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Why China’s Harbin Z-19 ‘Black Whirlwind’ Helicopter is Flawed

Updated on January 6, 2020
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A silent observer looking around. At times he must protect his identity with avatars and weird sounding names.

There’s no doubt about it, China’s military strength is growing. It came a long way from Mao Zedong’s mass murdering death squads, to a now recognized power in Asia. Apart from having a vast number of army personnel, the People’s Liberation Army now boasts naval superiority, with its home-grown warships like aircraft carriers. Up in the air, its J-20 stealth fighter took to the sky, and it was rumored that the PLA was engaged in some form of cyberwarfare. China is now the dragon of Asia, and it wants everyone to know about that. To flaunt its newly found military might, China began stealing someone else’s economic zone to build fake islands. Can you imagine having a fully armed army base right in your own backyard? Philippines and other South East Asian Nation is now feeling the full brunt of China’s bullying, with a questionable Nine Dash Line as its basis. With lesser military strengths, they have no way of stopping the Asian juggernaut, thought it’s worth mentioning that China’s military is not the snarling beast it always boasted.

For one thing, their vast number of soldiers are inexperienced and undertrained. Their equipment are also notorious knockoffs of existing military weapons from other countries. I mean everyone knows the failed fighter jet, the J-10 which was an illegal copy of the Russian SU-37. And now that we talk of clones, expect those blatant copies to be of inferior quality. And recently, China just unleashed another beast to complement its land power. PLA’s Z-19 was tagged as “China’s Comanche” for being highly advanced. But again, it’s worth noting that like many of China’s equipment, it had serious flaws to begin with.

How It Began

The Z-9, the now unlicensed copy of  the Dauphin.
The Z-9, the now unlicensed copy of the Dauphin.

It all started with a helicopter made somewhere in Europe, known as the Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopter) AS365 Dauphin (translated as “dolphin”). Originally it was produced in France under the company Aerospatiale, before it merged with the multinational company Eurocopter. One of its variants is the Harbin Z-9, which is a (once) licensed version produced in China. This Chinese model first flew in 1981, and is designated as a military utility chopper, like the Huey and the Blackhawk.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that the license-production agreement between Eurocopter, and the Chinese Harbin expired years ago. Hence China was no longer authorized to make the said chopper. Yet production is still ongoing, and Harbin even produced new a variant, with an even more powerful engine (the Turbomeca Arriel 2C turboshaft engines).

And in 2012, China modified their Z-9 once more to create an attack helicopter. And the Z-19 was born. People likened its development to the creation of Bell AH-1 Cobra from the UH-1. Its mechanical components came from the AS365 Dauphne, which was reborn as the Z-9 by Harbin.

The Black Whirlwind

An armed Z-19.
An armed Z-19.

Again, the Harbin Z-19 is a combat variant of the Z-9. Its codename is “Black Whirlwind,” named after a fictional character of the classic novel “Water Margin” Li Kiu. Being meant for pure combat, it adopted the tandem cockpit design, a typical feature of a classic attack helicopter which gave it a sleeker profile. For noise reduction, it sports a fenestron tail, though it lacked a nose mounted autocannon. Other features include crash resistant seats, fire control radar and helmet mounted sight. It also has a turret with Forward Looking Infrared Radar, TV and laser range finder. And yes, the helicopter is armored.

Two WZ-8C turboshaft engines allow the beast to take flight, and it could cruise at 245 km/h, or streak at a maximum speed of 280 km/hr.

Two pylons on either side of the helicopter allow it to carry rockets and gun pods, as well as eight HJ-8 anti-tank missiles, or eight TY-90 air-to-air missiles. Nevertheless, it could carry other variants of anti-tank missiles, as well as anti-ship missiles

The Z-19 was designed by Wu Ximing and was first introduced in 2011. It could operate in various weather, and had an export version (Z-19E).

Primary Mission

The Z-19 in flight.
The Z-19 in flight.

The Z-19 was developed as a scout helicopter, much like the Bell OH-58 Kiowa with a balance of stealth, agility, protection and firepower. Noticeably, it has much in common with the Comanche helicopter in terms of stealth. The “Black Whirlwind” has noise and infrared reduction capabilities, self defense electronics warfare and countermeasure system.

Being more as an observation helicopter, it won’t be used for close air support while assaulting fortified position. It’s no way a match to the battle proven Russian Hind or the American Apache. Spying on enemy forces is its main priority. And when called in to attack, it will do so in long distance, or in a hit and run maneuvers. Much like many scout choppers, the Z-19 will only complement existing full attack helicopters.

Flaws

As amazing as it sounds, the helicopter has many serious shortcomings. Going back to the Comanche, it took twenty-two years and a sum of seven billion dollars for its development, only to be scrapped in the end. And emulating the capabilities of the Comanche won’t just take overnight and knock off parts.

The Z-19 might boast Comanche type technologies, but it lacked its specially designed hull. The pricey hull was made and coated with radar-absorbent material to reduce its signature. And being expensive alone means there is no way a Z-19 could have Comanche’s technology. In fact, the Z-19 cost half the price if its western counterparts.

And then there was the question of power and armor.

The Black Whirlwind is advertised as armored for increase survivability. Its narrow fuselage is polymer made and protected by Kevlar plates made to stop a 12.7 mm round.

And that’s all.

That level of protection could never withstand heavy fire. A quick hit and run are what it is best suited for. But for serious operations, the armor is insufficient. In fact, the Z-19 is vulnerable to existing heavy machine guns and flak cannons.

The engines are also underpowered, rendering the Z-19 unable to carry full weapons payload. A potential handicap, considering how a fully armed and equipped Apache could pulverized a column of tanks. And when your power plant lacks muscles, how can it make agile maneuvers and quick getaways? The Z-19 also has no rotor mounted radar, like that of the Apache.

Lastly, scout helicopters are getting pushed aside by cheaper drones. Why send an expensive manned platform in the front line, if a more cost-effective means that don’t put a life in harm’s way is already available?

Overall

We won’t be seeing an Apache match on this one. It never even comes close to the battle-hardened Kiowa. It was implied that like many weapons system of PLA, matching the Western powers was never the priority. Bullying smaller nations is.

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