There has been relatively little advancement in the field of the dedicated attack helicopter platform with primary, globally-operated, types in the Boeing AH-64 Apache and Mil Mi-24 Hind both being born in the Cold War period (1947-1991). Even the Russian Army, operating two attack helo types in the Mil Mi-28 Havoc and Kamov Ka-50 Black Shark series, use platforms rooted in the Cold War years when tanks were to rule the battlefields of Europe. The Italian Army operates the Agusta A129 Mangusta but even this product emerged during the 1980s. More recent efforts has resulted in the Eurocopter Tiger, introduced in 2003 but fewer than 150 being built, and the T129 ATACK from Turkey - though this is based in the Italian A129 platform. The U.S. Marines has introduced a heavily upgraded form of the classic Bell AH-1 Huey Cobra line in the "Viper" series.
As such, it is of great interest that Leonardo of Italy has announced an all-new development venture with its "AW249". The aircraft is set to follow tried-and-proven design practices for helicopters by included a twin, side-by-side engine arrangement for maximum power and survivability, a stepped cockpit configuration for pilot and gunner, and rugged, fixed tail-dragging undercarriage. Concept artwork reveals a platform set to carry a chin-mounted, trainable automatic cannon and port and starboard side wingstubs for ordnance (three hardpoints to a wing). Over the fuselage is a low-mounted, five-bladed main rotor while the tail is set to feature a starboard-side-facing four-bladed tail rotor unit to counter torque. The fuselage is depicted with smooth, angled panels.
Leonardo SpA was granted a 487 million Euro deal in January of 2017 for the development of four aircraft encompassing a single flyable prototype and three pre-production forms.
Requirements by any army service for their attack helicopter platforms has not changed - survivability is key for both crew and aircraft alike so stealth measures will be implemented into the new August product by way of reduced radar cross-section and low-signature engines.
To help drive development, the Italian Army has insisted on utilization of some in-service components such as a 20mm TM197B autocannon by OTO-Melara for the chin weapon, the Israeli SPIKE Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) family for the anti-tank measure, and the main rotor and gearbox of the Agusta AW149 medium-lift helicopter series. Beyond this, the turboshaft installations for power would be either the proven American-originated General Electric CT7-2E1 or the French Safran "Aneto" currently employed in the Leonardo AW189K model - both set to offer output power in the 2,000 horsepower range.
Other estimated specifications include a Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) of up to 17,640lb, a cruising speed of just over 160 miles per hour, a mission endurance window of up to three hours and an operating service ceiling reaching 20,000 feet.
Leonardo has stated that its new combat helicopter will incorporate many lessons learned in the design, development, manufacture and sustainment of its A129. Communications will be broadened to provide integration (namely command and control) for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The redesigned wingstubs will offer six hardpoints for various ordnance types over the traditional four placements seen in modern attack helicopters of this class and support both Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground weapons. Reduced pilot workload will figure into the cockpit as will an all-modern Battle Management System (BMS). The twin engine arrangement, while improving survivability, will allow for operation over land (including "Hot-and-High" environments) and water, giving the AW249 a maritime quality often inherently lacking in attack helicopter designs.
For the Italian Army, the AW249 would immediately succeed its aging fleet of A129 Mangusta helicopters and the global approach to the development of the new helicopter would no doubt reel in foreign supporters - possibly Poland and Turkey, both of whom will be seeking replacements for their own dedicated attack helicopter fleets by the late 2020s, early 2030s. In fact, Poland is an early target of the AW249 project and Leonardo has inked a collaborative partnership with Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa (PGZ Group) of Poland for just that. The two concerns have been in talks since 2016 with several deals inked from that year until now. Poland has the active "Kruk" procurement program to cover acquisition of a new combat helicopter.
Italian Army A129 helicopters are expected to face retirement concerns as soon as 2026 capping what would be over 35 years of consistent, reliable operation for the service. The new challenge will be to adopt a product that could see another healthy 35 year service life - one that is easily adaptable for close-support battles as well as armed escort and anti-armor sorties. For the Poles, an advanced tank-killer is a considerable need - namely due to recent aggressions seen by Russia in Ukraine and its forceful takeover of Crimea.
March 2019 - The AW249 is in the running to satisfy a Japanese Defense requirement for a New Attack Helicopter (NAH).
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