China’s Z-19 Helicopter – Is It Really Stealth?
The PLA has 180 Z-19s in service, implying it’s deployed into nine to twelve aviation regiments.
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.
China-made WZ-19 Attack Helicopter Completes Maiden Flight:
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 sнooт down other helicopters and drones.
Intriguingly, the Z-19 seems to share a few stealth features in common with the Comanche. Its 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 wᴀʀfare 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 awᴀʀe of.
China’s armed helicopter Z-19E makes maiden flight:
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.