HESA Shahed 285 / AH-85 (Witness) Light Attack / Reconnaissance Helicopter
The attack-minded Shahed 285 series is based on the Shahed 278 light helicopter design and developed from the American Bell 206.
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The Iranian Shahed 285 light helicopter is a highly modified version of the American Bell 206 Ranger series of helicopters (known under the names of "JetRanger", "LongRanger", "TwinRanger" and - in its military guises - as the "Kiowa" and "Kiowa Warrior"). As such, the type shares a slight visual similarity with the American design though primarily betrayed by its empennage which remains largely unaltered. The Shahed is intended for Iranian Army forces as a light scout/support helicopter and is quite unique in its design in that it features a single-person crew to manage all onboard functions - highly unorthodox when compared to any military helicopters in the world today (the Russian Kamov KA-50 "Black Shark" being an exception to the rule). The Shahed 285 has been developed to serve alongside existing Iranian attack helicopters and presents itself as an indigenous and budget-conscious battlefield solution.
Prior to the fall of the Shah in1979, the Iranian military enjoyed a working relationship with the West, a relationship that allowed some access to American equipment in the form of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat swing-wing carrier-based interceptor, the Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter and the Bell 206 series multirole helicopter to name a few. After the collapse of Iran to the Islamic Revolution, the military ties ended though the damage had been done. Iran now possessed modern hardware from which to learn from and influence their future military needs with. Iranian industry took to illegal production of the Bell 206 JetRanger as the "Panha Shabaviz 2061" and the type entered service in 1998, continuing operation today with the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force. A variant was then developed as the HESA Shahed 278 four-seat light utility helicopter of which first flight was recorded in 2002 or 2005 (exact year unknown). The next logical step for the series, therefore, became a dedicated armed scouting platform developed from the tried and proven Bell components and this proved to be the "Shahed 285" which was unveiled by Iranian authorities in 2009.
An interesting design decision on the part of HESA and the Iranian military authorities has been in making the Shahed a single-seat helicopter. While affording the design many inherent benefits - lower cost of production, smaller overall dimensions - this is a very limiting factor concerning modern military combat platforms. Chiefly this places a great deal of responsibility in the hands of the sole operator who now must pilot the aircraft (actively controlling the machine, managing engine controls, etc.) while also relying on himself to be his own weapons officer. This is a technically damning quality that does not allow the aircraft to feature a quick responding helmet mounted display to which the pilot can engage targets with a chin turret of any sort. The pilot must also manage flying the machine while supporting his armament suite thusly resulting in severely restricted situational awareness from the cockpit. The lack of a chin turret forced the installation of a fixed, forward-firing 7.62mm PKMT-type machine gun instead.
The Shahed is categorized as a light attack and reconnaissance helicopter and can therefore be armed or unarmed for the roles. In this way, the platform will serve the Iranian Army in much the same way that the Kiowa Warrior serves American attack helicopters - working in conjunction with AH-1 Cobras and AH-64 Apaches as established "hunter-killer" teams against enemy positions or, chiefly, armor concentrations. There is no reason to believe that the Shahed will be used as a primary warfighter for its tactical value is limited in many areas. The Shahed will not replace the current fleet of Iranian-modified AH-1 Cobras (known locally as the "Toofan").
The pilot sits in cockpit that sports transparent windscreens forward and to the sides. The cockpit sports relatively heavy framing, as in a Western attack helicopter, and flat panel windows which limit visibility considerably. The view to the rear is wholly blocked by the fuselage and engine mounting (a common limitation to all military helicopters). Beyond that, it is assumed that the cockpit is well modernized with digital functionality and multi-function displays to ease pilot workload. Beyond the standard machine gun armament in the nose, it is assumed that the Shahed's armament wingstubs will support all manner of air-to-air/air-to-surface weaponry including missiles, rocket pods, cannon pods and gun pods. If plumbed, fuel tanks will increase the operational range of the aircraft considerably. The Shahed has already been photographed with its nose-mounted machine gun and seven-shot rocket pod on the starboard side wingstub.
Power for the small helicopter is based on the Allison 250-C20B series turboshaft engine. Prototypes have been fitted with a lower-rated Allison breed. The single engine will drive the two-blade main rotor and two-blade tail rotor in a conventional fashion. Its single engine fitting will lower maintenance costs yet supply the mount with limited performance specifications when compared to her contemporaries.
Some observers have suggested that the Shahed is a stealth-based helicopter due to its boxy-style forward fuselage design. However, there are many features of the aircraft that would betray this thinking including the many outcroppings found on the Shahed such as the fixed skid undercarriage, the addition of wingstub pylons for external ordnance (as opposed to internally-held armament) exposed rotor assemblies and the vertical tail fin. There seems to have been no attempt at masking the rotor mast, the vertical tail unit nor the engine intake and exhaust ports. Close inspection will also reveal that only the forward section of the aircraft features angular faces - the aft portions seemingly giving away its Bell 206 origins with their rounded surfaces.
Despite the limitations, the Shahed will no doubt find some value on the modern battlefield, especially concerning its lower procurement cost. As such, it may become a strong candidate for export sale if Iranian authorities choose to do so one day. The product will no doubt be of interest to customers who have a low desire to deal with the West.
The Iranian military eventually wants to showcase the Shahed 285 in three distinct forms. The first will be known as the AH-85A and operate from land bases, being used primarily for light scouting. It will be armed with 1 x 7.62mm machine gun and 2 x 7-shot 2.75" rocket pods as standard. The AH-85B will be a land-based derivative with a heavy attack-minded battlefield role. The AH-85C is intended as a dedicated navalized form with search and tracking facilities and support for anti-ship armament including missiles.
As of this writing (2012), the Shahed is beginning to enter service with Iranian military forces. It is assumed that serial production is, therefore, underway. Its actual battlefield "threat" to Western forces is suspect, however, for the type lacks much of the design benefits of multi-rotor helicopters that utilize true stealth features and - at the very least - a two-man crew. Time (and ultimately operational service and combat) will only tell of its true battlefield value. At any rate, the indigenous endeavor is an honorable one, showcasing Iran's ability to manufacture military-grade products from within its own industry - even with sanctions limiting outside support.
The name "Shahed" comes from the Urdu word "Witness".