China's new heavy attack helicopter seen for the first time.

The latest development in the relentless production of Chinese military aircraft appears to be the design of a heavy attack helicopter, very similar in concept to the American AH-64 Apache and apparently developed from the Z-20 multipurpose transport helicopter, known as the clone Chinese H-60/S-70 Black Hawk.

Although the status of the program – which could be called Z-21 – is not clear, everything indicates that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) wants to quickly have a heavier and more capable attack helicopter than those it currently operates.

Today, photos of the new attack helicopter in flight, seen from below, began to circulate on social networks. Immediately, you can see the fairings, like those of the AH-64D/E, which go from the nose to the tail arm.

Although its bulk contrasts with the slender body of the Z-10, China’s current standard attack helicopter, the new helicopter’s fuselage is still much slimmer than that of the Z-20, from which it apparently derives.

This is due to the typical tandem two-seat configuration of most modern attack helicopters. Signs of the Z-20’s DNA are visible in the tail section, as the Z-21’s appears almost identical, with a slab-shaped, unswept horizontal stabilizer.

The side wings follow a similar format and appear to have some pylons already installed, perhaps to transport test equipment. At the same time, the nose of the helicopter sports an aerial data probe, a common element in flight tests. At the moment, it does not appear that there is a cannon on the front of the helicopter, although it is likely to be added in the future.

The Z-21 reportedly already has a self-defense suite installed, and there are certainly antennas and protrusions around the fuselage that could be associated with this. Additionally, the engine exhaust pipes are oriented upwards, which is often a measure taken to reduce the infrared signature when tracked by ground-based air defense systems.

According to unconfirmed claims by Chinese bloggers, the Z-21 uses the same powerplant and rotor systems as the Z-20, which began life as a utility transport for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Ground Force. The Z-20 has since been refined for armed assault and maritime missions, and more exotic concepts are also being considered.

Apparently, Harbin, responsible for the Z-20, and Changhe, which produces the Z-10 attack helicopter, are involved in the development of the Z-21. The 602nd Research Institute, which played a key role in the design of the Z-10, would also be involved in the development of the larger Z-21.

China's new heavy attack helicopter seen for the first time.
A Z-20 armed helicopter carrying KD-10 missiles on a short-wing system.

Borrowing heavily from the Z-20 should help speed up the program as well as reduce risks in its development. According to some unconfirmed information, the Z-21 is scheduled to enter service in just two or three years. It should be noted that the American AH-1 Cobra family evolved directly from the UH-1 Huey and that the Black Hawk even had an attack helicopter variant concept that never came to fruition, the S-71. The Mi-24 Hind also has its roots in the design of the Mi-8/14 Hip/Haze.

Given that the lighter Z-10 has apparently been a huge success for the PLA and is now also being offered for export, there might have been some surprise about a new Chinese attack helicopter appearing at this time.

China's new heavy attack helicopter seen for the first time.
A Z-10 is unveiled at the China Air Show in Zhuhai in November 2012.

However, Chinese military aerospace observer and writer Andreas Rupprecht said there were rumors about the maiden flight of the Z-21 (also formerly known as Z-XX) in January this year.

However, as Rupprecht points out, “All the most recent rumors pointed to a heavy coaxial design, something like a stealthy Ka-52 Hokum or the SB-1 Defiant.” On the other hand, we have seen the Z-20 as a flying test bed with weapons, cannons and sensors associated with a new attack helicopter design. In fact, if we had simply put them together, we would have come to the conclusion much sooner that the new helicopter could look much more like this design derived from the Z-20.

The PLA’s need for an attack helicopter in this class also appears to go back sometime. To see why China might now be looking to develop a heavy attack helicopter (in the 10-ton class, compared to the roughly 5.5-ton Z-10), it’s worth looking back at its history with helicopters of this type.

For many years, the PLA lacked a true attack helicopter. Already in the early 1990s it was suggested that China might be considering purchasing a foreign-made heavy attack helicopter, specifically the Soviet-designed Mi-24 Hind. Amid the convulsions of the collapse of the Soviet Union, this never materialized. The EPL did acquire armed versions of the Mi-17 Hip.

China's new heavy attack helicopter seen for the first time.
A Z-19 scout/attack helicopter performing a low-level pass at the Zhuhai Air Show in November 2012

At the same time, there appears to have been intense debate over whether China’s armed helicopters should be the responsibility of the PLA Air Force or the PLA Ground Force.

In the end, at least in the short term, the Ground Force prevailed and began receiving the PLA’s first “attack helicopter,” the armed Z-9WA version of the Z-9 light utility helicopter. Although it was armed with anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), which was a powerful new capability, the Z-9WA was always expected to be a stopgap solution.

Thomas Newdick