How China’s Growing Military Helicopter Fleet May Be Used on Taiwan

  • China’s rapid military modernization has stoked concerns that Beijing could soon try to seize Taiwan.
  • China’s new high-end weaponry would be central to that effort, especially its growing helicopter fleet.
  • Here’s how Beijing might use those helicopters against Taiwan, and how Taiwan can defend against them.

China’s rapid military modernization and rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait have stoked concerns that Beijing could soon try to seize the self-ruled island.

The high-end weaponry that China has displayed in recent years, such as long-range missiles and a dizzying array of warships, would be central to such a campaign.

But China’s military has also added a considerable number of helicopters that would likely play an integral role in an attack on Taiwan.

In December, the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute released a report describing the threat China’s growing helicopter fleet poses to Taiwan and how Taiwan can defend against it.

Attack helicopters

China navy frigate Z-9 helicopter sailors

A Z-9 naval variant aboard a Chinese navy frigate. US sailors are boarding the ship before a counter-piracy exercise in September 2012.

US Navy/MCS2 Aaron Chase

The attack helicopter force of the People’s Liberation Army’s ground force — the PLA Army, or PLAA — has grown dramatically over the past decade.

In 2011, the PLAA fielded some 136 attack and reconnaissance helicopters in two variants. It now has three variants and a force totaling about 504 helicopters.

The first and oldest of these are the roughly 234 Z-9s. Adopted in 1994, the Z-9 is a licensed-built military variant of the French Eurocopter AS365.

The Z-9 has two small pylons able to carry up to eight anti-tank or air-to-air missiles, or two pods with rockets or machine guns. A naval variant can also carry a torpedo. Some variants feature a nose-mounted camera.

China’s first domestically developed attack helicopter, the Z-10, is a considerable upgrade. Adopted officially around 2012, it has two small wings with two hardpoints each, allowing it to carry 16 anti-tank or air-to-air missiles or four rocket pods.

China army Z-10 Z-19 helicopter

Chinese military Z-10 and Z-19 helicopters during an aerobatic display at the China Helicopter Exposition in Tianjin, September 9, 2015.

REUTERS/China Daily

The Z-10 also has a 23 mm nose gun with a camera synced to the gunner’s helmet, allowing the gunner to aim just by looking at targets. Recent Z-10 variants have an upward exhaust, reportedly reducing its frontal infrared signature.

Chinese state media says a typical Z-10 loadout is eight air-to-ground missiles and two rocket pods. State media claims that a Z-10 can, in a single sortie, destroy at least six enemy tanks and that a standard group of four Z-10s is able to “wipe out” three tank companies.

About 150 Z-10s are believed to be in service, and some have already been seen in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

The newest model, the Z-19, is a reconnaissance and light attack helicopter. It has a tandem-seat setup like the Z-10 but is actually more like the Z-9, as demonstrated by its enclosed helicopter tail rotor design, which reduces noise and vibrations.

The Z-19 has two hardpoints on two small wings that can carry 16 anti-tank or air-to-air missiles or four rocket or gun pods. It has a camera but no nose-mounted cannon.

Some recent Z-19 models have millimeter-wave fire-control radars mounted in domes above their rotors, similar to American AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters. About 120 Z-19s are believed to be in the PLAA’s inventory.

Transportation and lift

Chinese PLA military Z-8 helicopter

A Chinese military Z-8 helicopter at a PLA Air Force Aviation Open Day in northeastern Jilin province, October 17, 2019.

STR/AFP via Getty Images

Two models make up the bulk of the PLAA’s transportation and lift helicopter force: the Z-8 and the Mi-17. A third model, the Z-20, entered service only recently.

First adopted for the Chinese navy in the mid-1970s, the Z-8 is a licensed-built variant of the French Aérospatiale SA 321 Super Frelon. Able to carry 27 fully armed troops, it has two side doors and a rear ramp that allows soldiers to be deployed quickly.

The Z-8 can also carry loads of more than 3 tons, such as small vehicles or artillery pieces. More recent variants, like the Z-8L, are slightly larger and can carry even more weight. Some 111 Z-8s are in service with the PLAA today.

The workhorse of PLAA’s transport and lift fleet is the Russian-designed Mi-17, which China adopted in the 1990s because the US refused to sell it more Sikorsky S-70C-2s, the civilian variant of the UH-60 Blackhawk, following China’s deadly crackdown on protests in Tianamen Square. The PLAA now has about 278 Mi-17s in service.

Harbin Z-20/UH-60 Black Hawk

A Chinese Harbin Z-20, right, and a US UH-60 Black Hawk.

China Military, REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

The Mi-17 also has two side doors and a rear loading ramp, can carry more than 30 troops, and can lift about 3 tons. It can also be fitted with wings that have three hardpoints for missiles and rocket pods.

The newest transport model, the Z-20, appears largely based on the UH-60 Blackhawk but with one less helicopter blade. Adopted in 2019, it is a more modern design featuring fly-by-wire technology. It can carry 12 to 15 troops.

Adopted in 2019, only around 24 Z-20s are believed to be in service, though more are undoubtedly on the way.

A number of Z-20 variants are in development, including a missile-carrying model, one capable of aerial-refueling, and even a stealth version that may draw on China’s study of the US helicopter that crashed during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.

How China would use them

Chinese air force special operations troops

Chinese Air Force special airborne operations troops during a drill in China, March 3, 2015.

Xinhua/Huang Hui

According to the report, the Chinese could use their helicopters two ways: in a conventional full-scale air assault or in an unconventional and limited air assault tailored for a long-term fight.

In both cases, the helicopter assaults would happen in conjunction with amphibious landings, though those operations would mostly be meant to pull Taiwan’s troops toward its coasts and away from the island’s interior.

The first scenario would involve using all or most of the PLAA’s helicopters at the same time to seize key targets deep inside Taiwan as quickly as possible.

The helos would cross the Taiwan Strait following a massive bombardment meant to level as much of the island’s defenses as possible. Key targets for assault groups could include the Presidential Office Building, Taipei Songshan and Kaohsiung airports (identified as “crown jewels” in the report), Taoyuan Airport and Taichung Airport, and military bases and harbors. Chinese paratroopers would also likely be involved to fill in any gaps.

The report estimates that despite losses to combat and attrition, the PLAA could “optimistically … plan for four total cross-strait insertions in the first 24 hours,” and, assuming proper maintenance and crew swaps, “keep the helicopters flying all day.”

The second scenario would be on a considerably smaller scale, with multiple waves of helicopters assaulting Taiwan over a longer period.

China Mi-17 military helicopter soldiers

A Chinese military helicopter arrives to evacuate troops from Tangjiashan Lake in southwest China’s Sichuan province following an earthquake, May 31, 2008.

STR/AFP via Getty Images

The first wave, made up of older Mi-17s, would likely be a one-way trip. By attacking similar targets, they could force the Taiwanese to expend most of their anti-air capabilities and effectively reveal their defenses. Later waves of more modern Chinese helos would then attempt to take out those defenses.

Though the helicopters in the latter scenario would face much higher attrition, not needing to make a return flight would allow the PLAA to stage those helicopters farther from China’s coast. That would help conceal the buildup from satellites, which may have greater appeal for Beijing after the weeks of coverage documenting Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine.

The report says the PLAA is “at best a decade away” from being able to carry out either scenario, noting that its overall number of helicopters is much lower than what would be needed for such operations and that it has a lack of experience with helicopters and a low level of interoperability among its forces.

The report also notes that Taiwan has some advantages as the defender. Its terrain limits where attacking helicopters could land and the routes they could take, which means Taiwan could tailor the location and capabilities of its defenses.

Taiwan could also practice defending against these specific scenarios, which the authors say would send “clear signals” that Taipei is thinking about what Beijing could throw at it.

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