The AH-1W Super Cobra is the US Marines’ attack helicopter. It is supplied by Bell Helicopter Textron, and entered service in 1985.
As well as the US Marine Corps (USMC), the Super Cobra is operational with the Turkish Land Forces and the Taiwanese Armed Forces. The AH-1W was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.
AH-1W Super Cobra orders and deliveries
Around 63 AH-1W helicopters were acquired by the Republic of China Army in 1990. As of January 2010, 59 helicopters were operational.
In 1990, the Turkish Army procured ten AH-1W Super Cobras. Six helicopters were operational as of July 2010. Two more AH-1W helicopters were delivered by the US in 2011 under a foreign military sales contract. Approximately 167 AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters are being operated by the USMC.
The Republic of Korea Army obtained eight AH-1J Cobras in 1978 and as of January 2010 three are in service.
The US Navy uses seven AH-1Ws for test and rating purposes on behalf of the USMC. The Marine Corps took delivery of three upgraded AH-1s from Bell in February 2008. Bell received a contract for 15 upgraded aircraft (11 UH-1Ys and four AH-1Zs) in September 2008 and delivered 20 upgraded H-1 helicopters (14 UH-1Ys and six AH-1Zs) in 2008.
In September 2008, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) ordered 46 AH-1Zs, bringing the total number of orders to 226.
The US Navy ordered 16 Lot 6 H-1 helicopters (five AH-1Zs and 11 UH-1Ys) in March 2009 totalling the entire contract to produce 65 upgraded H-1 aircraft (17 AH-1Zs and 48 UH-1Ys). Bell delivered six AH-1Zs and 17 UH-1Ys in March 2009.
The US Navy awarded a contract for 25 Lot 9 helicopters (15 new UH-1Ys, seven new AH-1Zs and three remanufactured AH-1Zs) in October 2012. The Lot 10 contract, which includes 15 UH-1Y and ten AH-1Z helicopters, was awarded in December 2012. Bell was awarded a contract for 26 Lot 12 H-1 new build helicopters (15 UH-1Ys and 11 AH-1Zs) for the USMC in March 2014. A contract for 24 Lot 11 H-1 new build helicopters (12 UH-1Ys and 12 AH-1Zs) was placed in May 2014.
Turkey requested a possible foreign military sale of three AH-1W attack helicopters and associated equipment in October 2011.
Super Cobra attack helicopter upgrade programme
A major upgrade of the Bell Super Cobra known as the H-1 programme is underway. The programme calls for the remanufacture of the US Marine Corps fleet of 180 AH-1W Super Cobra and 100 UH-1N utility helicopters to an advanced four-bladed configuration, which will operate to beyond 2020. An upgraded cockpit configuration allows easy co-pilot access to the night targeting system (NTS). These are also remanufactured with ‘zero-time’ airframes comprising advanced technology.
The original two-bladed semi-rigid, teetering rotor system has been replaced with a four-bladed, hingeless, bearingless rotor system. The improvement in flight characteristics provided by the four-bladed configuration has led to increases in flight envelope, maximum speed, vertical rate-of-climb, payload and rotor vibration level.
The USMC subsequently decided on new-build rather than remanufactured UH-1Y helicopters and, in February 2008, awarded Bell a contract for the new build of 40 of the proposed 189 AH-1Z helicopters. Four additional helicopters were ordered in September 2008.
First flight of the AH-1Z took place in December 2000. The AH-1W entered low-rate initial production (LRIP) in October 2003. Five AH-1W helicopters were remanufactured to AH-1Z standard and took part in flight testing at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, US. Sea trials in May 2005 included the first shipboard landing on USS Bataan, Wasp Class amphibious assault ship.
Developmental testing was completed in February 2006 and two test aircraft began operational evaluation (OPEVAL) with the USMC in May 2006. The first production AH-1Z helicopter was delivered to the USMC in January 2007. Phase II of OPEVAL began in February 2008, and the OPEVAL was completed in October 2010. In November 2010, the AH-1Z was approved for the full-rate production. Initial operating capability of the AH-1Z Cobra took place in February 2011.
The Turkish Army selected the AH-1Z King Cobra in July 2000 with a request for 50 out of 145 helicopters required. In May 2004, it was announced that the acquisition was to be cancelled. The helicopters were to be built in Turkey by Tusas Aerospace Industries (TAI).
The government of the Republic of Korea requested a possible foreign military sale of 36 AH-1Z helicopters in September 2012. The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency approved a possible foreign military sale of 15 AH-1Zs to Pakistan in April 2015.
Super Cobra cockpit
Northrop Grumman has developed the integrated avionics systems for the AH-1Z. The systems include two mission computers and an automatic flight control system with four-axis stability control augmentation system. Each crew station has two 8in x 6in multifunction displays and one 4.2in x 4.2in dual-function display, based on active-matrix, liquid-crystal colour technology.
The displays are supplied by L-3 Ruggedised Command and Control Solutions. Smiths Aerospace supplied the weapon stores control and data transfer system.“The AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.”
The communications suite combines the new US Navy RT-1824 integrated radio, UHF/VHF, COMSEC and modem in a single unit. The navigation suite includes an embedded GPS inertial (EGI) and a low-airspeed air data subsystem, which allows weapons delivery when hovering and a digital map.
In June 2002, Thales Avionics’ TopOwl helmet-mounted display system was chosen for the USMC AH-1Z. The first system was delivered in January 2003. TopOwl, also fitted on Tiger, NH90 and Rooivalk helicopters, has integrated Gen IV image intensifier and FLIR capability and provides transition from day to night use at the push of a button.
Weapons and missiles
The Super Cobra can carry both TOW and Hellfire anti-armour missiles and is being qualified to carry the Maverick missile. The Raytheon BGM-71 TOW missile has a range of more than 3km and semi-automatic command-to-line-of-sight guidance. The AGM-114 Hellfire missile is manufactured by Lockheed Martin. It is equipped with a semi-active laser seeker and has a range of 7km. The Super Cobra has fire-and-forget capability when firing the Hellfire missile in co-operative mode with laser target illumination.
The Super Cobra was the first attack helicopter to qualify both the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and the Sidearm anti-radiation missile. Both missiles can use the same LAU-7 rail launcher. Sidearm has a range of more than 15km. AIM-9L Sidewinder is an all-aspect, short-range, air-to-air missile produced by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. The missile has a range of 15km.
The Super Cobra can fire the Hydra family of unguided 70mm rockets or the larger 127mm Zuni rocket bombs. Since 2008, all units have been armed with the advanced precision kill weapon system (APKWS), a guided version of the Hydra. The US Army reopened the competition for the APKWS in September 2005 and BAE Systems was selected as the prime contractor on 27 April 2006. A $96.1m contract was awarded to BAE systems by the US Army for design and development of APKWS II laser-guided rockets.
The Super Cobra carries a three-barrel, 20mm Gatling gun for close-range (up to 2km) engagement and 750 rounds of ammunition. With the gun in a fixed-forward position, the pilot can aim by manoeuvring the helicopter. Either crew member can slave the turret to the helmet-mounted sight and aim the gun by looking at the target.
The helicopter can climb at the rate of 8.2m a second. The maximum and cruise speeds of the helicopter are 388km/h and 274km/h respectively. The range and service ceiling are 648km and 3,720m respectively. The maximum endurance of the helicopter is 3h and 30min. The helicopter weighs around 4,953kg and the maximum take-off weight is 6,690kg.