By Wg Cdr Bhupinder S. Nijjar
On July 14, 2020 a report published on the front page of ChinaAviation news, announced the successful test of a new generation of air-to-air missile. The title, roughly transliterated (using an online translator) meant “Helan Mountain Vibrated with the Sounds”. The accompanying photograph indicated the moment the missile leaves the port outer hard point on the pylon of a WZ-10 helicopter. Another announcement (June 15,2020) on Global Times described the test as a “New World Leading Helicopter Missile tested at the Alxa range at the base of Helan Mountain range in Inner Mongolia” and re-emphasised the modifications to the exhaust of the WZ-10 to reduce its IR signatures.
The announcement claimed the successful integration of the missile with the WZ-10 helicopter. Interestingly, in the Chinese version, the claim of enhanced capabilities is also interspersed with repeated comparisons to the IAI manufactured “Spike-Non Line of Sight (NLOS)” missile tested by the US Army for deployment aboard the “Apache” helicopter in August, 2019.
The Chinese concern NORINCO had displayed an export version of a similar missile named Blue Arrow-21 (BA-21) during an international trade show and have claimed range similar to the Spike-NLOS which is about 25 Kilometres. The additional information indicates the ‘fire and forget’ capability and an Infra-Red (IR) / millimetric wave composite guidance and ability to use datalinks for precision targeting and a mid-course navigation guidance.
These media releases and claims of significant enhancement of the WZ-10 capabilities have been made amidst the ongoing standoff with India.
The High-Altitude Standoff
While the root cause may be the unsettled boundary issue and the differing perceptions of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Chinese ‘blitzkrieg’ style military deployment all along the Indian border, with accompanying multi-pronged diplomatic offensive amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, took the Indians by surprise.
The Indian Army responded, and, amidst the diplomatic parleys and military build-up’, on June 15, 2020, a ‘medieval style’ hand to hand fighting caused multiple casualties on both sides.
The Galwan clash at an altitude of 4.3 Kilometres (14,000 feet) and the continuing standoff is a result of the Chinese hegemonistic strategy of forcefully occupying a territory through a show of force, a strategy quite similar to the one on display in the South of China Sea. The possible escalation was controlled through a negotiated effort and a tacit agreement to allow unimpeded helicopter operations to evacuate the casualties.
Despite the casualties, the multi-point high-altitude engagement is continuing with accompanying military build-up on both sides. The Chinese as a part of a media campaign often highlight the deployment of the “indigenous” WZ-10 helicopters during exercises. However, the jury is still out on the actual high-altitude capabilities of the WZ-10.
Utilization of WZ-10
As a part of their training plans, the Chinese had been practising long range deployments using the cover of anti-terrorism exercises under the aegis of Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) named as Peace Missions. The, 2013 exercises held in Chebarkul Military range (Chelyabinsk Region, Russia) were significant wherein military area commands of Russia (Central Military District) and China (Shenyang Military Region) were involved and Chinese practised rapid deployment over 4000 kms to the exercise area. This indicated an effort at a ‘Campaign-Level’ operation simulating an involvement of 25,000 soldiers.
The 2014 edition of the ‘Peace Mission’ held at Zhurihe Training Base in China was the largest ever in SCO history. The excise witnessed use of UAV, fixed and rotary wing aircraft along with the KJ-2000 airborne early Warning and control aircraft and mobile logistics support detachments.
While, the CH-4 (Cai Hong 4 or Rainbow 4), which rather unapologetically resembles the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, destroyed several ground targets in real time, the WZ-10 (Fierce Thunderbolt) and WZ-19 attack helicopters were used for practising “rocket barrages” along with the Russian Mi-8 AMTSh helicopter Gunships. Here it is to be noted that the elevation of Zurihe Barracks exercise area (42º20’57.29”N 112º38’55.69”E) is approximately 1163 metres.
While the WZ-10 is designed primarily for anti-tank missions and has an added air-to-air capability, the smaller WZ-19 (Black Whirlwind) is a tandem seat variant of the based WZ-9 attack helicopter. However, only rocket attacks were practised.
The current test of the BA-21, was conducted at the Alxa range (approx 42º20’57.29”N 112º38’55.69”E) at an elevation of around 1300m. With the heavier BA-21 missile (IAI Cannesterised version is 70 Kg) there is likely to be a trade-off between the range and accuracy requirements and the desired fire-power. A restriction imposed by the laws of physics.
Terrain & Operating Conditions
The Galwan Valley skirmish and hand to hand fighting occurred at an elevation of approximately 4160 metres. This is also the lowest possible elevation at which the opposing forces are pitted against each other. While Pangong-Tso elevation is around 4200 metres, the Depsang plains further to the north are at 5300 metres. At such altitudes, the effects of the reduced density of air, loosely called as “lack of oxygen” become significant and adversely impact performance ofboth the man and the machine.
At an elevation of around 5700 metres, the air density is around half of what is prevailing at the sea level. This when combined with the higher than normal summer temperatures, has an adverse impact on the payload capacities of the helicopter.
As a rough example, a helicopter capable of carrying a load of 11 tons at sea level is able to undertake only 4 tons at an elevation of around 4000 metres. This payload generally includes the fuel requirements and balance load can be a mix of passengers or weapons as in case of an attack helicopter. Even with the extensive infrastructure developed by the Chinese all along the Indian border, the elevation in the area of concern exceeds 4400 metres and the WZ-10 development has also been beset with engine issues from the outset.
I distinctly remember a case wherein ITBP casualties were to be evacuated from Daulet-Beg-Oldi, and the prevailing temperature conditions did not permit the Cheetah nor the Mi-17 to undertake the mission. At the time, the 56 Ton class Mi-26 was used to recover the casualties to Thoise.
Similarly, the WZ-10 is also likely to face severe restrictions in its operational envelope. It was originally designed to be powered by Pratt & Whitney (PT-6) turboshaft engines imported in 2002. In 2012, the Chinese were forced to fit the WZ-9 engine with alower power output of 1000 SHP. Thereafter, they entered into a contract with the Safran group for manufacturing the Ardiden3C engine, named the WZ-16 (1700-2000 SHP),for theAirbus AC352/H175/Z-15 seven-ton, twin-engine, multi-purpose helicopter.
This engine has received necessary certification by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) as recently as 10 October 2019. And till this engine is successfully mated with the WZ-10, the operational capability of the WZ-10 helicopter will remain a suspect. Hence, with such limitations, how could the PLA Aviation Brigades possibly employ the WZ-10 in the current Ladakh standoff?
Possible Game plan
The WZ-10 project is a project of national importance and of immense prestige for the Chinese and at the same time they are extremely cost conscious too. As an employment strategy, the operational deployment is likely to see the heavier WZ-10 and the lighter WZ-19 in an attack and a scout role respectively, to overcome their individual technological and capability gaps. The open source deployment pattern of these helicopters with the PLA Aviation Brigades,conforms to this thought. Both have been produced in equal numbers with just over 200 apiece and are likely to be training together.
As a part of psychological operations however, the PLA may like to project the capabilities of WZ-10 in the Ladakh sector. Even though this is an unlikely possibility; for this to happen, they would have to mount operations from a point as close as possible to the point of expected force projection. At this point they need to have requisite helipad length available along with adequate Air Defence cover and requisite logistic support in terms of availability of fuel and armament stores.
This possibly, augmented by the availability of an air-conditioned hanger and adequate length of helipad. The available open source satellite imagery doesn’t permit a detailed examination of the area at present.
However, the operational envelope is likely to be highly restricted.Their claimed efficacy in the high-altitude terrain operations thus would remain questionable. It is with this limitation that in all likelihood the Chinese would continue to rely on the Russian Mi-17-V5/V7 class of helicopters and may modify them with air to ground and possibly air to air armaments and use them along with other land-based systems.
However, for the WZ-10, till the WZ-16 engine is successfully mated with it, the improvements to the missile capability and avionics would remain largely cosmetic for operating in the high-altitude regions of Ladakh.
Length: 14.15 m (46 ft 5 in)
Height: 3.85 m (12 ft 8 in)
Empty weight: 5,100 kg (11,244 lb)
Gross weight: 5,540 kg (12,214 lb)
Max takeoff weight: 7,000 kg (15,432 lb)
Powerplant: 2 × WoZhou-9 (WZ-9) turboshaft engines, 1,000 kW (1,300 hp) each
Main rotor diameter: 12 m (39 ft 4 in)
Maximum speed: 270 km/h (170 mph, 150 kn)
Cruise speed: 230 km/h (140 mph, 120 kn)
Range: 800 km (500 mi, 430 nmi)
Service ceiling: 6,400 m (21,000 ft)
g limits: +3
Rate of climb: 10 m/s (2,000 ft/min) +
Guns: 1x 23 mm (0.906 in) revolver gun or 1x 25 mm (0.984 in) M242 Bushmaster chain gun copy
Hardpoints: 4 with a capacity of 1,500 kg (3,307 lb)
Rockets: 57 mm (2.244 in) or 90 mm (3.543 in) unguided rocket pods
Missiles: Up to 16 HJ-10 air to surface / anti tank / anti helicopter missiles. ADK10 is reported to be the official name of HJ10 missile.
Up to 16 HJ-8, HJ-9 missiles
Up to 16 TY-90 air-to-air missiles
Up to 4 PL-5, PL-7, PL-9 air-to-air missiles
YH millimetre-wave fire-control radar
Helmet mounted sight with night vision goggles
BM/KG300G self protection jamming pod
Blue Sky navigation pod
KZ900 reconnaissance pod
YH-96 electronic warfare suite
*Author is an Indian Air Force veteran. Views expressed here are personal.