Even in the din of battle, an ominous beating sound can be heard in the distance. Gradually, it’s not just the sound one hears, but the air itself that seems to get heavier as the threat approaches. The rapid and rhythmic chopping of rotor blades act like repeated blows that disrupt any sensation of the pounding infantryman’s heart, whose vision narrows and palms start to sweat in tense anticipation of the mechanical monstrosity he’s about to face.

This scene is what dismounted soldiers have long feared – as helicopter gunships have borne down on their positions, ready to open fire in a close air support capacity. Indeed, it is something that was all too familiar to the Afghan mujahideen who were frequently the victims of the fearsome Mil Mi-24 gunships as they resisted Soviet occupation of their country through the 1980s. The gunships – better known in the West by their reporting name of the ‘Hind’ – were a fan favourite of Soviet ground forces, who relied on their close air support capabilities extensively. Hinds were favoured over fixed-wing warplanes due to their perceived staying power, and their ability (mainly thanks to fuel use) to maintain support for a longer period compared to jet aircraft.

But – and as is usually the case in wars that are not ended quickly and decisively – the mujahideen adapted. What was first branded ‘Satan’s Chariot’ by the Afghans quickly became a favourite target of their new FIM-92 Stingers, an American-made and supplied man-portable air defence system known as ‘manpads’. When they were introduced to the Afghan mountains in 1986, gunships like the Hind suddenly became vulnerable to the lightly armed mujahideen, lying in wait on some rocky outcrop. This time, though, the tactical engagements against the mujahideen yielded vastly different results – according to the US Air Defense Artillery Yearbook of 1993 a 79% aircraft kill probability.

One of the most iconic Soviet-era gunships, the Mi-24 has seen extensive action and is still in operation. Image Credit: Martin Spurny/ www.Shutterstock.com

From Afghanistan to Ukraine

The lessons of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan may still be yielding results, as today’s Russian Federation goes to war in Ukraine – and utilises many of the same tactics that failed to win the USSR’s war decades ago. According to Cyril Heckel, programme manager for the Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC) programme at Nato’s Support and Procurement Agency, Nato’s plans to bring the next generation of helicopters to fruition are being informed by observing Russian tactical failures in Ukraine.

“For Russia’s specific situation, firstly we can see that they are still using obsolete systems,” Heckel says, referring to Moscow’s penchant for deploying ‘vintage’ weapon systems to the Ukrainian front. “We also understood that [the Russians] were using helicopters more as an artillery system and bringing them close to the enemy, which exposes you to manpads and other [air] defence systems. This highlights their issues in training and doctrine.”

This mirrors the Soviet experience in Afghanistan decades earlier, where Hinds were incredibly feared – up until the mujahideen had an adequate response in the form of Stingers. In the Ukrainian case, Kyiv did not have to wait for six years to get an adequate response, and have in fact had air defence and manpads donated to them by the US and other Nato partners since the start of the war – and it shows. According to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Russia has lost 580 aircraft since it launched its invasion in February 2022, 135 of which were helicopters. Of those 135, 103 were destroyed, 30 were damaged and taken out of action, and two were captured.

In two videos of separate incidents posted by the Ukrainian defence ministry, Russian Ka-52 attack helicopters can be seen being blown out of the sky using domestically produced Stugna-P anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). For an airframe to be taken out by a weapon designed to destroy landbased vehicles, that’s certainly something. “The losses you suffer are not only related to obsolete technologies, but also due to your doctrine in employing these weapon systems,” Heckel says. In Russia’s case, he continues, “they have used an incorrect doctrine and old weapons platforms, and they have suffered substantial losses as a result”.

Although it had its maiden flight in 1997, the Ka-52 has been deployed by Russia in a close air support and attack role in Ukraine. Image Credit: Vladimir Mulder/ www.Shutterstock.com

Lessons learned

So how can Nato avoid falling into the same pitfalls as Russia? And has the alliance learned from its own military debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, which also saw rotorcraft vulnerabilities being laid bare in these low-intensity – but high-cost – conflicts?

“In terms of the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq, the forces we sent there were not tailored to the threat and were also distant [from the battlefield],” Heckel explains, perhaps alluding to incidents such as Iraqi insurgents successfully shooting down a US CH-46 Sea Knight over the skies of Baghdad in February 2007. “In Russia’s case, they have all their assets close to the battlefield, so it all depends on context and on the doctrine…but we are constantly studying the ‘lessons learned’ process to ensure that we are addressing these issues at the conceptual phase.”

Heckel particularly recalls the plethora of issues that arose from a previous Nato effort at creating a multi-role helicopter – the NH90 programme. Starting life in 1985, a multinational team including France, West Germany, the UK, Italy and the Netherlands all came together to develop a Nato battlefield transport and anti-ship/submarine helicopter. But it didn’t take long for political quibbling to stymie the programme, with the UK promptly leaving the programme in 1987. Even after it was put into service, other operators, such as Norway and Australia, have abandoned the helicopter well in advance of its slated 2037 retirement date. That’s largely due to significant production and technical issues, which caused delayed deliveries and engine failures.

The percentage of aircraft kill probability of the FIM-92 Stingers used in the Soviet- Afghan War.
US Air Defense Artillery Yearbook of 1993

But Heckel views this as an opportunity to learn and improve. “The NH90 programme taught us a lot,” he says. “There were many variants of the system which caused issues. Nato is a multinational force so we need something agile that assists with interoperability, and therefore [the NGRC] concept is flexible thanks to open systems architecture.” Heckel also confirms that his department was keeping a close eye on what the US was doing with its Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programme, ensuring interoperability with Nato’s largest military. That’s just as well: the FVL programme has been in development for far longer, beginning in 2009 as opposed to NGRC’s 2020. FVL, for its part, has spawned related initiatives, such as the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft programme, which will develop a successor to the long-lasting UH-60 Blackhawk vehicle.

If NGRC follows in FVL’s footsteps, at any rate, nations on the NGRC programme can expect helicopters that have far greater capabilities than any current generation rotorcraft, including increased hovering altitudes, cruising speeds and ranges, greater cargo and personnel carrying capabilities. Automated piloting will likely be an option too. One possible hightech feature could be a pilot helmet – similar to the F-35’s – that uses distributed aperture technology and integrated sensors to help pilots see through the helicopter. That’s beneficial if you want to check if enemies armed with manpads are about to fire on you from behind.

The number of helicopters Russia has lost in Ukraine.

Heckel stresses that the NGRC is still at a nascent phase of its development, and is nowhere near the prototyping stage yet. All the same, the concept is maturing, and an initial set of attributes, concept of operations and capability development documents have already been published. Altogether, they explain how Nato will use rotorcraft in the battlefields of the future. “Today,” Heckel explains, “we have 11 mission types specified – that follow a wide scope, from troop transport to attack roles to anti-submarine warfare. At the concept stage, it is easy, because we want to have everything. However, as we go through the different [development] phases and studies, we know that the reality may be that we will be more restricted.”

Playing the long game

As is clear, then, the NGRC programme very much remains a work in progress. The first phase is set to conclude at the end of 2025, while Heckel is hopeful that the first asset developed will see the light of day around 2040. “We obviously would like to have it before, and some years ago we said that we would aim for 2035, but some allies said this may be too challenging, so we shifted it to 2040.”

In that timeframe, there is scope for significant change, including examining whether the NGRC’s final asset can be an unmanned system, or how it would operate in conjunction with the latest military zeitgeist: drones. “[Drones are] not a specific mission we have, but we would definitely like to consider them for the NGRC,” Heckel says, emphasising that Nato is not blind to unmanned warfare. “We are still at the concept stage, as I said, but we are considering whether the NGRC can produce an uncrewed system.”

Yet as Heckel stresses, there are other considerations too. Drones possess advantages for asymmetric warfare, especially when one considers Iranian-supplied ‘suicide’ drones that are being used by Russia in Ukraine. That said, war has never been a ‘one-size-fits-all’ endeavour, and each nation will have its own doctrinal preferences. For example, while Japan is proceeding to adopt uncrewed airframes, Heckel says that Nato believes manned systems are not so easy to jam or interfere with as compared to their unmanned counterparts.

Whatever the final form the NGRC programme takes, it is clear that there is a need to update how militaries think about vertical lift platforms. Not since the Vietnam War have there been any serious updates to these airframes – and half a century is long enough to ensure the helicopters and gunships of the future are brought up to speed, especially given the rising popularity of disposable drones. And if innovation in military technology can be found anywhere, it must be found in Nato – even if Russia decides not to heed its experiences in Afghanistan, that’s surely no excuse for the Western alliance to do the same.