The Changhe WZ-10 is the PLA’s first real attack helo, and the first helicopter with major Chinese design input
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is one of the last major militaries to follow the “quantity has a quality all of it’s own” philosophy that became popular early in the Cold War. It’s a philosophy that has its limits, though, and this is becoming very obvious in the PLA’s equipment. Although China exhibits new tank designs every few years these models have only been bought in small numbers. Nearly a third of China’s 7,500-strong tank fleet consists of the Type 96, a fairly dreadful development of the ancient T-54A. Two thirds are Type 59s, which basically are T-54As. Chinese tanks capable of standing up to a late-model T-72 on anything like equal terms can be numbered in the low hundreds. India and Russia, China’s main rivals on land, each have over 2,000 T-72s in service and the majority of these are either late B models or heavily modernised. China’s sea of obsolete tanks would be useless against these forces. Realising this, the PLA have been trying for years to modernise their order of battle. A key element in doing this is an expansion of their helicopter fleets.
Unfortunately China’s aviation industry has limited capabilities; it’s only in the last few years that it’s moved beyond building copies of Russian designs and started developing indigenous types. The situation with helicopters is even worse. China has been producing fixed wing aircraft since the 1950s, but interest in helicopters really only began in the ’70s. A lot of progress has been made, though. The Chinese helicopter fleet is still small considering the huge size of the PLA, but it’s growing and becoming more capable. Initial purchases were made from France, mostly Aerospatiale Gazelle utility and light attack helicopters. In the 1970s and 1990s Mi-8 and later Mi-17 HIP transport models were bought from the USSR and then Russia, and over 300 of these now make up the bulk of the PLA’s lift capacity. Several French types have been built under license including the Aerospatiale AS365 Dauphin (as the Harbin Z-9) and the SA321 Super Frelon (as the Changhe Z-8.) The little AS350 Ecuriel has also been manufactured, as the Changhe Z-11, although Changhe claim that this is an indigenous Chinese design. Two dozen Sikorsky S-70 Blackhawks were purchased in the 1980s, but further sales were blocked after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
What’s been missing from this line-up is an attack helicopter, an essential element of modern warfare. Given China’s antiquated tank fleet its best option for winning a conventional war is to use armed helicopters to make up for its deficiencies in armour. China’s big neighbours haven’t missed that lesson either; India has a small but powerful force of Mi-35 HINDs and has ordered over 200 of the indigenously developed Light Combat Helicopter, while Russia has hundreds of Mi-24 HIND, Mi-28 HAVOC and Ka-50 HOKUM models. Restricted to armed versions of the Gazelle, Dauphin and Ecuriel, China found itself at a serious disadvantage. The problem was that every attempt to buy a modern attack helicopter design failed. In the last 25 years China has looked at the AH-1 Cobra, Mi-28, Ka-50 and the Italian A129 Mangusta, but no deal materialised.
Given China’s manufacturing capability it’s understandable that nobody would want to enable an export competitor, but finally in 1995 Russia agreed to help out. The Kamov design bureau was asked by China to come up with a new attack helicopter design. From Kamov’s point of view a new design wouldn’t compete directly with their own Ka-50, so they developed the Project 941 to meet the Chinese specification. At about 5.4 tonnes empty weight it’s much lighter than the big Kamov and Mil designs and more in the class of the AH-64 Apache or Mangusta, so Russia’s helicopter industry is probably quite relaxed about it.
Once Kamov had delivered the design all further development was done in China, so while this isn’t a truly indigenous aircraft it does have a lot of Chinese influence. This is especially obvious in its range of weapon and sensor options. China is a major arms exporter and is constantly trying to increase its client base, so the WZ-10 seems geared towards the export market. The design allows the sensors and armament fit to be mixed and matched to a large degree. For example the standard gun package is a chin-mounted cannon; three different cannon are available, in 23mm, 25mm or 30mm calibres. As an alternative to the cannon the WZ-10 can be fitted with a turret, which is compatible with a range of machineguns and grenade launchers.
Heavy weapons are carried on stub wings, each with two hardpoints. These give a capacity of up to 16 anti-tank guided missiles. The main missile types on offer are the indigenous HJ-8, HJ-9 and HJ-10 models, but expect options for TOW and perhaps even Hellfire to follow. Use of the Chinese GJV289A weapons interface specification allows both Russian and western ordnance to be carried, so integrating western ATGMs is mostly a software issue.
A limited air to air capability comes from the ability to carry AAMs. Like most other attack helicopters it can be fitted with MANPAD-type missiles, but the WZ-10 also has the ability to carry a pair of larger, Sidewinder-sized AAMs as well as the new TY-90, which was purpose designed as a helicopter AAM.
For attacks on light armour or soft skinned vehicles the WZ-10 can carry up to four rocket pods in a variety of calibres. It has also been tested with 130mm rockets which mount on the standard missile racks.
Sensor packages are variable – at least four are known to exist – but all include day/night TV cameras and a thermal sight. These can feed data to large LCD screens in the glass cockpits – there are two cockpit versions, too – or to helmet-mounted displays similar to those used in the AH-64. Apparently the helmet-mounted display isn’t standard issue, though, because it isn’t compatible with night vision goggles. A mast-mounted radar has also been developed for the WZ-10 but delays mean it isn’t yet standard either.
Physically the WZ-10 is fairly conventional in layout, although the seating order is the reverse of most attack helicopters – the pilot sits in the forward seat with the gunner behind. The structure is mostly composite and incorporates composite armour panels around the cockpit. The airframe shows some faceting and mild chines, and the manufacturers claim it’s been designed to have a reduced radar signature, but overall it’s too cluttered to be significantly less observable than equivalent designs.
So far 48 WZ-10s have been delivered to the PLA. At the moment they’re powered by a variety of foreign engines, mostly from Klimov and Pratt & Whitney, thanks to China’s long-lasting problems with producing a reliable turbine engine of their own. Two Chinese designs are in the running; the WZ9 and the more advanced WZ16, which is 50% more powerful but relies on assistance from Turbomeca. The transmission was designed with assistance from Agusta Westland and seems fairly conventional; it feeds engine power to all-composite rotors.
Despite its vaguely stealthy appearance the WZ-10 doesn’t seem to bring anything special to the party. It can’t do anything that an Apache, Mangusta or Tiger can’t and apart from some new electronics doesn’t have any noticeable advantages over the Mi-28 or Ka-50 either. It’s still a very significant design, though, because it’s the first military helicopter that China has played any major role in developing. If the engine issues can be resolved expect the WZ-10 to have an impact in the export market. With its modular design it could even bring the price of a decent attack helicopter down to the point where many militaries that can’t afford them now could start to build up at least a basic capability. It’s definitely a design worth keeping an eye on.