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The 5 Greatest Attack Helicopters

The Apache was first flown in September 1975 by Hughes Helicopters (now M.D. Helicopters) by Boeing. The U.S. Army started using it in April 1986.

I realized the other day that I hadn’t written a “19 Forty-Five Top 5” list in a while (or a “5 Worst” list, for that matter). I also realized that while my past “5 Best” pieces have covered everything from surface warships to weapons to fixed-wing fighter jets, I have yet to write about rotary-wing aircraft, aka helicopters (cue Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Go to da choppa!”).

Attack helicopters, or helicopter gunships, will suffice for now. We will limit it to combat-proven choppers.

The Apache was first flown in September 1975 by Hughes Helicopters (now M.D. Helicopters) by Boeing. The U.S. Army started using it in April 1986.

She deserved the wait. In December 1989, the Apache’s high-precision attack on Manuel Noriega’s Panamanian Defense Forces’ Comandancia facility was her “baptism of fire” (PDF).

In 1991, Operation Desert Storm made the Apache famous. The AH-64 fired the first rounds of the operation, knocking out two vital early-warning radar installations in western Iraq and clearing a detection-free corridor for U.S. Air Force jets bombing Baghdad. Apache crews destroyed over 500 of Saddam Hussein’s main battle tanks (MBTs).

The Apache has an M230 30mm chain gun, Hydra-70 and CRV7 70mm air-to-ground rockets, the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, and the AIM-92 Stinger.

The P-39 Airacobra fighter from World War II, her P-63 Kingcobra offspring, and the Cobra helicopter gunship were all given that name in honor of the deadly Cobra.

The AH-1W Super Cobra, nicknamed “Whiskey Cobra,” was retired by the U.S. Marine Corps in October 2020.

From 1969 through 1972, the Army and Marine Corps used the AH-1J Cobra helicopter to intercept the Ho Chi Minh Trail. USMC Cobras supported Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada and Operation Praying Mantis in Iran.

Like the Apache, the Cobra performed its best during Operation Desert Storm, involving zero combat in destroying 97 Iraqi MBTs, 104 armored personnel carriers (APCs), and two AAA installations. The Apache’s three-barreled 20mm gun eliminated the cobras, TOW and Hellfire anti-tank missiles, 70mm and 127mm rockets, and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

The Bell AH-1Z “Viper” will replace the Whiskey Cobra for the USMC (not to be confused with the F-16V Viper).

Russian and Soviet attack helicopters usually include the Hind. The Mi-24 entered Soviet service in the late 1970s as a troop transport, but the Hind-D derivative became a gunship.

In Ken Follett’s bestselling novel Lie Down with Lions, the Hind-D wreaked Havoc on the mujahideen during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, prompting the CIA to send Stinger missiles to the Afghan rebels. It helped Saddam Hussein quickly and brutally crush a southern Iraqi Shiite revolt in March 1991.

Around 40 nations have used the Hind in battle. The Mi-24P and Mi-24V carry four underwing pylons for up to 12 Shturm anti-tank missiles and a Yak-B four-barreled 12.7mm machine gun with a firing rate of 4,000–4,500 rounds per minute (NATO reporting name: AT-6 Spiral).

Our Mighty columnist, former U.S. Army journalist, and 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper Logan Nye consider the Soviet Alligator the best attack helicopter in the world.

The two-seat Ka-52 beats the Apache because it can fly high and fast. The Alligator has a higher anti-ship missile range than the Apache and equivalent armor and air-to-air capability.

Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine killed several with the Ka-52. The Ukrainian defense has repeatedly cooked the Alligator.

The Hind’s replacement first flew in 1982 but didn’t enter Soviet service until 2009. Logan Nye ranks this the world’s #3 attack helicopter behind the Apache: “The Havoc carries anti-tank rockets that can pierce a metre of armor.” It features pods for 80 mm unguided rockets, five 122 mm rockets, grenade launchers, 23 mm rifles, 12.7 mm or 7.62 mm machine guns, or bombs. It also includes a nose-mounted 30mm cannon.

The Havoc debuted in combat during Russia’s intervention in Syria, notably during anti-ISIS operations in Palmyra and Ukraine. In 2015, the Iraqi Air Force (IqAF) used the Mi-28 for anti-ISIS operations near Ramadi.

AH-64D_Apache_Longbow, Credit: Boeing

AH-1W Whiskey Cobra, Image Credits: Rolando Raffaut.

Mi-24 “Hind”, Image Credits: Polish land forces.

Ka-52 “Alligator”, Image Credits: Alex Beltyoukov

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