The modernization of the Polish Armed Forces helicopter fleet has been one of the most hotly discussed topics of recent times. Regardless of the aircraft types that are selected (i.e. attack or multi-role platforms), defining the armament fit that would be used by the aircraft is critical. The Polish aviation industry, including the PGZ Group of companies, has real competency in the armaments supply domain, which may be further expanded through a relevant transfer of technology.
Light missiles carried in missile pods remain the primary ordnance for the attack and multi-role helicopter. The technological evolution has led to a situation in which such rockets may also feature a guidance system.
The Mesko company has concluded a cooperation agreement concerning this class of systems with Kongsberg, Raytheon and Thales. In the case of Thales, the proposal concerns the manufacturing of the latest guided and unguided 68 mm induction missiles.
When it comes to Raytheon and Kongsberg, collaboration on the production of the 70 mm laser guided rockets has been agreed. The rockets can be easily integrated across a variety of platforms. Their design is based on the NATO standard Hydra unguided 70 mm rockets (2.75 inch).
The 70 mm rockets manufactured by Mesko could also be based on the NLPR 70 mm projectiles which are already included in the company offer and are compliant with NATO standards. With a range of 2 kilometres the rockets may be used to attack targets, carrying a variety of 6 kg warheads. They constitute armament dedicated for a number of platforms, along with the WW-15 launcher manufactured by Mesko, holding 15 rockets, or the WW-4/N launcher developed by ZM Tarnów, holding 4 rockets. The whole system has been developed within the programme framework, the goal of which would be to tailor Polish armament to NATO standards, in order to replace the post-Soviet 57 and 80 mm rockets.
Both guided, as well as unguided rockets manufactured by Mesko, could become a part of the armament inventory for helicopters operated by Poland. This concerns both the armed CSAR multi-role helicopters, as well as the modern helicopters that are now in service. The same applies to the prospective rotary-wing aircraft that are to be procured via the Kruk attack helicopter tender. With the smaller launchers, this type of armament may be used onboard the Zefir- and Gryf-class UAV systems.
Polish rockets may be complemented with Grom/Piorun missiles in an air-to-air configuration. So far, such missiles have not been certified to be carried by the helicopters, however, trials are being conducted and it is hoped that the air-to-air option will be integrated shortly.
Gad-system has also been introduced to the Polish Army, utilizing the Striela-2M missiles. This solution has been operated by W-3 and Mi-2 helicopters and PZL-130 Orlik aircraft. A variant using the Grom and Piorun launchers may be a viable replacement. Attempts at adapting the Grom missiles for use on the W-3 Sokół/Głuszec helicopters were made as early as back in 2000, within the framework of the Gad-G programme.
At the moment the helicopters of the Polish Armed Forces have no ability to utilize ATGMs. That capability was lost once the operational lifetime of the Mi-24D/W helicopters ended. The abilities possessed by attack helicopters are a priority, as it is a requirement contained within the Strategic Defence Review. The emerging situation requires immediate steps to be taken to reverse it.
During the last year’s MSPO Defence Salon the W-3PL Głuszec helicopter was unveiled, carrying Spike-ER missiles with a range of 8 kilometers and Spike NLOS missiles that remain capable of striking targets beyond the line of sight, at distances of up to 25 kilometers. Black Hawk helicopters, for instance, also have the ability of using Spike missiles in a variety of engagements.
A few years ago Israel finalized tests of a modified “Battlehawk” helicopter, integrated with the Spike-ER ATGM system. On the other hand, the Columbian authorities have decided to arm their UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters with the Spike NLOS (25 km of range), Spike-ER and Spike-LR (range of up to 4 kilometers) missiles.
Spike-ER missile is also integrated with the Airbus Helicopters Tiger gunship, Israel has been working on integrating the weapon on the Apache helicopter.
Another variant of the Spike-LR missiles is being manufactured under license by the Mesko company. Representatives of the Rafael company have also declared their readiness to “polonize” other varieties of the Spike missile, should a decision be made to introduce the weapon into the inventory of the Polish Armed Forces.
At present, investigation into the procurement of a new type of ATGM for the Polish Army is being considered, with a prospect of that missile being used by the attack helicopter fleet. The process is in its infancy, hence a variety of proposals is being taken into consideration. When the proposals are assessed, potential chances of industrial collaboration shall also be taken into account. Regardless of the selected solution, it would be justified to start production domestically, as well as to establish potential for maintenance, operational support and prospective modernization.
Alongwith rocket armament, the PGZ Group may also offer a variety of types of gun for Polish attack, transport and utility helicopters. Polish Army Aviation will use .308 UKM-2000 machine guns, and .50-cal. WKM-B machine guns, with both weapons being manufactured by Tarnów in variants that may be carried by aircraft. This concerns both the electric-trigger unit variant, as well as versions that may be operated manually, by a gunner. Both weapons utilize NATO-standard ammunition and, for years, have been used by the Polish Armed Forces.
ZM Tarnów also offers LZS-12.7 gun pods in two variants, fitted with a WKM-Bm .50-cal. machine gun or multi-barrel WLKM-Bm .50-cal. machine gun. The gun-pod is slung under an external hardpoint, and is tailored to be used both with NATO as well as with Warsaw-Pact platforms. Alongside the gun, the pod also houses between 250 and 320 rounds of ammunition.
The multi-barrel WLKM 12.7x99mm machine gun is an original design developed by ZM Tarnów. The 50 kg six-barrel .50-cal. gun may be used to attack targets at the distance of up to 2000 meters, with theoretical rate of fire of 3600 rpm.
This type of weapon may be used at a gunner-station, as a gun pod, or as a remote-control turret. The ZSW-12.7 remote control turret manufactured by ZM Tarnów carries 320 .50-cal. rounds for the WKM-Bm gun. This variant is being used as an armament of the W-3PL Głuszec helicopter.
There is also an option of equipping helicopters with a six-barrel WLKM machine gun, of the same calibre. Once the ZSW-12.7 turret is integrated with the optronic sensor and weapons computer of the helicopter, the system may be installed and universally used by all varients of helicopters used by the Polish Armed Forces. It is also possible to integrate the weapon on the Black Hawk, H225M Caracal or CSAR AW101 rotary-wing aircraft.
All of the options discussed are based upon the capability of the PGZ Group to integrate new armament solutions into a mixed NATO/Warsaw-pact based fleet. Introducing some of the armament into production, such as guided air-to-ground missiles, requires further investigation. The implementation of these systems, may only be driven by the decisions taken by the Polish Ministry of Defence, with a proper advance given to the industry, within the scope of requirements defined by Polish industry, as a part of the Technical Modernization Plan and other long-term action plans.
The armament for the new attack and close support helicopters, or even the UAVs, shall be unified to a large extent. Creating manufacturing capabilities domestically may become more beneficial, as the costs of operation may be reduced.
This could happen on condition that a decision on procurement of standardized armament is taken early enough, especially with regard to guided weapons. In this way, the integration weapons systems may be planned in advance with a reference to the given platform (helicopter, UAV). At the same time, domestic industrial potential may be created with regard to production, operational and maintenance support tailored to the given weapons system.
The requirement for a standardized NATO armament system for the Polish Armed Forces is immediate. Not only should the decision precede the selection of the Kruk programme helicopter, and the multi-role helicopter tender, it should also be taken before the selection of the Zefir UAV is made which is expected to be capable of carrying guided munitions used by other air platforms operated by the Polish Armed Forces.