Although they are slower than fighter aircraft, and thus more vulnerable to ground fire, attack helicopters have the singular advantage of being able to linger over the battlefield at low altitude for long periods of time. Helicopter gunships are therefore very valuable for providing ground forces with direct fire support, and therefore might figure prominently in any conflict between India and China. They are especially useful in providing aerial firepower in low intensity conflicts, and might therefore prove especially useful in conflicts between India or China and a proxy or insurgency backed by the other big state.
China has three attack helicopter designs in service. These are the Z-9, the Z-11 and the French-made Gazelle. A fourth, the WZ-10, is in the prototype stage and not ready for frontline service at the time of writing.
The Z-9 is essentially the French Dauphin helicopter, built in China under license. Overall, it lacks maneuverability, is poorly armed, not very survivable, and is therefore not a very good attack helicopter. The maximum speed is 190 mph, with a range of roughly 500 miles. The Z-11 is an all-Chinese design that was meant as a light utility helicopter. The aircraft has a maximum speed of 160 mph, a 400-mile range, and is also poorly armed in the gunship role and not very survivable. The Gazelle, on the other hand, has a good combat record in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The armed version usually carries a 20 mm cannon and anti-tank missiles, has a top speed of 193 mph and a range of about 415 miles. However, the helicopter dates to the 1970s and China does not have very many of them.
One place where the Chinese choppers do well is in their service ceiling. Between the three models, the Chinese can reach altitudes of up to 20,000 feet with their armed helicopters, which might prove to be a serious advantage in any fighting along the Himalayan border with India.
India’s attack helicopter inventory is comprised of Russian-made Mi-25 and Mi-35 Hinds, which mix the gunship role with the job of being a light transport. The Hind is easily the most storied combat helicopter in the world, having seen action in no less than 19 different conflicts. These helicopters are deceptively fast for their size, with a top speed of 208 mph, but a pitifully short range of only 280 miles. Their service ceiling is 14,500 feet. Hinds always have a gun in the nose, most often a 12.7 mm machine gun, but sometimes a 23 mm or even 30 mm cannon. The passenger bay usually has door-mounted machine guns as well, and the external “wings” have six hard points that can carry up to 1 1/2 tons of rockets, gun pods and/or missiles.
China spent much of the 1990s and early part of the ’00s trying and failing to purchase attack helicopters from Russia. The result has left them with a collection of light attack helicopters that simply aren’t up to snuff. The Hind had some problems with high altitude operations during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, but when it comes to hauling weaponry to the battlefield, the Chinese helicopters do not come even close. The Indian Hinds are tougher and faster to boot. Until the WZ-10 enters service, the Indian Air Force sweeps this category with ease.
Sources: globalsecurity.org; indianairforce.nic.in