China’s New Heavy Attack Helicopter Likely Unveiled on Chinese Social Media

Z-xx’s First Appearance

On March 21st, several images and videos appeared on various Chinese and Western social media apps showing a previously unknown Chinese attack helicopter. The new helicopter differs significantly from the attack helicopters that China currently fields, the Z-19 light attack/reconnaissance and the Z-10 medium attack helicopters. However, several on the Chinese Internet say that the helicopter is the byproduct of the country’s Z-xx heavy attack helicopter program. Several say the attack helicopter’s designation will be the Z-21 if it becomes operational in the helicopter squadrons of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Photo of sideview of Z-xx/Z-21 helicopter at unidentified airport in China (Photo: X, formally known as Twitter/@sugar_wsnbn)

Z-xx Characteristics

The images of the Z-xx indicate that it shares the characteristics of three aircraft: the American AH-64, the Russian Mi-28 attack helicopters, and the Z-20 medium utility helicopter. The similarities can be divided into three parts: the front (Mi-28), the middle (AH-64), and the tail (Z-20) sections.

The front section shares similarities with the Mi-28 in terms of nose, sensor suite location, and, to a degree, the tandem cockpit. For example, the Z-xx’s nose looks very similar in appearance to the Mi-28 due to the helicopter’s nose ending in a rounded point. Another similarity is that the outline of the gunner’s cockpit sits directly in front of the nose. The final similarity is that the sensor suite is located directly under the nose, in the same approximate location as the Mi-28.

Blogger-produced image of the Z-xx/Z-21’s sections that share similarities with the Mi-28/AH-64/Z-20 (Photo: X, formally known as Twitter/@FaySue6)

The middle section of the Z-xx, from the pilot’s cockpit to the beginning of the tail section, is similar to the AH-64, specifically the powerplants, pilot’s cockpit, protruding ‘cheek’ fairings, locations of the chain gun, and stub wings. The Z-xx’s powerplants are similar to the AH-64 in terms of appearance, with the only major difference being the engine exhausts, which point upward. For example, the Z-xx’s air intakes have a similar appearance to the intakes found on the AH-64, specifically the rounded air inlets/dust filters. Another similarity between the AH-64’s and Z-xx’s powerplants is their rectangular appearance while also spanning a large portion of the fuselage. Another similarity is the Z-xx’s pilot’s cockpit, which is somewhat similar to the AH-64’s cockpit.

However, the notable difference between the two is the shape of the Z-xx’s side windows, which is less angular than the AH-64’s windows. The protruding ‘cheek’ fairings located on both sides of the Z-xx are in a similar location as the AH-64 but are likely not as pronounced. The Z-xx’s chain gun is also located in the same approximate location as the AH-64’s 30mm chain gun. Regarding the stub wings of the Z-xx, they have a similar location to the wings on the AH-64, with the wings located under the engine inlets. Furthermore, the Z-xx’s wings appear to be the same approximate length as the wings of the AH-64.

Computer generated image showing Mi-28 (left), AH-64 (center), and Z-xx/Z-21 attack helicopters (Photo: X, formally known as Twitter/@FaySue6)

The tail section of the Z-xx shares significant similarities to the Z-20 medium utility helicopter. For example, the Z-xx tail rotor and horizontal stabilizer appear to have the same layout as the Z-20 helicopter. However, the horizontal stabilizer on the Z-xx appears to be flat compared to the Z-20’s curved horizontal stabilizer. Furthermore, the Z-xx’s rear landing gear appears to be different from the Z-20’s, with the Z-xx’s appearing to be longer and using a hydraulic support strut for support. The Z-xx’s tail boom appears to share some similarities with the Z-20, such as the overall shape of the boom. However, the Z-xx’s tail boom does have one similarity to the tail boom of the Mi-28, specifically the long radio antenna attached to the Z-xx’s right side.

Photo of underview of Z-xx/Z-21 (Photo: X, formally Twitter/@FaySue6)

Furthermore, it is likely that the basis for the Z-xx is the Z-20 medium utility helicopter because of the ease the design team will have in modifying the helicopter’s frame to be an attack helicopter. For example, the increased weight requirements from modifying and strengthening the airframe to cope with the chain gun, stub wings, and munitions. The increased weight would also come from adding a better sensor suite containing Electro Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) sensors and a laser designator. Using the Z-20 as the basis would also allow the designers to simplify the process of developing an adequate engine for the Z-xx since they could use or modify the Z-20’s engine.

The Z-20’s powerplant would likely be the best option since the Harbin Aircraft Industry Group developed the helicopter’s engine to be capable of carrying 8,900 lbs (3,992 kg) of cargo. Furthermore, the helicopter’s engine proved it is capable of handling additional weight by modifying the base Z-20 into different variants, such as the Z-20F, modified for Anti-Submarine Warfare. The WZ-10 engines that the Z-20 use are also a significant improvement over the WZ-9C and WZ-9 engines that the Z-19 and Z-10 respectively use.

Photo of sideview of Z-xx/Z-21 helicopter at unidentified airport in China (Photo: X, formally known as Twitter/@sugar_wsnbn)

Below is a description of the Z-xx based on the Rotor, Engine, Fuselage, and Tail (REFT) acronym for helicopter identification.

Rotor: a five-blade main rotor with a small, circular hub at the top of the rotor mast.

Engine: rectangular engine cowlings with inlets similar in shape to the AH-64 located on either side of the fuselage. Exhaust outlets pointing towards rotor blades.

Fuselage: thin fuselage with protruding ‘cheek’ fairings located below the gunner/pilot cockpit. Stub wings are located just under engine inlets on either side. Landing wheels are on opposite sides of the fuselage, located below the pilot’s cockpit. The sensor suite ‘ball’ is located under the nose of the helicopter.

Tail: A somewhat long tail with a horizontal stabilizer located at the bottom of the four-blade tail rotor on the right side. A supported rear landing wheel is located at the bottom of the tail rotor. Likely radio antenna running along the right side of the tail boom.

Computer generated image of Z-xx/Z-21 heavy attack helicopter (Photo: X, formally known as Twitter/@Santahohoho1)

China’s Current Attack Helicopter Capabilities

The reason why China is developing the Z-xx is to fulfill its requirements for a heavy attack helicopter to conduct close air support and airborne anti-armor missions. The PLA currently employs both the Z-19 and Z-10 in the attack helicopter role, but both lack the necessary firepower for them to fulfill the role. The Z-19 and Z-10 are comparable to the OH-58 Kiowa and the AH-1Z helicopters, which are considered reconnaissance and light attack helicopters, respectively.

For example, both the Z-19 and Z-10 have long endurance times, but they lack the ability to carry heavier armaments due to their engines’ low performance. The Z-19’s armament is limited to only rockets and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM) and does not have a chain gun mounted to its chin. The limited armament options hinder the amount of support the helicopter can provide to ground troops and the number of missions it could conduct. Furthermore, the Z-19 would be forced to use rockets or ATGMs against targets that could otherwise be used on higher priority targets, such as Main Battle Tanks (MBT).

Another example is how the Z-10 incorporated a 23mm chain gun for use as its internal armament. The Z-10’s designers likely experimented with larger caliber chain guns, but the weight of the gun and ammunition caused strain to occur on the fuselage. The increased weight would have also caused significant strain on the already underpowered WZ-9 powerplants, which decreased its performance parameters, such as power output. The 23mm chain gun, while increasing the Z-10’s capabilities to engage and destroy targets on the battlefield, likely only provided a minimal increase to lethality. The reason why is due to the 23mm round is considered a light autocannon round when compared to heavier calibers such as the 25mm or 30mm rounds.

Computer generated image of the Z-xx/Z-21 (foreground) and Z-10 in the background (X, formally Twitter/@Hurin92)

Analysis

The Z-xx/Z-21 will likely significantly increase the PLA’s capability to provide close air and airborne anti-armor support to ground forces. However, the PLA will have to overcome significant obstacles to successfully integrate the new helicopter to conduct operations akin to the AH-64 Apache. The most significant of these obstacles is the lack of knowledge in integrating Z-19 and Z-10 in close air support missions. While there are some indications that the PLA is experimenting to develop Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) to provide CAS, they would need time to refine them so they could effectively conduct the missions. However, the continued lack of effective TTPs would hinder the PLA from providing adequate CAS to forces during combat operations.

The reason why China would need to further develop TTPs regarding how to conduct these missions is due to the high potential for the helicopters to hit ground troops they were supposed to support. For example, the TTPs would be needed for People’s Liberation Army Army (PLAA) Aerial Fires Guides (China’s version of Joint Terminal Air Controllers) to know the proper procedures to call in CAS. Another reason why the TTPs would be important is to enable pilots, gunners, and FOs to have a ‘common language’ to simplify the process of calling in CAS. The reason for the ‘common language’ is to enable all three to understand what each individual is saying during the process.

Another obstacle is that China lacks significant experience in training to conduct CAS missions across all aspects of the PLA, from the PLAA to the People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC). While the PLAA Z-19s and Z-10s have previously conducted various CAS missions in support of ground units during exercises, there are indications that they were very rudimentary in both scale and simplicity. The small scale and lack of complexity seen in these exercises indicate that China is still continuing to learn how to conduct close air support missions. Furthermore, both may also indicate that the PLA lacks effective and mature TTPs and further an inability to conduct more complex CAS missions that would reflect real world scenarios. The lack of employment of CAS during these exercises means that the PLA will not gain the experience necessary to correctly employ the Z-xx/Z-21 in CAS missions.

The third obstacle is the overall lack of use of Z-19s and Z-10s to provide CAS during joint exercises with other PLA branches. The only joint exercises the PLAA Z-19s and Z-10s conducted were landing and operating from People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) amphibious vessels. However, these exercises do not include providing CAS to PLANMC or PLAA amphibious battalions conducting beach landing exercises. The lack of integration of attack helicopters with either PLAA amphibious mechanized units or PLANMC units would be a major limitation during any invasion of Taiwan.

The limitation would be especially pronounced during the first few weeks since these units would need CAS in all forms during the initial stages of the campaign. Furthermore, the lack of joint integration of CAS capabilities also extends to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force Airborne Corps (PLAAF-AC), which would also play a significant role in any Taiwan invasion. While both the PLANMC and the PLAAF-AC could solve this issue by creating its own squadrons of Z-xx/Z-21s, it would still face the same obstacles that the PLAA faces as well as potential for mission creep.

Another obstacle is the potential for the squadron’s higher command to prevent the attack helicopters’ pilots and gunners from having the leeway to fully operate autonomously during missions. The reason why is due to the Chinese Communist Party’s emphasis on controlling all aspects of the PLA, including combat operations through wartime Party committees. This top-down management would likely extend to the types of missions and locations the helicopters would go to conduct these missions.

However, there are indications that the gunners of the Z-19 and Z-10 have great autonomy in using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for search and reconnaissance and target cuing. The Z-19s and Z-10s would act as ATGM carriers that would target and destroy the various targets the UAVs located. The gunner would likely have great autonomy in determining which targets to destroy with what kind of ordnance during this part of the mission. However, the gunner would likely not have any additional leeway beyond using UAVs for targeting purposes or deciding which weapons they would use against the targets.

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Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju. Indo-Pacific Division Desk Chief for Atlas News.
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