A military helicopter is any type of modern rotorcraft used by military forces to conduct a mission. It includes troops and cargo transportation, search and rescue, training, air assault, and airborne command and control.
Helicopters play a crucial role in modern military setup. Their ability to take off and land vertically allows military/relief operations to take place in isolated areas where fixed-wing aircraft cannot reach.
Based on the nature of their intended role, military helicopters can differ in design and capabilities. Usually, such helicopters can be modified for different roles by putting mission-specific equipment in place. However, their effectiveness is limited to the initial power and lift capacity.
An attack helicopter, intended for air assault role, carries more firepower and faster than transport helicopters that are usually larger and heavier. Similarly, the anti-submarine warfare (ASWs) helicopters are unique in terms of the equipment they carry. It includes navigation and vessel detecting technologies such as sonar (sonobuoy) and magnetic anomaly detector that allow them to detect submarine threats independent of surface vessels.
Below, we have listed the eight most powerful military helicopters that are in service today. It includes transport, search and rescue, utility, and attack helicopters.
8. AgustaWestland AW101
AW101 Merlin HM2 of the Royal Navy on HMS Illustrious | Image Courtesy: Jay Jones/MOD
Role: Utility Helicopter
Maximum Speed: 309 km/h or 192 mph
Unit Cost: US$ 28 million
The AgustaWestland AW101, nicknamed Merlin, is a utility helicopter used by armed forces and civilian operators worldwide. It was developed in a joint effort by Italian helicopter manufacturer Agusta and British Westland Helicopters in the late-1980s to replace the aging Westland Sea King in service with many Western Navies.
The helicopter was initially designated as EH101 (for European Helicopter Industries). However, in the year 2000, after both companies merged to form AgustaWestland, it was re-designated as AW101. Many armed forces identify AW101s as Merlins.
A single unit of AW101 is driven by three turboshaft engines that power the main rotor with five BERP blades. These blades have a distinctive tip design that reduces the rotorcraft’s acoustic signature, enabling them to evade radar detection. It also increases Merlin’s maximum takeoff weight.
As a utility helicopter, the AW101 can be deployed in different roles, including search and rescue, troop transportation, and anti-submarine warfare, with the necessary configuration in place. Modified variants of AW101 are serving the armed forces of nations around the world.
7. NHIndustries NH90
A Finnish Army NH90
Role: Utility Helicopter
Maximum Speed: 300 km/h or 190 mph
Unit Cost: US$42 million (TTH)
The NH90 is a modern maritime utility helicopter developed in the 1990s by a consortium of aircraft manufacturers; Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo, and Fokker Aerostructures. It is the first rotorcraft to feature fully electronic flight controls (as opposed to hydro-mechanical).
The NH90 can operate under extreme temperature/weather conditions (between -40 degree C and +50 degree C) and has a maximum service altitude of 6,090 meters. Their airframe, made of composite materials, has more ballistic damage tolerance and crashworthiness than some of the older helicopters with metallic bodies.
Three different variants of NH90 are produced, the TTH, NFH, and MTT. The TTH or Tactical Transport Helicopter is the most widely used version of the NH90. It is designed to convey transport and rescue operations on land. The other two variants are used for maritime operations.
6. Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion
Sikorsky CH-53D Sea Stallion of the USMC (now retired) | Image Courtesy: U.S NAVY
Role: Transport Helicopter
Maximum Speed: 310 km/h or 200 mph
Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion is one of the older heavy-lift transport helicopters currently in service with armed forces worldwide. The rotorcraft is powered by two turboshaft engines, each producing close to 3,000 kW power. It can carry about 38 to 55 troops (depending on the configuration), including a crew of four. The maximum payload is 3,600 kg (internal cargo) or 5,900 kg (external).
A production CH-53 is usually equipped with two .50 machine guns, a chaff dispenser, and an infrared countermeasure device for protection against missiles.
The CH-53 Sea Stallion entered service in 1966 with the U.S Marine Corps but was quickly adopted by other branches of the U.S Armed forces as well. They also served in several foreign militaries, including that of Israel, Germany, and Austria. By 2012, the Marine Corps and the U.S Air Force replaced their CH-53 with an identical but more powerful CH-53E Super Stallion.
5. Sikorsky S-70
A US Navy Sikorsky S-60B
Role: Utility helicopter
Maximum Speed: 361 km/h or 224 mph
Unit Cost: US$23.9 million (Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk)
Sikorsky S-70 is a family of utility/medium-lift transport helicopter designed and developed by the U.S based defense manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft. It entered service with the U.S Army in the late-1970s as UH-60 Black Hawk and became an instant hit.
After initial success with the army, the UH-60 was extensively modified for its use in other roles throughout the 1980s. Two principal variants of the UH-60 were developed, all under the S-70 family.
The Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk, perhaps one of the most effective maritime utility helicopters ever produced, is one of the modified variants of the UH-60 Black Hawk. It can operate from possibly any air-capable vessel or ship and undertake wide-ranging roles, including anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, medivac, and vertical replenishment.
Another notable member of the Sikorsky S-70 family is HH-60 Pave Hawk. It is a specialized combat search and rescue helicopter equipped with advanced systems and instruments ideal for special operations. The Pave Hawk’s feature an in-flight refueling probe and additional fuel tanks that significantly increase their flight range.
Other modified versions of S-70 that are actively in service are S-70A Firehawk (firefighting) and HH-60J Jayhawk (search and rescue). One of the helicopters designated as “Marine One,” the U.S Presidential transport aircraft, is a highly modified version of the UH-60.
4. Kamov Ka-52
A Ka-52 at Torzhok Airbase (Russia) | Image Courtesy: Alex Beltyukov
Role: Attack/Scout Helicopter
Maximum Speed: 315 km/h or 196 mph
Unit Cost: US$16 million
The Kamov Ka-52 “Alligator” is the primary military attack helicopter for close air support and anti-tank role for the Russian Air Force. Like most attack helicopters, the Ka-52 has side external weapon stations (three on each side) that can carry about 12 laser-guided anti-tank missiles and several other rocket pods. It also has a fixed 30mm selective-fire autocannon located underneath the fuselage.
The overall design of the Ka-52 attack helicopter is based on its precursor, the Kamov Ka-50 “Black Shark.” The Ka-52 can be described as a two-seat (side-by-side) version of the Ka-50 but with advanced avionics and more firepower. Both helicopters can be identified by their coaxial rotors (two contra-rotating rotors place one above the other).
The Ka-52 is fitted with a radar warning system and chaff/flare dispenser countermeasures. Furthermore, the armor around the cockpit is rated to withstand a few armor-piercing rounds.
3. Boeing CH-47 Chinook
MH-47E Chinook with in-flight refueling probe landing deck of a ship | Image Courtesy: U.S DOD
Role: Transport Helicopter
Maximum Speed: 310 km/h or 180 mph
Unit Cost: US$43.31 million
The Boeing CH-47 Chinook is one of the oldest military helicopters that have remained in front-line service. After entering service in the early 1960s, the Chinook’s carried out support missions during the Vietnam War. Fast forward to the 1990s, during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the CH-47s were deployed in large numbers to perform troop transportation, re-supply, medivac, and even air assault missions.
The Chinook is also the most produced tandem rotorcraft (helicopters with two large horizontal rotors on both sides) in the world. As of 2012, Boeing has delivered more than 1,200 units of CH-47 since 1962. It remains in popular demand from armed forces across the globe.
Several Chinook variants exist. The MH-47D and 47E models, developed specifically for special operations (S.O.), feature an in-flight refueling probe and advanced terrain-following radar. An upgraded version of these models, MH-47G with sophisticated CAAS systems, are currently being delivered to the U.S Army.
In 2019, the Pentagon announced that the U.S Marine Corps’ will assess the maritime variant of CH-47 Chinook as a potential alternative for problematic CH-53K King Stallion for their naval operations.
2. Mil Mi-24
A Mil Mi-24P operated by the U.S Army Test and Evaluation Center in Las Vegas, Nevada
Role: Attack/Transport Helicopter
Maximum Speed: 335 km/h or 208 mph
The Mil Mi-24 is, perhaps, one of the most feared attack helicopters in the world. It was designed and developed by the Moscow Mil Helicopter Plant in 1972 for the Soviet Air Force and currently in service with the Russian Armed forces and almost 50 other nations.
Due to its ability to take massive hits while flying and a powerful arsenal, the Mi-24 has earned the nickname of “flying tank.” The NATO reporting name of Mi-24 and its variants is ‘Hind.’ The rotorcraft’s design is based on the earlier Mil Mi-8 transport helicopters, allowing the Mi-24 to gain transport capabilities as well. The Mi-24 is powered by two turbofan engines (top-mounted), each producing 1,600 kW of power.
Armaments include two heavy machine guns and at least one fixed autocannon. The wing-tip pylons on either side of the helicopter carry a mixture of rocket/missile launchers, bomb-loads, and autocannons.
1. Boeing AH-64 Apache
A ski-equipped AH-64 at Fort Wainwright, Alaska
Role: Attack Helicopter
Maximum Speed: 293 km/h or 182 mph
Unit Cost: US$35 million (2014)
The AH-64 Apache is one of the most dominant and easily recognized attack helicopters in the world. They are equipped with a conventional landing gear mechanism (with a small third wheel near the tail), four weapon stations located on both sides, a nose-mounted sensor, and a 30mm chain gun underneath.
The origin of AH-64 Apache can be traced back to the early-1970. It was initially developed by Hughes Helicopters (later McDonnell Douglas) as prototype YAH-64 and made its first test flight on 1 October 1975.
In 1981, the helicopter was named the Apache, after the native American tribes in the Southern states, continuing the tradition of naming military helicopters after native tribes by the U.S Army. In August 1997, a few months after the delivery of monumental AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters, McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing Defense.
Over the years, the AH-64 has become integral to ground attack operations for armed forces worldwide. Apaches can operate at an altitude of 6,400 meters under suitable conditions with a rate of climb of 540 m/min. Most attack helicopters have a maximum operating altitude between 4,500 m to 5,500m.
A female pilot of 656 Squadron Army Air Corps, British Army with an IHADSS | Image Courtesy: Cpl Rupert Frere RLC/MOD
Boeing AH-64 Apache was the first successful application of the modern helmet-mounted display in any military aircraft, known as Integrated Helmet and Display Sighting System. It allows the AH-64 crew to steer and engage the enemy targets with the 30 mm chain gun by tracking head movements. Since then, the IHADSS has been used in other military helicopters such as Agusta A129 Mangusta.