Japan is ditching its attack helicopters in another sign that one of the most important modern military weapons is losing its luster
The Japanese army plans to replace its attack and observation helicopters with drones.
Helicopters are valuable, but they also have vulnerabilities – dozens have been shot down in Ukraine.
Japan’s losses and decision could cause other armies to rethink the role of their helicopters.
Attack helicopters have earned a reputation as one of the deadliest weapons on the battlefield, but the Japanese military thinks they can do without them.
The Japanese military is now planning to replace its attack and observation helicopters with drones that will take on utility and attack, surveillance and reconnaissance roles, according to the army’s defense enhancement program. Japanese, published in December 2022.
Japan’s attack helicopter fleet currently includes 12 AH-64 Apaches and 50 AH-1 Cobras, as well as an observation helicopter fleet of 37 Kawasaki OH-1s.
The document did not specify which unmanned aerial vehicles would replace the helicopters, but “a summary in Japanese showed graphical representations of what appear to be replacement medium-altitude, long-endurance ordnance and drones,” Defense News noted.
Japan is not abandoning helicopters, however. The defense enhancement program includes the acquisition of additional CH-47J/JA transport helicopters and UH-2 utility helicopters.
Nevertheless, Japan’s decision to throw away its attack helicopters has other nations wondering what to do with theirs. Japan’s decision “calls into question Australia’s decision in 2021 to renew the Australian Army’s attack helicopter force by purchasing 29 Apaches of the AH-64E version,” journalist Bradley Perrett wrote for The Strategist, a commentary and analysis site attached to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank.
The Australian Defense Force wants Apaches to replace aging Airbus Tiger attack helicopters as part of a modernization plan that includes new long-range missiles, nuclear-powered submarines and drones.
“As the risk of sea and air warfare involving China became Australia’s overwhelming security concern, the army’s expensive equipment plans seemed increasingly irrelevant,” Perrett wrote. “Now we have the judgment of Japan, a close friend, that attack helicopters are not worth even for its capability requirements, which include ground combat to defend territory.”
Since helicopters first appeared on the battlefield in the 1950s, they have become a versatile and indispensable tool for missions ranging from transporting troops and supplying to evacuating the wounded.
However, attack helicopters are more problematic. Platforms such as the AH-64 Apache are extremely lethal systems, especially when it comes to fighter tanks. Because they are often operated by armies, they provide ground troops with their own organic air support, rather than having to rely on the air force.
But helicopters are also vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. The United States lost 5,600 helicopters in Vietnam, many to ground fire. Russia has lost nearly 60 attack helicopters in Ukraine, according to the open-source defense site Oryx. In January, Ukraine claims to have shot down three Ka-52s in 30 minutes.
“Russian attack helicopters have been used with extreme caution, with a heavy reliance on ranged rocket attacks, making them little more than flying rocket artillery assets,” the Royal United noted. British Services Institute in a November 2022 report. “Despite this cautious approach, they continue to be shot down regularly by Ukrainian frontline units” using man-portable anti-aircraft missiles and even anti-tank missiles such as the American-made Javelin.
Just as helicopters have replaced many functions once performed by aircraft, drones can now replace helicopters for attack and reconnaissance missions. With AH-64s costing up to $140 million each, using a $100,000 wanderer round to destroy a $10 million tank is an attractive proposition.
As with drones replacing fighter pilots, a human in the cockpit of a helicopter offers flexibility that cannot be matched by a drone operator on a console thousands of miles away. Rather than replacing attack helicopters with drones, it seems more likely that they will team up with drones.
“All this does not mean that the attack helicopter is useless or that drones can replace it in every mission,” Perrett concluded. “But each of the trends discussed here is hurting its competitiveness in terms of value for money.”
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine and other publications. He holds a master’s degree in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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