Dr Ron Smith joined the British helicopter company Westland in 1975, working in Research Aerodynamics, remotely piloted helicopters, before becoming Head of Future Projects. He had a strong influence on the design of the NH90, and was involved in the assessment of the Apache for Britain. He also explored a variety of exotic future technologies for Westland. One such exotic machine was a previously secret stealth attack helicopter. In our exclusive interview he revealed some fascinating insights into the shadowy world of advanced military helicopters.
- Which of the advanced concepts you worked on would you have most liked to see fly?
There are a number of concepts that were not formally issued with WG numbers that my team worked on, including a purely commercial large transport helicopter with a clean streamlined fuselage and an S-76 style retractable undercarriage.
Five options were put forward as WG30 developments to address the payload range limitations inherent in retention of the existing dynamic system (rotor and main gearbox). These all featured five blades and an increased rotor diameter, coupled with a new advanced technology main gearbox using high ratio conformal gears.
The WG30-300 was built, but retained the existing gearbox and rotor diameter, it being judged that the development costs of a new gearbox and rotor design were unaffordable at the time. I do not have any copies of drawings of these concepts.
Stealth attack helicopters
A number of attack helicopter studies were carried out building on technologies being developed by Advanced Engineering and associated work coming from the MoD/RAE Applied Research budgets. These started with a low signature attack helicopter (WG44) based on Lynx dynamics, that evolved into the larger WG45 and WG47, which also featured low signatures and anticipated in some respects features of the Boeing Sikorsky Comanche project.
The WG44 project dated from 1982 – and was presented at a highly classified conference during the Falkland’s War. WG44 was an in-house project in response to a request from the then Research Director asking where we would go to demonstrate our technology in the context of an attack helicopter based on Lynx dynamics. The other derivatives flowed from that starting point and included wind tunnel and radar models. Although initially in-house, some of this material was reported to UK MoD, but their procurement route ultimately favoured adaptation of a proven design, rather than development of a new type.
Light Attack Helicopter (LAH) and Light Combat Helicopter (LCH)
WG44 using Lynx dynamics with
Shaped fuselage, coated canopy and retractable weapons for reduced radar signature
WG45 – new dynamic system and greater emphasis on IR signature reduction
WG47 – WG45 with revised canopy shape to reduce specular reflection (glint) I should have liked to have seen WG45 fly.
UPDATE ON WG45/47 attack helo here.
Another concept I should have liked to see is an Advanced Compound Technology Demonstrator. Here, I would have started with the speed record G-LYNX with a small auxiliary wing (possibly with planned incremental steps to lift augmentation via circulation control) and variable cycle engines to provide propulsion.
If you were to design a new generation helicopter gunship, what would it look like and feature?
I guess that this depends on the role / threat. Today you need to operate in asymmetric conflict as well as in templated warfare against high end threats. Crashworthiness is an essential for all designs and a number of other features would be standard (e.g. ability to detect and avoid wires and survive wire strikes as far as possible).
Asymmetric warfare means taking out threats without killing civilians and non-combatants. Cannon and maybe rockets are required, with good ballistic protection against small arms and heavy machine guns. A capability for target designation is essential.
In coalition operations, positive discrimination of friendly forces is essential – not just by placing reliance on geographical boundaries. (Not everyone at all levels knows what their own special forces are up to (let alone those of coalition partners) and where they are operating).
Against top end threats, sophisticated anti-armour weapons are required, able to defeat ERA and (potentially) active countermeasures. This implies tandem charge warheads and (probably) top attack capability. Terminal laser designation (or imaging IR sensors) is likely to be required for target discrimination and precision. Missile launch signatures and any active seekers will potentially be detected by active protection systems.
Radar sensors can detect targets rapidly and at long range, but even today, this capability is likely to reach out further than the capability of IR sensors for positive target identification. To minimise the risks of friendly fire and civilian casualties, the positive ID capability should, if possible, reach out to the full engagement range,
This may not in reality be achievable, leading to the need to cooperate with forward ground units (special forces or manned armoured reconnaissance), reconnaissance helicopter and/or unmanned systems that can achieve positive recognition, identification and designation – dependent on the applicable rules of engagement. This makes anti-armour operations hard to orchestrate and potentially puts more personnel in harm’s way.
Against top-end threats, low helicopter thermal, acoustic and radar signatures will be required, together with robust design against electromagnetic pulse environments and consideration of directed energy threats. Mast mounted sensors are likely to be required for both reconnaissance and target engagement.
The design should anticipate future in-service growth at least in respect of systems bandwidth and processing capacity, ease of integration of new systems and mass growth over an extended in-service life. System architectures need to be partitioned appropriately for safety and resilience and robustness against possible cyber, EMC and EMP environments.
The aircraft will require sufficient agility to operate in the nap of the earth environment and will need to be able to operate and be maintained in world-wide extremes of both altitude and temperature. Engine particle separators will allow operation at low level in dusty and sandy environments.
Features driven by these requirements can be seen in current and proposed attack helicopters, but not all of the issues touched upon have yet been satisfactorily and robustly addressed.
As an aside, asymmetric warfare has shown the vulnerability of rear areas (operating bases and logistic supply chains). This lesson will, by now, have been learned by the more conventional forces, who may see value in attacking these areas, as well as the conventional approach of attacking the Command, ISTAR and air defence assets. Attack of the enemy rear infrastructure and / or defence of one’s own rear area may become a subsidiary attack helicopter role.
A further, if somewhat contentious aspect, might be in the provision of local air superiority against enemy unmanned air systems. (Although my experience of discussions, in both a helicopter and AFV context, suggests that the RAF would be reluctant for the Army to take on a significant anti-air role).
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