Almost every military service operates military helicopters. Because there is overlap in the types of helicopters used by the various services, they are presented in a common entry. There are a variety of designations for helicopters. Only only the most common, as well as a common name, are presented. There are also several Coast Guard helicopter types which are not discussed here.
Helicopters are slower and have shorter ranges than fixed wing aircraft. Helicopter transports tend to have less capacity than fixed wing cargo planes, and armed helicopters tend to be more lightly armed and armored than close air support fixed wing aircraft. Helicopters also generally require more maintenance than fixed wing planes (because they have more moving parts), tend to be more sensitive to environmental conditions, perform less well at high altitudes, and consume more fuel per mile travelled than fixed wing aircraft.
Of course, helicopters can take off and land vertically, which is necessary in situations where there is no landing strip available, either in a battlefield situation or at sea on ships other than aircraft carriers. Likewise, the ability to hover in place is valueable when supporting a relatively immobile unit of ground troops.
The Army, in an effort to minimize its reliance on the Air Force has invested heavily in helicopters, in the mind of many military analysts excessively, out of the justified concern that the Air Force would not integrate well enough with it during war and would not devote sufficient resources to its needs in times of peace. To grossly oversimplify, helicopters are allocated to the Army, while fixed wing aircraft are allocated to the Air Force (with a number of exceptions).
For example, the Army often uses its heavy lift Chinook helicopter in situations where a short takeoff and landing fixed wing aircraft designed for use in field airstrips could do the job better. Likewise, there is some concern over the vulnerability and reliability of its Apache attack helicopters in the Iraq War compared the the more straightforward A-10 aircraft, a fixed wing aircraft designed, like the Apache, for close air support of troops and anti-tank missions. A good recounting of the Apache v. A-10 debate is found here. The Air Force had also largely abandoned the role of fixed wing aircraft in reconnaissance roles in support of ground troops now filled largely by the Kiowa reconnaisance helicopter, even before the potential of drone aircraft (UAVs) for that role was apparent. Today, in Iraq, Navy and Marine F-18s which are designed to be multi-role fighter aircraft rather than reconnaisance aircraft, have been pressed into the fixed wing reconnaisance role due to a sensor suite and range of view which is superior to Army helicopters, particularly at night.
One of the most successful roles for the helicopter in the Iraq War has proven to be the role of escorting supply convoys, to protect them against ambush.
The Primarily Army Helicopters
The UH-1 Huey, in numerous variants, is the original Army utility helicopter, introduced in 1959. About 150 remain in service in the United States Army including the National Guard (which has 60 of them), and about 40 remain in use in the Air Force, and the military continues to move towards phasing them out entirely. They can carry up to 13 troops and somewhat less weight than the Blackhawk H-60 helicopter which replaced it. The AH-1 Cobra is a variant of the UH-1 designed for an attack role rather than a transport role.
The CH-47 Chinook, introduced in 1961, is the Army's tandem rotor heavy lift helicopter. It carries up to 44 troops (an Army platoon) or about 19,000 pounds of cargo. It has a speed of 136 miles per hour and a range of about 300 miles. The most urgent concern of Army planners looking at future helicopter purchases (or some replacement for helicopters) is the aging Chinook fleet.
The OH-58 Kiowa is a small Army reconnaisance helicopter which can also be used in a light attack role introduced in 1961. An attack variant is known as the Kiowa Warrior. It was to be replaced by the Comanche, but that program was cancelled during the administration of George W. Bush. The Army has about 400 of them. The OH-58 was a replacement for the OH-6 and AH-6 "Little Bird" reconnaisance and light attack helicopters which are now used only by one small special operations unit and for Naval aviation training purposes.
The H-60 Black Hawk, introduced in 1979, is the primary Army utility helicopter today, and it has about 1,500 of them in various variants. It is designed to carry an 11 man Army squad or 2,600 pounds of cargo in its most common variant.
The AH-64 Apache is the Army's primary attack helicopter with a crew of two (a gunner and a pilot). They were introduced in 1986 and the Army has about 800 of them. It is equipped with Hellfire missiles which can destroy tanks and heavy cannons (very large caliber machine guns) for use against other targets.
The Primarily Navy/Marine Helicopters
The CH-46 Sea Knight is a tandem rotor medium lift helicopter used primarily by the Marines, introduced in 1964. It can hold about 6,000 pounds of cargo or about 25 fully equipped troops. The Marines hope to replace this with the V-22 Osprey tilt wing aircraft (which would have both fixed wing and helicopter modes) in the future.
The CH-53 Sea Stallion (a later version is known as the Super Stallion) is the heaviest lift helicopter used in the U.S. military and entered service in 1962. It has a single rotor. It can carry up to 16 tons of cargo or up to 55 troops. Current plans call for the Marines to continue using upgraded versions of this helicopter for heavy lift purposes for the foreseeable future.
The SH-60 Sea Hawk, introduced in 1983 is a significant modification of the Black Hawk for Naval use in a number of variants. It is the primary anti-submarine warfare aircraft in the Navy. The SH-60 is the replacement for the SH-3 Sea King, which is still in use on some ships. The SH-3 was introduced in 1962 and is also an anti-submarine warfare helicopter.
All of the military's reconnaisance and heavy lift helicopter designs, as well as its legacy light transport and anti-submarine warfare helicopters first came into service in a five year period from 1959-1964, although all which are still in service have had some form of upgrades in the past four decades. The Black Hawk/Sea Hawk design is a more than two decade old design, and the Apache design will hit two decades in age in 2006.
There are about 15 different acroymns for programs to replace the U.S. military helicopter fleet, of which only the V-22 Osprey program favored by the Marine Corps is well known. Many have ambitious time tables, but few seem to be generating much buzz among military pundits. The services have largely favored incremental improvements of existing designs rather than completely new models of helicopters thus far. For example, the bid for plans for a successor to the Blackhawk Helicopter was originally labelled H-60(X), until procurement officials complained that it too obviously picked a new version of the existing design, rather than opening up the field to all competitors.
Much of the lack of clarity flows from indecision. The Army's plans for a future reconnaisance/light attack helicopter have been thrown into turmoil with the demise of the Comanche program and the rise of UAVs usefulness in the Iraq War. This source reports that the Army's Kiowa will be replaced with a militarized version on the Bell 407 helicopter at a cost of $6-$9 million each from 2006 to 2013.
The Army is unsure if it wants to replace its heavy lift Chinook with a bigger version of the Osprey, which is still not proven technology, a next generation Chinook, a quad rotor helicopter, or even a short takeoff and landing fixed wing plane which would be smaller than a C-130 but similar in concept. The Army would also like its new heavy lift helicopter to be compatable with its new "Future Combat System" which is itself ill defined and conceptual, while at the same time weighing if it needs or wants to build a helicopter heavier than any in the military now which could carry existing heavy vehicles.
The Marines have suppressed their concerns about any needs for new helicopters, because they fear that any waivering from their top priority, the Osprey, could cause that program which have faced repeated delays, technical problems and cost overruns as it has tried to develop a new technology, could cause the program which is at the core of their future war planning to be cancelled. The Navy is both suppressing its less pressing needs to those of the Marines, and its still trying to come to terms with the implications of surface, air and underwater drones for its needs, for example in a drone helicopter called the RQ-8 Fire Scout, a reconnaisance and light attack unmanned helicopter which will weight about 3,000 pounds and cost about $8 million each, which is about to enter service.
The "technological risks" associated with the demise of the Comanche program and the repeated near cancellation of the V-22 have also left military brass wary of devoting too much effort to any expensive technologically revolutionary helicopter program.