China conducts cross-sea operations.” The PLA is already thinking about how to neutralize this threat to China’s large helicopter fleet.

Not surprisingly, drones are one answer. The strategy is simply to fly drones ahead to screen for the helicopter forces and identify anti-aircraft threats. “Drones can provide full-time all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance of the combat area. After all, if the enemy wants to ambush the helicopter fleet, it will certainly carry out targeted attacks on the relevant air corridors. Pre-deployment [of enemy troops] and ambushes will certainly be detected.”

In this Chinese analysis, it is assessed that helicopters will no longer be able to conduct combat missions on their own, but neither will drones be able to fully replace them. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) suffer from a number of issues, such as “the remote-controlled operation of UAVs, operator-machine feedback and data delays, and battlefield situational awareness issues.” Attack helicopters may still offer superior performance in these aspects. While China is certainly looking to artificial intelligence to solve operator-drone data lag issues through autonomous weapons systems, the article notes, “The development of so-called artificial intelligence technology is still far below expectations… Fully autonomous drone target assessment, decision-making, and attack authority are obviously not realistic [at present].”

The optimal solution currently is seen as “combining [helicopters and drones] together to form the helicopter version of a ‘loyal wingman.’” The article goes on to suggest that “a special ‘intelligent command attack helicopter’ could even be used for command and control of UAVs in coordinated operations…”

After over 20 years of massively investing in its rotary-wing fleet, China is reconsidering how to utilize these forces in a “high intensity” environment full of U.S.-made Stinger missiles or equivalent systems. Watching Russian helicopter losses and resultant caution about their use in the Ukraine War, Chinese observers now perceive that their helicopter fleet may be at a greater risk than previously anticipated.

PLA attack helicopters have been optimized for firepower and range, with some sacrifice of survivability to optimize for the “sea crossing” mission. Chinese strategists studying the Ukraine War appear to have come to believe that no amount of armor can completely defend against the emergent threat of advanced, mobile anti-air weapons. One mitigation discussed in this assessment is their ambition to widely employ drones to counter dense adversary air defenses.

Another strategy China is likely to employ in the event of a Taiwan scenario is to direct its helicopter forces into areas of the island that are likely to be less well protected. That could involve determined penetrations into Taiwan’s mountainous interior and minimally fortified eastern coast.

It may well be, moreover, that PLA planners are not overly concerned by the prospect of losing dozens or even hundreds of aircraft in a Taiwan scenario. After all, subduing the island is regarded by Beijing as a “core interest.”