US Army/Capt. Kyle Abraham
- Japan’s army is planning to replace its attack and observation helicopters with drone aircraft.
- Helicopter are valuable, but they also have vulnerabilities — dozens have been downed in Ukraine.
- The losses and Japan’s decision may lead other militaries to rethink the role of their helicopters.
Attack helicopters have earned a reputation as one of the deadliest weapons on the battlefield, but Japan’s military thinks it can do without them.
Japan’s army is now planning to replace its attack helicopters and observation helicopters with drones that will take over the roles of utility and attack, surveillance, and reconnaissance, according to the Japanese military’s Defense Buildup Program, published in December 2022.
Japan’s attack helicopter fleet currently comprises 12 AH-64 Apaches and 50 AH-1 Cobras, as well as an observation helicopter fleet of 37 Kawasaki OH-1s.
The document did not specify which unmanned aerial vehicles would replace the helicopters, but “a Japanese-language summary showed graphical representations of what appears to be loitering munitions and medium-altitude, long-endurance drones as replacements,” noted Defense News.
A Japanese Self-Defense Force CH-47 lands on US Navy amphibious assault ship in the Philippine Sea in February 2022.
US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Manuel Alvarado
Japan isn’t giving up on helicopters, however. The Defense Buildup Program calls for acquiring additional CH-47J/JA transport and UH-2 utility helicopters.
Nonetheless, Japan’s decision to junk its attack helicopters has other nations thinking what to do with theirs. Japan’s move “calls into question Australia’s 2021 decision to renew the Australian Army’s attack helicopter force by buying 29 Apaches of the AH-64E version,” journalist Bradley Perrett wrote for The Strategist, a commentary and analysis site attached to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank.
The Australian Defense Force wants the Apaches to replace aging Airbus Tiger attack helicopters as part of a modernization plan that includes new long-range missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, and drones.
“As the risk of a maritime and air war involving China has become Australia’s overwhelming security concern, the army’s costly equipment plans have looked ever less relevant,” Perrett wrote. “Now we have the judgement of Japan, a close friend, that attack helicopters are not worthwhile even for its capability requirements, which include land fighting to defend territory.”
A Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force AH-1S Cobra during a live-fire exercise in May 2022.
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
Since helicopters appeared on the battlefield in the 1950s, they have become a versatile and indispensable tool for missions ranging from hauling troops and supplies, and evacuating casualties.
However, attack helicopters are more problematic. Platforms such as the AH-64 Apache are extremely lethal systems, especially when it comes to hunting tanks. Because they are often operated by armies, they provide ground troops with their own organic air support, rather than having to rely on the air force.
But helicopters are also vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. The US lost 5,600 helicopters in Vietnam, many due to ground fire. Russia has lost almost 60 attack helicopters in Ukraine, according to the open-source defense site Oryx. In January, Ukraine claims to have shot down three Ka-52s in 30 minutes.
“Russian attack helicopters have been used extremely cautiously, with a heavy reliance on standoff rocket attacks rendering them little more than flying rocket artillery assets,” Britain’s Royal United Services Institute noted a November 2022 report. “Despite this cautious approach, they continue to be shot down regularly by Ukrainian frontline units” using man-portable anti-aircraft missiles and even anti-tank missiles such as the US-made Javelin.
An MQ-9 Reaper drone at Kanoya Air Base in Japan in November 2022.
US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Christopher Broome
Just as helicopters replaced many of the functions once performed by aircraft, now drones may replace helicopters for attack and scouting missions. With AH-64s costing up to $140 million apiece, using a $100,000 loitering munition to destroy a $10 million tank is an attractive proposition.
As with drones replacing fighter pilots, a human in the cockpit of a helicopter offers flexibility that can’t be matched by a drone operator at a console thousands of miles away. Rather than attack helicopters being replaced by drones, it seems more likely they will team up with drones.
“All this doesn’t mean that the attack helicopter is useless or that drones can replace it in every mission,” Perrett concluded. “But each of the trends discussed here is undermining its competitiveness in terms of value for money.”
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.