The attack helicopter becomes like a rapidly mobile SAM site

Thursday, December 9th, 2021

If it’s armed for air-to-air combat, an attack helicopter will defeat most fighter airplanes:

In 1978/79 US Army and US Air Force conducted a joint experiment called Joint Countering Attack Helicopter (J-CATCH). J-CATCH focused on dissimilar air combat between jet fighters and attack helicopters. To the surprise of many involved in the program, the helicopters proved extremely dangerous to the fighters when they were properly employed, racking up a 5-to-1 kill ratio over the fighters when fighting at close ranges with guns.

‘Ironically, Army aviation dominated the air,’ explained Caleb Posey, AH-64E Crew Chief at U.S. Army, on Quora. ‘Air Force pilots were “shot down” without even knowing the helicopters were there. Apaches can hide in the radar clutter at tree top level, and use the incredibly sophisticated Longbow system to track literally hundreds of targets simultaneously. If I remember the numbers, the helicopters shot down ~5 fixed wing for ever chopper that got hit. Granted, this tested helos that were loaded with air to air weapons (NOT typical), but still… the Air Force left with the overall idea of “leave enemy helicopters the f**k alone.’

‘A well equipped attack helicopter flown by a trained crew will defeat most fighter airplanes in 1v1 air combat, should the fighter be foolish enough to drop down to try and engage,’ Nick Lappos, Technical Fellow Emeritus at Sikorsky and former U.S. Army AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter pilot, said on Quora. ‘A helicopter immersed in ground clutter is very hard to detect by almost any means, and so is hard to engage. Meanwhile, the helicopter can be equipped with air to air missiles and large caliber guns that easily engage fighters as they maneuver at low altitudes against a blue sky in their attempts to engage the helicopter. The helicopter if properly flown will always maneuver to cut off the angle from the airplane, forcing impossibly steep closure maneuvers for the fighter. Typical helicopter turn rates are 30 to 40 degrees per second, three times that of the fighter, even at high g, so the fighter will find the helicopters weapons always engaging it during any serious contest. If the helicopter gun and missiles were selected for anti-aircraft (like the 30mm guns on the Mi-24 and KA-50/51), the results are that the attack helicopter becomes like a rapidly mobile SAM site, a very dangerous target.’


‘It must be said that the fighter is only vulnerable if it drops down from its normal altitude to engage the helicopter. If the fighter stays high and prosecutes its normal mission, it is nearly invulnerable to the helicopter’s weapons.’


  1. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “If the helicopter gun and missiles were selected for anti-aircraft…”

    I am trying to imagine the scenario where a contender would choose to arm its relatively short-range helicopters with air-to-air weapons and fly them at low levels, expecting the fixed wing jets to come down and play on their turf. Also trying to imagine what the role of the much longer-range fixed wing aircraft would be in that scenario.

    More likely the jets would ignore the hiding helicopters and bomb the living daylights out of the helicopter bases and resupply lines. Tomorrow would then be an entirely different game!

  2. cassander says:

    modern radars are a LOT better at picking out things from ground clutter than in the 80s, and the higher up you are, the longer range your missiles are going to be able to fire. I don’t think this tells us much about modern air to air combat.

  3. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Interesting to analyze the asymmetric aspects of warfare, but you will most always lose on your enemy’s turf unless you annihilate their forces. A helicopter at high altitude or a jet at low altitude are out their element. This is exactly what you would expect.

  4. A Wild Goose says:

    Very interesting!

    I have to wonder if the folks that wrote the film, “Blue Thunder,” (1983) were aware of this study before they filmed this scene of an attack helicopter versus F-16s:

  5. Ezra says:

    “modern radars are a LOT better at picking out things from ground clutter than in the 80s”

    This is what I was thinking. Technology of 1978 far different from what it is today. Nonetheless, that such an exercise was attempted is rather interesting. U.S. Army lacks sufficient AAA anyhow.

  6. Sgt. Bob says:

    In 1978–79 a defense aviation company PR man mentioned the fixed wing vs AH-1 contests. I got a picture of A-7s and F-4s doing figure eights and race tracks slightly above tree level, with speed brakes extended (if they had speed brakes) while pilots did visuals and back-seaters scanned instruments, looking in vain for the wiley hidey rotary wings. At some point, he said, the Cobra would pop up and launch a signal at the pursuit aircraft.

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