In the second part of our analysis of Chinese army aviation, we look at guiding concepts, tactics and operations, and new programmes and upgrades

Chinese military thinking is to fight and win a "limited war under high-technology conditions", with the guiding concepts behind army aviation placing a premium on mobility, surprise attacks and sabotage at key moments and battles over contested positions. This requires a substantial air mobile capability built around a modern helicopter force that can support the army's best forces. But due to its limited numbers and vulnerability to enemy attacks, army aviation must be used selectively and as a force multiplier.

China's Army Aviation Bureau (AAB) has experienced significant expansion in the number and types of missions since its establishment in October 1986. Today, the AAB is a frontline combat force, and has the primary mission of supporting army special forces with tactical airlift and attack capabilities. To this end, it practices air assault, offensive air support and pre-emptive strikes against an adversary force. It also carries out border patrol, reconnaissance, some electronic warfare (EW) and command and control (C2) functions, logistical support, as well as establishing forward arming and refuelling points where needed.

Aviation multi-tasking

The AAB also has a search and rescue (SAR) mission, and may additionally be tasked with denying an adversary the ability to conduct combat SAR operations. Army aviation also performs civil-related missions, supporting provincial and local governments with disaster relief, fire fighting and medical evacuation when called upon.

Since its inception, army aviation has gradually assumed an increasingly important role in combined arms and joint operations of the Chinese army. All regiments now participate in regular exercises held throughout the year, although combat readiness and capabilities vary according to military region (MR) - a function of their assigned tactical missions.

Tasked with supporting 38th Group Army operations in the Beijing MR, China's most important military region, the 8th Army Aviation Regiment conducted an attack exercise in mid-July.

Using a pair of Hafei WZ-9 Combat Haitun armed helicopters, the unit engaged in tactical training designed to take an enemy force by surprise. Such exercises generally involve two armed Z-9As or WZ-9s flying nap-of-the-earth, followed by launches of HJ-8 Red Arrow missiles or unguided rockets in a single pass over the objective, or engaging the enemy in dive attacks. On other occasions, a combined Z-9A and WZ-9 team may attack a target in two or three echelons.

Although there are still relatively few operations featuring significant numbers of helicopters, one large-scale exercise was held in July in the Nanjing MR. Designed to test response times, the army aviation regiment conducted a surprise drill involving more than 20 helicopters, including Kazan Mi-171 transports.

The 8th Army Aviation Regiment seems to be responsible for tactics development and is associated with weapons testing and evaluation. At least one of the unit's WZ-9s has been used since 1998 for captive-carry and possibly for firing trials of the purpose-built TY-90 air-to-air missile). It is unclear whether the intent has been to certify the weapon for use on the WZ-9, or to support China's new attack helicopter programme, or both. Tactics for the air combat mission are under development.

Since at least 1999 army aviation has been conducting a series of annual science and technology exercises, which bring together helicopter aircrews from various regiments. These aim to exchange and learn from individual unit experiences, to improve combat tactics, logistics, and co-ordinating operations.

One such exercise took place in eastern Guangdong in December 2002. This involved elements from all army aviation regiments. An objective of this weapons and support competition seems to have been improving combat readiness, raising competency levels of support personnel, and standardising training curricula across army aviation. Such exercises are also important in developing a common ethos and esprit de corps.

Although attack and air mobile missions are often publicised as integrated air/land exercises, China's air and ground capabilities have yet to be synchronised in perfect harmony. Instead, army aviation helicopters often make a timed arrival in a particular area of operations, carry out their mission and swiftly leave, providing little or no additional support to ground forces. Significant barriers remain to co-ordinating combined arms operations both within and across the military regions, as well as in effective joint operations.

Nevertheless, some measure of the confidence the AAB has in its capabilities is apparent from its participation in recent operations. In October 2002 the 3rd Army Aviation Regiment took part in its first international exercise with Kyrgyz forces. Code named Joint Command Post 01 and held at the border area of Irkeshtan, it was the first joint anti-terrorism exercise between China and Kyrgyzstan under the auspices of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO). In August the same unit took part in the Coalition 2003 exercise in Yili, Xinjiang, that involved the forces of five SCO member states in anti-terrorism operations. At least twoMi-17s were used in air mobile and fire support operations during the second phase of this exercise.

Army aviation is undergoing a major expansion and modernisation programme, with no fewer than six new types and models expected to be procured into the future. Among the new types being inducted into service is the Changhe Z-8A tactical transport helicopter. The first production examples were delivered in November 2002.

The Z-9 series has long suffered from a lack of power, and some Z-9As and WZ-9s may be retrofitted with the more-powerful Turbomeca Arriel 2C, which also powers Hafei's new H410A and H425A civil helicopters. Given the increasing emphasis on operations in western China, and the associated requirement for superior high-altitude performance, testing of the Arriel2C-powered H410A demonstrator over the Tibetan plateau in 2002 was probably of significant interest to army aviation.

Trials with a small number of armed Changhe Z-11s are also being carried out, and a light attack model with optronic sight was on display at the November 2002 Zhuhai air show.

Trainer upgrade

While it is unclear whether there is interest in acquiring the new twin-engined Z-11 under co-operative development with Rolls-Royce, there is a good possibility that the WZ-8D turboshaft powering army aviation Z-11 pilot trainers may be replaced with the Arriel 2B1A. The initial aircraft with the new powerplant, designated Z-11MB1, made a first flight in March.

AAB planners are probably aiming to build the force's future capabilities around locally and co-operatively developed helicopter types. First among these is the new 4,500kg/5,500kg (10,000/12,000lb) helicopter programme, which aims to develop a dedicated attack machine - likely to be the Z-10 - as well as the Chinese Medium Helicopter (CMH), using the same rotor and drive systems developed in co-operation with Eurocopter and AgustaWestland.

A prototype of the Z-10 first flew earlier this year, and flight testing of the CMH is expected to begin in 2005. Both models are scheduled to enter service before the end of this decade, with the 5,500kg transport helicopter likely to become the centrepiece of the army aviation force structure in the future.

Further procurement

There are also plans to procure a 9,000kg transport helicopter, which will probably use some concepts and technologies from the CMH programme. Originally begun as a 7,250kg helicopter project in the 1990s, it was apparently upgraded in recent years. A key driver behind the project may be a long-held desire to replace the Sikorsky S-70C-2 Black Hawk, an aircraft in the same gross weight class. A long-term requirement for a second-generation tiltrotor/tiltwing aircraft, similar to AgustaWestland's Erica project, also remains a possibility, but may be significantly contingent upon progress in the West.

In the interim, army aviation is continuing to buy new model Mi-17s, and negotiations for an additional 25 partially upgraded Mi-17V-5s have recently been completed. The service will probably also acquire Kazan's new Mi-17V-7, featuring increased performance VK-2500 turboshafts, uprated main gearbox, auxiliary power unit, new rotor system with composite blades, and a much improved Transas two-man glass cockpit. Long-term planning may envision upgrading the AAB's significant fleet of Mi-17V-5s to the Mi-17V-7 production standard.

Conspicuously absent on many army aviation helicopters are electronic warfare systems for self-protection. Considering the service's offensive mission, it is probable that there are plans to address this deficiency with an upgrade programme in coming years, at least for some frontline combat regiments. Following the resumption of bilateral defence ties in the aftermath of the Phalcon affair, an Israelimilitary delegation visited China in May to discuss "possible avenues for co-operation in the future in the sphere of arms development".

According to one report, "the Chinese are showing an interest in systems to upgrade helicopters with electronic warfare systems" with the contracts under negotiation valued at up to $200 million. In the event of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, Nanjing MR army aviation regiments will need EW systems to be successful in carrying out missions.

At present, the only helicopters that appear to be equipped with some limited EW systems are DZ-9s and Z-9A C2 platforms, the latter attached to the 8th Army Aviation Regiment. While the first DZ-9 may be operated as a communications jammer, its operational role may be restricted. The Z-9A C2 helicopter, which is used as a scout and command post platform to direct artillery fire and control some ground force operations, is probably equipped with encrypted radios to assure secure communications with aircrews and ground elements.

Both aircraft would benefit substantially from self-protection EW systems, including infrared engine-emission suppressors, IR and radar jammers, radar warning receivers, missile approach warning detectors and chaff/flare dispensers. At a minimum, these and the WZ-9 armed helicopters may have IR-absorbent paint applied to their airframes to reduce their signature.

Focus on development

Although China's army aviation capabilities remain rudimentary, former AAB director Gen Li Xiyuan underscores that "Chinese army aviation is focused on coming developments and is closely following army aviation development trends of developed nations and surrounding countries. This includes improving its combat tactics, acquiring new equipment, and upgrading its capabilities. The major long-term challenge will be to successfully integrate modern helicopter types into the expanding inventory, while building a credible fighting force."

Guided by a clear vision and sense of purpose, it may be expected that a new generation of AAB leaders will complete the transformation of army aviation into an effective force multiplier that is capable of prosecuting a local war under high-technology conditions.

Source: Flight International