Developing a scout helicopter that balances agility, protection, stealth and firepower—all at an affordable price—is a tricky business. The Pentagon spent twenty-two years and $7 billion developing the hyper-advanced RAH-66 Comanche before throwing in the towel due to costs in 2004.
Less than a decade later, China debuted its own light scout/attack helicopter with stealth features dubbed the Z-19 “Black Whirlwind,” named after a hot-tempered berserker in the Chinese medieval bandit-epic The Water Margin known for wielding an axe in each hand in battle.
The Z-19 is descended from the popular French AS-365 Dauphin 2 medium helicopter, which China began license-building the twin-engine variant as the Z-9 and later evolved into armed variants. A distinctive feature of the Dauphin is that its tail rotor is fully contained within the tail in what’s known as a “fenestron.”
Designer Wu Ximing of the Harbin Aviation Industrial Corporation used the armed Z-9W as the basis for a heavily evolved Z-19. This development path is reminiscent of the evolution from the UH-1 Huey first into a field-modified armed gunship, and then into the dedicated AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter.
Though a Z-19 prototype was lost in an accident in 2010, Wu’s new design was unveiled to the public just two years later and soon entered limited PLA service.
The basic Z-19 weighs only 2.5-tons empty, and its two 848-horsepower WZ-8A turboshafts can drive it to speeds of 435 miles per hour and range up to 435 miles. Like the Cobra, the Z-19 has a narrow hull and a tandem two-seat cockpit for a pilot and gunner. Survivability features include light armor plating and bulletproof canopies, crash-resistant seats, self-sealing fuel tanks and three shock-absorbing landing gears.
To fulfill its scout-role, the Z-19 has a sensor turret in its nose combining an electro-optical/infrared system, a laser-targeter/rangefinder, and day/night TV cameras which make it night- and all-weather- capable. Later, some Z-19s have been equipped with millimeter-wavelength electronically scanned array radar domes mounted on top of the four-bladed main rotor, much like the radar on the AH-64D Apache Longbow. A Z-19 so equipped can potentially duck behind terrain while its radar scans the area.
For armament, the Z-19 has two wing stubs each with two hardpoints. These can accommodate extra fuel tanks, heavy HJ-8 wire-guided anti-tank missiles (akin to the TOW), and rocket pods either carrying eighteen 57-millimeter, or seven 90-millimeter rockets for blasting personnel or light vehicle targets. Though lacking an integral cannon, the Z-19 can also carry .50 caliber or 23-millimeter gun pods. You can see a Z-19 with a mixed payload here.
Z-19s have also displayed quad racks for two lighter types of missiles. The fifty-eight-pound Blue Arrow-9 anti-tank missile is a smaller variant of the laser-guided HJ-10 (dubbed the Chinese Hellfire) with a range of six kilometers. The second is the Tian Yan-90, a short-range heat-seeking air-to-air missile designed to shoot down other helicopters and drones.
Intriguingly, the Z-19 seems to share a few stealth features in common with the Comanche. It’s fenestron tail rotor is designed to dampen noise, and its engine exhausts are designed to channel heat in such a way to reduce infrared signature. This could help it survive as most short-range anti-aircraft weapons like the man-portable Stinger missile or even vehicle-mounted SA-9 or SA-13 systems rely on infrared guidance. The chopper also has its own self-defense electronic warfare suite and an infrared countermeasure system.
Of course, the Z-19 lacks the Comanche’s most exclusive feature: the specially designed hull, sculpted and coated with expensive radar-absorbent materials to reduce its radar cross-section to 1/250th the usual size. However, while radar-guided also pose a threat, the Comanche proved too expensive to fund, while the simpler Z-19 entered service, estimated to cost half the price of western peers.
But that’s not to say the Z-19 doesn’t have any shortcomings.
Under-powered and under-armored?
In 2018, AVIC announced it was ready to commence mass production of an export model dubbed the Z-19E, aimed particularly its close ally Pakistan as well as Malaysia. The heavier E model (2.75 tons) has uprated 930-horsepower WZ-8C engines and can carry larger payloads, but its service ceiling is reportedly down to 12,000 feet from 20,000. It also comes with a new Apache-style helmet-mounted display.
The Z-19E doesn’t come with the rotor-mounted radar, but some sources claim the export model includes an integral 23-millimeter cannon—though such a weapon is not in evidence in any photos the author is aware of.
It’s also unclear whether any of the Z-19E’s upgrades are making their way back to the Z-19s in PLA service.
It was reported in 2017 that an anonymous buyer had declared the intention to purchase at least five Z-19s. But in 2018 it emerged Pakistan rejected the Z-19 in favor of the Turkish T129 ATAK helicopter.
According to Franz Stefan-Gady at The Diplomat “…one of the most likely reasons is gunship’s underpowered turboshaft engines, which have prevented the Z-10 and Z-19E from carrying their full weapons payload during tests.”
A military commentator on Sputnik News argued that the Z-19’s “narrow fuselage based on polymer materials, modern Kevlar armored panels defending against 12.7 mm bullets – these are suitable for a short incursion and a quick departure for home, but not for a serious military operation.”
One must bear in mind the state-owned media outlet’s job is to pan competitors and promote sales of Russia’s larger and more heavily armored helicopter gunships. However, the critics do have a point that a lightly armored helicopter could prove quite vulnerable even to relatively unsophisticated anti-aircraft weapons like heavy machine guns or rapid firing flak cannons. Reportedly, the PLA is experimenting with adding additional armor plates to the Z-19.
To be fair, the Z-19 isn’t intended to be used the way Russia’s tank-like Hind gunships is in Afghanistan, often called upon for close support to air-mobile troops assaulting fortified positions. The concept behind an armed scout helicopter like the Z-19 is to leverage its superior sensors to spy on enemy forces, and in a pinch, launch and hit-and-run attacks from relatively long distances.
Whether the crew of even a hi-tech scout chopper can manage the risk level so neatly on a modern battlefield saturated with sensors and anti-aircraft weapons, however, is in question. The U.S. Army, for example, lost thirty-five OH-58s scout helicopter to accidents and enemy fire in Afghanistan and Iraq before retiring the type in 2017.
The scouting and light-attack role could also simply be undertaken by drones, which would be cheaper, stealthier and not put human crew at risk. But the U.S. Army’s renewed quest for a scout helicopter to replace the OH-58 shows that militaries continue to see the value in lighter armed scout helicopters to complement bruisers like the Apache and Z-10.
At last count, the PLA has 180 Z-19s in service, implying it’s deployed into nine to twelve aviation regiments. It’s been suggested (but never demonstrated) that the Z-19 could carry anti-ship missiles, and one could imagine a shipboard spinoff serving on China’s new Type 075 Landing Helicopter Docks in a similar role to the U.S. Marine’s Sea Cobra gunships.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.