Gunships, also known as “Flying tanks” or “tank destroyers”, have extraordinary firepower and agility. However, in the past 20 years, the development process of new armed helicopters in various countries has been slow, and Western countries have not “introduced new ones” for many years, but the Italian Leonardo (parent company of AgustaWestland) AW249, which recently flew for the first time, has set a new trend.
According to a report by the aviationist website on the 23rd of this month, the Italian defense giant Leonardo Group, which is also the parent company of the world-renowned British-Italian joint venture helicopter company Agusta Westland, announced that its next-generation attack helicopter AW249 has completed its maiden flight at the Agusta factory in Vergiate on 12 August month, the AW249 is a new generation of Italian armed helicopters. It should be noted that West never produced a brand-new helicopter after the 1991 first flight of Eurocopter. However, after 30 years of gap, West did produce a new helicopter.
Judging from the published pictures of this new attack helicopter, this new type of gunship still follows the basic features of the first-generation Italian special-purpose helicopter, the AW129 “Mangusta”, which began to serve in 1990.
Although, the AW249 is much larger than the AW129 “Mongoose” its maximum take-off weight is about 7.5 to 8 tons, which is almost twice that of the original “Mongoose” (4.6 tons), and it is also a lot more than the 5 tons of the T129 variant. Its transmission system comes from the Agusta AW149 military transport helicopter, using 2 powerful US-made General Electric CT7-8E6 (T700) turboshaft engines, each rated at 2500 horsepower (1860 kilowatts), this powerful engine was formerly known as “Black Hawk” standard T700 engine.
Due to the strong thrust produced by the engines, the AW249’s offensive and defensive capabilities have also been enhanced by 2 times. Although it follows the “Mongoose” TM192B triple 20mm Gatling cannon, it has 6 external pylons that can mount 8 to 12 “Spike” air-to-surface missiles, and its armor protection is also significantly enhanced and Italy has also planned to be equip it with Elettronica’s ELT-162 radar warning system, ELT/577 Quiris Directed Infrared Jammer (DIRCM) and Leonardo Multi-Aperture Infrared (MAIR) Missile Warning System (MWS).
Although the AW249 still uses the Israeli Rafael Toplite image stabilization aiming system of the AW129D “Mongoose” helicopter, but it has the ability of performing “network-centric warfare”, that is, it has the function of controlling manned-unmanned aerial vehicles (MUM-T), and the armed helicopter Commanding UAVs, the combat scenario of “A shoots B guides” has also become a trend now.
The new AW249 attack helicopters will be produced on domestic demand and will also face the export market. In 2017, the Italian Ministry of Defense promoted the NEES program, planning to manufacture 1 prototype, 3 pre-production helicopters and 48 mass-produced aircrafts. It is planned to replace the “Mongoose” in the Italian Army arsenal from 2025. This type of the earliest dedicated armed helicopter in Europe, which was mass-produced in 1990, only 67 were built together with the prototype, except for the T-129 (first flight in 2009 and service in 2014), which was improved with the US-made CTS800 turboshaft engine in Turkey. 76 were built for the Turkish army and 6 were exported to the Philippines, the original “Mongoose” was never exported.
Today, this kind of new “super helicopter”, which has been “renovated” almost from the beginning to the end, has been born, and the Italians hope to gain some fresh profits in the export market. The first potential customers are from the Eastern European countries such as Romania and Poland. Poland has previously ordered 32 AW149s. They originally used the Russian-made Mi-24 “Hind”, the United States’ AH-64E “Apache” and AH-1Z “Viper”.
In addition, the European “Tiger” gunships, which began service in 2003, will also face fierce competition now. The first flight of this kind was completed in 1991, combined with the 6-ton helicopters accumulated by the aviation industries of France and Germany, especially the two helicopter manufacturers MBB and Aerospace France, has actually not been well received since its service. The Tiger has several issues in active service.
Due to the fact that large-scale air-ground integration operations have not occurred except for the Russian-Ukrainian war, and the large-scale use of surveillance and strike-integrated drones has became a trend now, the development of armed helicopters has been relatively slow. Take the whole of the West as an good example.
In the past 30 years, only the “Eurocopter Tiger” and the RAH-66 “Comanche” which first flew in 1996 have been newly developed. The later, was an stealth armed reconnaissance helicopter, now finally dismounted.
The AH-1Z “Viper” that flew for the first time in 2000 and the UH-1Y “Venom” with a shared engine and transmission system, Bell only upgraded on the basis of the “Super Cobra” and “Super Huey” (collectively referred to as the H-1 upgrade plan) and did not start a new design. The AH-64 “Apache” is in service since the 1986 and was upgraded to the current AH-64E “Guardian” in terms of adding “Longbow” millimeter-wave radar, improving weapons, and network-centric warfare capabilities, if you want to buy Western helicopters, there is almost only one choice between “Viper” and “Guardian”, the price of the latter is approaching the sky-high price of 100 million US dollars, and the European “Tiger” is not up to the mark.