China's Quest for Heavy Helicopter Capabilities

Even in 2024, the lack of heavy transport and heavy helicopters is still a notable shortcoming in China’s domestic military capabilities, particularly for the Army Aviation and naval amphibious forces.

Army aviation cannot transport large-scale heavy firepower due to the absence of heavy transport helicopters of over 20 tons. Although China has developed an ultra-light howitzer called AH-4 for export, it has not been equipped for domestic use.

The naval amphibious forces face an even more pressing need for heavy-armed helicopters, as they are well-suited to provide front-line support firepower during landing operations.

China’s development of a heavy transport helicopter, the AHL, with a designed load capacity of 38.2 tons, has faced significant delays. The cooperation with Russia on this project was impacted by Russia’s involvement in the ongoing conflict, leading to difficulties in procuring the required D-136 engines from Russia.

Despite progress in domestic helicopter design capabilities, overcoming the challenge of developing high-power turboshaft engines will take time, likely pushing the availability of practical heavy transport helicopters beyond 2030.

However, the situation regarding heavy-armed helicopters is more promising. China has made significant advancements in turboshaft engine development, with the publicly exhibited turboshaft-10 engine reaching a power output of 1600 kilowatts six years ago.

Based on the normal trajectory of technical iterations, it is reasonable to speculate that a power output of 1800 kilowatts has been achieved, which would be sufficient for domestically produced 10-ton heavy-armed helicopters.

Reports have emerged about the development of a domestically produced heavy-armed helicopter, leveraging the structural and power capabilities of the Z-20 platform. While official confirmation is pending, the technical feasibility of such a development is well-established.

Heavy Helicopter
Z-10

The Navy’s amphibious assault ships currently lack dedicated armed helicopters, and while the Army Aviation’s Z-10 helicopters have been employed in cross-sea operations in exercises, their take-off and landing efficiency and attack frequency have been suboptimal for naval requirements.

The potential export of Russia’s Ka-52K heavy helicopter to China was previously considered due to the urgent need for ship-borne heavy helicopters for amphibious landing operations. However, the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict has effectively ruled out this option.

China's Quest for Heavy Helicopter Capabilities: Progress and Challenges
Ka-52

The technical origins of China’s heavy helicopter development can be traced back several years, and the current design appears compact and similar to the American AH-64, albeit with a relatively simple technical status. Mass production is estimated to be two to three years away.

China's Quest for Heavy Helicopter Capabilities
American AH-64

While some nations have scaled back armed helicopter development efforts due to the perceived vulnerability of these platforms on modern battlefields, as evidenced by the losses suffered by Russian helicopters in Ukraine, a deeper analysis reveals significant mitigating factors.

The Russian Ka-52 losses were primarily concentrated in the early stages of the conflict when electronic warfare systems, airborne weapons, and fire control systems were immature. By the summer of 2023, these issues had been largely addressed, and the Ka-52 performed well in supporting counterattacks against Ukrainian armor, prompting Russia to expand its production capacity.

China has consistently prioritized the development of airborne avionics, software, and electronic warfare systems, reducing the likelihood of reckless tactics that contributed to the early Russian losses.

The integration of heavy helicopters with drones, fighter platforms, and digital warfare capabilities is expected to leverage their height advantages, subjective initiative, and flexibility, making them a valuable asset on future battlefields.

In summary, the article highlights China’s ongoing efforts to address the shortcomings in heavy transport and heavy helicopter capabilities, with promising developments in the latter category.

While challenges remain, particularly in the development of high-power turboshaft engines for heavy transport helicopters, the technical feasibility and strategic importance of heavy-armed helicopters have been recognized, and their integration with other platforms and capabilities is expected to mitigate vulnerabilities observed in recent conflicts.