Utility helicopters, which have become an essential element of the world’s armed forces in many missions, ranging from transportation to search and rescue, and from reconnaissance to medical evacuation, are becoming the direct target of armed engagement during the execution of these various missions. Since the Vietnam War, when the concept of troop deployment from the air matured, arming these platforms and providing them with the ability to defend themselves has become a priority. However, integrating weapons onto utility helicopters that were not designed as attack helicopters can be challenging for various reasons. At this point, Unidef steps in, with broad experience in the development of weapon integration solutions for the aerial, land, and naval platforms of the Turkish defence and aerospace sector, standing out as a solution partner that the end-user can trust. Unidef’s capabilities and experience, and the integration projects it has successfully completed, allow it to come up with solutions that the end-user can utilise effectively in the field, with low lifecycle costs.
Weapon Component of Utility Helicopters
Utility helicopters have proven themselves time and time again in the operations they have participated in since the Vietnam War, proving their worth as vital combat vehicles. Designed for a variety of missions, this helicopter class offers excellent flexibility, which makes the integration of different systems and weapons easier. It is possible to integrate these platforms with various weapons, including air-to-air and air-to-land missiles, guided and unguided rockets, and guns ranging from 5.56 mm machine gun to 30 mm cannon.
The integration of guns may involve two different applications: The first one comprises crew-served systems mounted at the doors and windows of the helicopter for self-defence, and the second comprises fixed forward systems that are operated by the pilot or co-pilot.
With the integration of weapons, utility helicopters can serve as combat search and rescue helicopters, can undertake counter-insurgency (COIN) missions, can carry out patrols, can transport troops and equipment to the combat zone without the need for support, can assume many of the roles undertaken by attack helicopters and can perform armed reconnaissance missions.
What is the Purpose of Arming a Utility Helicopter?
It is possible to design mission-specific platforms for each of the new missions that can be undertaken by utility helicopters when armed. So why is there a need to arm utility helicopters under these conditions? To answer this question, there are various factors to be taken into account.
For a specific mission, the use of a dedicated platform designed for that particular mission rather than a general-purpose platform may seem necessary to achieve optimum performance. However, in terms of weapon issue, it is seen that the difference between dedicated platforms and utility platforms does not differ. Thanks to the breakthroughs achieved in military aviation technologies in recent years, cost-effective solutions, especially in such subsystems such as fire control systems, ground target detection systems, and target tracking systems, have become easily accessible. The fact that many developing countries prefer to design their defence and aerospace systems also increases the subsystem options in the export markets. Accordingly, the subsystems that were previously monopolised by developed countries have become more accessible.
With this greater availability of these subsystems, utility helicopters are now able to compete with dedicated platforms in armed missions, in all phases of a mission, ranging from target detection to target destruction or suppression. Armed forces have thus become capable of meeting their needs in a cost-effective manner by using utility helicopters that can take on many of the tasks previously conducted by dedicated platforms.
Besides, there are other developments in the battlefield that have made the use of utility helicopters in armed missions cost-effectively. Dedicated platforms are designed for optimum performance from the outset, while the payload of utility helicopters can be scaled as needed. Scalability allows utility helicopters to perform their mission with less payload in asymmetrical and low-intensity conflicts, resulting in significant reductions in mission costs.
In short, thanks to technological developments, utility helicopters can perform many tasks that require the use of weapons, as effectively as dedicated platforms. They are thus more cost-effective in low-intensity conflicts and against asymmetrical threats. In such an environment, the ability to carry out armed and other missions with a certain number of utility helicopters has emerged as an attractive solution for armed forces that operate under tight budget constraints and that have other spending priorities.
Commenting on this cost-effectiveness, Cem Kurter, Managing Partner and Co-Founder of Unidef, said: “The rapid military technological advances seen today increase costs accordingly, making combat an expensive option that pushes the limits of budgets. As such, developing countries or countries that are seeking to allocate a considerable proportion of their military budgets to social and commercial investments are trying to gain a superior position in the low-intensity and asymmetrical conflict environment by integrating various capability-enhancing subsystems into more cost-effective platforms that can be sustained with much lower costs. Today, it is widely acknowledged that it is not enough to win a war only on the battlefield, being also necessary to win the war in the account books.”
The Other Side of the Coin: Technical Challenges
Although the flexibility offered by utility helicopters is a plus for weapon integration, it does not eliminate the major difficulties encountered in the weapon integration process.
First of all, seamless integration with ideal conditions can be achieved in only a few cases. Ideally, the platform should be designed with weapon integration in mind. For example, it should have reinforced structural parts in the sections where integration will be made. In many cases, however, the platform onto which the weapon will be integrated lacks the required infrastructure.
Another ideal condition is having all the documentation and interface information about the platform and obtaining support from the platform manufacturer. However, this also cannot be met in many cases.
Other challenges may need to be considered are:
- User requests to ensure the performance of the platform is unaffected by the weapon integration;
- Restrictions associated with the warranty conditions set by the manufacturer;
- Design restrictions related to certification requirements.
In the absence of these ideal conditions, it is the experience and expertise of the integrator responsible for the weapon integration that makes the difference. The approach of the integrator to the subject, the project processes, and the communication between the integrator and the end-user also play a significant role in achieving successful results, and Unidef has already accomplished many successful weapon integration projects to date thanks to its outstanding capacity in all these respects.
Unidef Offers Unique Weapon Integration Solutions for Specific Requirements
Unidef integrates crew-served small- and medium-calibre weapon systems onto rotary-wing platforms. Unidef’s approach to integration can be defined as: “Making weapons a part of the platform to create a power factor on the platform without changing its structural integrity, but by developing additional systems to increase their effectiveness”. In this way, the capabilities of the gun and the platform, which are different from each other, become a new capability and power when they are integrated by a useful or smart interface.
The scope of the services provided by Unidef includes equipping a specific-purpose vehicle with additional performance-increasing weapons, components, and auxiliary subsystems in line with the vehicle’s concept of use; and redefining and detailing repair & maintenance and user training programmes. Unidef also supports the platform with a stock of spare parts related to the capabilities that have been newly acquired.
Kurter described their approach to this issue as follows: “In today’s conditions, possessing an effective helicopter fleet is costly and expensive in many ways. Thus, the users have started to look for cost-effective solutions. They are seeking to simplify their inventories as much as possible. If your resources are limited, and you want to spend your military budget in a disciplined manner without undermining your level of deterrence, you need to improve your integration capabilities. This is what we, as Unidef, aim for: to develop integration capabilities that enable a solution-oriented and cost-effective platform to be operated at its maximum performance.”
Unidef carries out its weapon integration activities with a turnkey solution approach. Describing the services they provide, Kurter said: “In the simplest terms, what we are doing is making life easier for the end-users, giving them no reasons for concern. We develop solutions that have no impact on the platform’s performance, and that will not void its warranty. The user shows us the platform and defines its needs, and our solution takes care of the rest.
When it comes to weapon integration, each end-user has its unique mission profile and operational definitions, which is why Unidef places emphasis on first gaining a comprehensive understanding of their operational requirements. For example, if the vehicle in question is an aircraft, the company conducts detailed meetings with both the pilots and flight technicians to analyse the conditions under which it will be used and the threats to which it will be exposed.
It is of critical importance that the conceptual designs, developed as part of the integration works, not only meet the relevant requirements and resolve the existing problems but are also compatible with the platform’s infrastructure. On the other hand, technical constraints tend to prevent each work or project from meeting the requirements 100 percent. In such cases, Unidef sits down with the end-user to specifically identify these constraints and to determine how they can be optimised.”
Kurter continued: “One point that Unidef pays particular attention to in all of these works is that the platform holds certain certifications. For example, in the case of air platforms, Unidef constantly bears in mind that it is ‘working on a platform that has already received an airworthiness certificate and has passed qualification’. For this reason, Unidef avoids making any changes to the platform’s frame, designing suitable interfaces and gun mounts that are compatible with the platform’s infrastructure. While such technical constraints complicate the design process significantly, Unidef’s competent engineering team conducts extensive studies, resulting in five preliminary prototypes on average before arriving at a final design.
The applications on helicopters that Unidef has developed for Turkish users can be cited as an example of these works. In one such project, the end user’s mission profile required the gun mount to be collapsible towards the platform’s interior, such that it would not protrude outside the body of the aircraft or be affected by environmental factors during flight. Unidef has to date implemented this design on two different platforms, with great success. For this solution, a key and locking mechanism that automatically cuts and connects the electric current to the weapon was designed for the gun mount to keep the gun in safe mode when folded and taken inside the platform. This action not only reduced the gunner’s reaction time in combat and out-of-combat settings but also enabled the safe preservation of the weapon inside the platform. Furthermore, an ergonomic design was implemented that prioritised the comfort of the gunner and even determining a position that would not adversely affect flight safety.
Based on the end user’s requested fire angles, Unidef also places various physical limits on its gun mounts to prevent the gun from accidentally hitting the platform onto which it is mounted, while operating. Following the final design, a finite element analysis is performed to assess the resistance and sturdiness of the supports, and reinforcements are made if deemed necessary.”
Capabilities that Make the Difficult Possible
It would not be possible to complete projects on time, within the budget, and with the results meeting the needs, without the distinctive approaches and capabilities Unidef has developed in the challenging projects it has undertaken to date providing flexible working environments to its end users.
What Kurter emphasises is that Unidef often works under non-ideal conditions and scenarios where there is no similar integration that can be taken as a model. The company has developed significant capabilities in carrying out the overall design of the weapon integration using the factory-installed infrastructure on the platform, and these capabilities have been successfully delivered. And, they have proven themselves on the systems in the inventory.
Completed Projects Fulfil Promises
Unidef has worked on seven different solutions for five different helicopter platforms since 2014. All but one of these solutions comprise crew-served solutions, known more commonly as door machine guns.
The weapon integration works successfully completed by the company to date are:
- Integration of M134 Miniguns onto AS532 COUGAR Helicopters: The integration has been completed and qualified for the AS532 COUGAR Helicopters of the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) Fleet of the Turkish Air Force, and has been accepted by the user and taken into the inventory. As part of these works, NATO stock codes were also obtained for the weapon and its supports and interfaces.
The project is a global first; being is the first time a Minigun-type weapon has been integrated onto AS532 COUGAR helicopters.
- Integration of M134 Miniguns onto S70i/UH-60 BLACK HAWK Helicopters: Weapon integration works have been carried out for the BLACK HAWK helicopters of the Department of Aviation under the Turkish National Police and of a special union. In this solution, the support and the weapon can be retracted into the helicopter, preventing the weapon from affecting the helicopter’s flight performance. The company’s integration solution has passed the relevant qualification processes and has entered the inventory following acceptance by the user. NATO stock codes have been obtained for the weapon and its supports and interfaces.
- Integration of M134 Miniguns onto AB412 Helicopters: Unidef has also developed a weapon integration solution for AB412 helicopters to satisfy a requirement of a country in the Middle East. The solution includes an ammunition box that can be located either inside or outside the helicopter, along with an external weapon and mounting.
These helicopters with the weapon integration are mostly operating as Combat Search and Rescue helicopters. With the works carried out by Unidef, the helicopters have gained the ability to suppress enemy fire and protect themselves and their crew during landing and take-off, as the riskiest phase of any operation.
In these projects, the M134 Minigun weapon system produced by Profense was preferred as the weapon to be integrated onto the platforms. The reason for this preference is that the six-barrelled weapon, capable of firing more than 3,000 rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition per minute, has been explicitly designed as a platform protection weapon, and can thus respond to asymmetrical threats in the fastest and most decisive way. All the interfaces required to integrate the weapon system onto the platform have been developed and produced by Unidef using local indigenous means.
What Kurter particularly emphasises about these processes is that the end-user was able to define its tactical needs in one-to-one meetings held in the design phase. For this reason, the designs differ from their foreign counterparts. For example, the mount and the weapon are retractable into the platform’s interior; and the system is equipped with an electric locking mechanism to secure the weapon. When looking at the offered integration solutions and interfaces from the perspective of material quality, coating technology, and ergonomic use; it can be said that they stand out as products embodying a much higher engineering effort, timewise.
The weapons integrated by Unidef onto AS532 COUGAR and S70 BLACK HAWK helicopters have been taking part in a lot of exercises and operations of their respective end users since the day they entered the inventory. As a result, these integrations qualified as combat proven.
Noting that the end users they work with remain undisclosed due to the nature of the tasks they undertake, Kurter summarised the feedback they had received to date as follows: “We have not received any negative feedback about our integration works. As we conduct flight compatibility tests together with the end user and receive their approval for the final design, we eliminate negative feedback from the very beginning. We hang on our end users’ every word in every aspect. Based on the experience we have gained from the field, we have intensified our efforts on such issues as material quality and accessory development.”
More comprehensive Range of Solutions and New Platforms on the Way
“Unidef is continuing its forward-looking works in almost every aspect. The company’s agenda is marked by a wide range of issues, including various platforms and weapons, as well as new integration capabilities,” said Kurter, stating that Unidef aims to acquire the load certification capabilities that are required to be able to perform weapon integrations involving more complex engineering and design effort. “Unidef has intensified its investments in two areas: The development of the necessary additional test infrastructure, and the receipt of comprehensive training on the subject.” It is also among the priorities of our company to make investments in this field to ensure compatibility with EMAR 21, MIL-HDBK-516C and MIL-HDBK-1763.
The next weapon intended to be integrated onto platforms following the Minigun is the 12.7 mm M2 heavy machine gun. Under a project for the mounting of an M2 heavy machine gun and external weapon station, onto an S70 BLACK HAWK helicopter, both crew-served and fixed-forward solutions will be offered to the user. This will constitute a pilot project for Unidef’s integrated weapon solutions and load certification studies.
The projects completed by Unidef to date cover the integration of 7.62 mm calibre weapons. However, in the coming period, we aim to offer a broader portfolio of weapon integration solutions addressing various calibres, ranging from 12.7 mm machine guns to 30 mm guns. To this end, Unidef intends to reach a capability level that will enable it to perform structural alterations to platforms and to acquire the related load certification capabilities. The company also has other critical goals, including:
- The design and production of its Store Management System, under the aviation requirements and standards;
- The creation of an ecosystem with its solution partners for avionics-related and structural modernisations within the scope of integrated weapon system solutions.
In this way, we also seek to be recognised as the most reliable solution partner of leading platform manufacturers, both at home and abroad, in weapon integration projects.”
Highlighting the importance of an ecosystem for Turkey, Kurter said: “We believe that our efforts in this regard will help the aviation sector and culture in our country expand towards the base and mature, and will result in an increase in the diversity of our capabilities. We are working relentlessly in this regard.”
Kurter added that the integration of weapons onto new rotary-wing platforms is also on the agenda of Unidef: “Unidef has started works on the integration of weapons, to be mounted at the right and left windows and the ramps of CH-47F helicopters, for which the company is considering specific designs and is planning to use unusual weapon solutions. The said integration will require no structural modifications to the platforms. The concept design of the integration for a retractable window-mounted weapon was on display at the company’s stand at IDEF’19. Unidef is also working on the integration of a Minigun onto a SH-60 SEA HAWK helicopter. Once the integration is complete, it will be the first time a Minigun has been fitted onto this helicopter model.
Intensifying its activities abroad, Unidef is working on a special S70 BLACK HAWK programme for a potential overseas user that has expressed a need for a carefully designed tactical weapon for a specific mission profile. The likely user requested that a certain number of helicopters be armed with the same configuration provided by Unidef for a platform in Turkey. The client believes it needs additional attack helicopters for this mission profile, but its budget will not stretch to such a purchase. We are working on a project proposal for the transformation of some of the same BLACK HAWK helicopters into gunship helicopters cost-effectively manner without modifying the platform. Our project is not about creating a solution that will meet the firepower need of an attack helicopter; being instead a study that will achieve a part of its capability on BLACK HAWK.”
Partners Offering the Best Solutions
Offering solutions to meet the critical needs of the Turkish defence and aerospace sector, Unidef continues to work in cooperation with companies at home and abroad, including Profense, Ohio, AEI Systems, Samsun Yurt Savunma, Anova, and 3EOS, for the systems and subsystems it uses in its different projects. These partners support Unidef’s projects by offering the best solutions in their field, and in this way, help maximise both project success and customer satisfaction.