What is an Gunship and What is its Combat Role?
The term "gunship"came from the naval "gunboat", and is a catch-all terminology applied to a number of aerial vehicles current and future. In its current usage, gunships are heavily armed aircraft, either fixed-wing or rotor, that are specially designed to attack ground targets and providing close air support (CAS) from a stable aerial platform. These aircraft are often fitted with a number of weapon systems to meet various tactical situations. Gunships can range from the god-of-war AC-130 "Specter" fixed-wing aircraft to helicopters armed for protection duties, to even tiltrotor aircraft. Gunships could be armed soon with directed energy weapon systems, like the cancelled Boeing YAL-1 project.
What is an Attack Helicopter and What is its Combat Role?
Basically, the Attack Helicopters is designed to assault ground targets with a variety of armaments. This helicopter is not normally designed with transportation in mind, but air-to-surface attack. While the helicopter would be first used in World War II and the Korean War in a support role, the concept of a slow-speed aircraft to attack tanks and ground targets will be pioneered during the 2nd World War by Major Charles Carpenter with his L-4 Grasshopper armed with six anti-tank bazookas. In 1944, Carpenter and his "Rosie the Rocketeer" knocked out four German armored vehicles by top-attack them during the Battle of Arracourt. By the time of Vietnam, Helicopters were becoming a critical piece of military technology and battlefield tactics.
What is an ATTG and What is its Combat Role?
Tiltrotor aircraft are the combination of a prop-plane and an helicopter that allows for flexibility. The V-22 Osprey Tiltrotor is an thed first tiltrotor in military service and an revolution in military aircraft, and they could be the near-replacement for the helicopter, or also a stepping stone to ducted fan aircraft. While the V-22 is an awesome aircraft, it is basically a combat bus with some machine guns. In 2013, Bell revealed the 3rd generation V-280 "Valor", this medium lift tiltrotor would be a logical replacement for the Blackhawk and Apache, if we are to believe Bell. This would make the V280 Valor the first Advanced Tactical Tiltrotor Gunship (ATTG). However, some believe that tiltrotors will not fully take over military rotary aircraft, and that tiltrotors make a poor substitute. Some believe that ducted fan aircraft will be the true replacement to the helicopter.
How Are Gunships and Attack Helicopters/Tiltrotors Different?
While there are modified military helicopters designed around escort missions and are classified as gunships, along with attack helicopters like the Hind-D and the AH-64 Apache, the typical military gunship, like the AC-130, is a converted cargo transport. This is due to these types of aircraft being able to carry the weight of the weapon systems and the ammunition. They brings us to another difference: weapons. Gunships are often armed with larger weapon packages that are most gun, not missiles. While attack helicopters are mostly armed with missile system, guided and dumb-fire, with a few machine guns. This loadout can be varied based on mission role as well, not some much in the gunship.
Lastly, these types of armed ground-attack aircraft are different based on propulsion types. Attack helicopters and ATTG tiltrotors are just that: helicopters and tiltrotors. However, the gunship is a little confused. In the modern military, the gunship is mostly referring to an fixed-wing propeller aircraft. But, that is not always the case. At times, we will attack helicopters that can transport a limited number of troop a "gunship" like the Russian Hind-D or the Republic LAAT/i, or the Imperium Valkyrie. Given this, gunships can be either propeller-driven aircraft, or fan ducted, or VTOL thrusters, depending on the person's POV.
Armed Transport or Gunship or Attack Helicopter/Tiltrotor?
Confusion is natural when it comes to labelling terms used for military vehicles. Much like dropship, the term gunship is one of those terms that is used to describe different types of military vehicles, in the real-world and sci-fi. Adding to the confusion is the type of aircraft that are used for the role of attack helicopter and gunship. At times, transport vehicles are given an increase in weaponry to allow them to fulfill the role of gunship, like the Raptor shuttle from BSG. Even in the modern military, transport helicopters are given improved weapons packages to fulfill the role of gunship or attack helicopter. This is seen with the UH-60 Blackhawks and the UH-1 Hueys. Other types, gunships pull doubt duty, being a troop bus and an gunship.
One thing that separates the different types of aircraft used for the various roles of gunship and attack craft are the types of propulsion.
All of the military gunships so far have been fixed-wing cargo vessels modified for the role of ground attack aircraft. The C-47 and C-130 both were modified into the legendary gunships that were Grim Reapers of the sky. This foundation of cargo planes allowed for an excellent heavy weapons platform and slower speeds to allow maximum time on target and on hot standby. However, this also means that gunships are slower fatter targets for enemy AAA and interception. Coupled with the need for a runway and mechanical maintenance teams.
Traditional rotors that are used on attack helicopters and helicopter gunships have been a staple of military aircraft since the Cold War. The use of traditional rotary systems allows the hovering associated with helicopters and angles of attack. In addition, since helicopters have been used for decades in military service, they are easier to construct attack aircraft and maintain than the newer tiltrotors. However, helicopters are slower than tiltrotors and vulnerable to AAA systems and retrofitted anti-aircraft weapons like the classic Soviet-era RPG-7. Currently, the US Army is looking at pusher propeller technology for faster helicopter-like aircraft
While the tiltrotor and the helicopter are similar rotary-based aircraft that operate in a similar manner, the tiltrotor is considered more versatile and speed is the greatest advantage, while complexity is the greatest disadvantage. Tiltrotors can maneuver their rotor motors (two or four) into various position, allowing for different flight operations. With the rotors facing upwards, the tiltrotor allows for VTOL and hovering, like an helicopter. As the rotors are pitched forward, the speed increases. With the rotors face completely forwards, the tiltrotors is like a propeller driven aircraft. It is believed that until quad-rotor tiltrotors, there will not an tiltrotor aircraft used as the foundation for an conventional gunship that can take the place of gunships constructed on the foundation of the cargo planes, like the AC-130.
My Own Experiences with the term "Gunship"
Gunships and Science Fiction
Attack Helicopters and Science Fiction
At one time, helicopters were the vehicle of choice for the future. In the 1930's Just Imagine, personal helicopters had replaced cars as transportation. Even in the Starship Troopers 1959 novel, Rico had an expensive helicopter. While the attack tiltrotor and the gunship are well represented in science fiction, the attack helicopter is not. There was a time when the attack helicopter was a popular concept in sci-fi and mass media, but that was the 1980's. During the 1980's, there was no less than two television shows devoted to advanced helicopters: Airwolf (which I watched) and Blue Thunder. This trend of attack helicopters popped up into sci-fi, mostly in wargames, like Battletech. While it is a safe bet that helicopters will be a platform for military aircraft for sometime, their inclusion in science fiction is more rare due to the helicopter looking less futuristic than the VTOL or tiltrotor.
Attack Tiltrotors and Science Fiction
While the concept of tiltrotors goes back to the 1930's, there has only been one, the V-22 Osprey, that has seen successful military adoption. However, the concept of the tiltrotor has not been lost on creators of sci-fi. Given that the V-22 Osprey object has been in the works since 1981, and other military tiltrotors appeared in a number of military magazines, this type of aircraft was added into near-future military works to project the "this is the future" angle or even the "rule of cool" trope. This was true of the M-100 tiltrotor gunship that appeared in Ralph Peters 1991 book The War in 2020 and the V-44 Quad-rotor like aircraft that appears in Edge of Tomorrow,and in most animes like Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed. This has given the tiltrotor aircraft the role of futuristic helicopter in most works. What is interesting about tiltrotors in fiction vs. the real world, is the appearance of the ATTGs (tiltrotor gunships). In the real-world, there are no delicated tiltrotor gunship and only one on the drawing board, the V280 Valor. With other military tiltrotors being developed, it is likely that the trend in sci-fi will continue of tiltrotors being viewed has the helicopter-like aircraft of the future.
The EarthForce Valkyrie Gunship from the B5 Universe
In one of the best and most military sci-fi episodes of B5: GROPOS (S2x10 1995) we see an EarthForce expeditionary force stopping by the B5 station on their way to Akdor, to aid the besieged Sh'Lassen Triumvirate government from a bloody civil war. This expeditionary force is impressive show of force by the Earth Alliance, Nova class dreadnoughts, and troop ships ferry 25,000 GROPOS or EarthForce Marines. Stowed inside the ships is several GROPOS Valkyrie class endoatompsheric gunships. Only seen for a few seconds at the end of the episode, these VTOL insect-like attacking the Fortress of Matok as several burn in the background. Truly, a haunting scene and one of the best in the series...despite some bad writing in the episode.
While never given a name in the episode, it was the later ground combat miniature game called GROPOS by Agents of Gaming that gave us some information on this VTOL gunship and a name..and a cool miniature! The Valkyrie is primary surface-to-air attack VTOL craft, but it can also operate in the vacuum of space. The V/STOL thrusters are mounted in the body, while the twin booms extending along the sides of the Valkyrie house twin missile launchers. The primary armament is a dual-barred chin-mounted pulse DEW. The Valkyrie was designed by Steven Burg and based around the AH-64 Apache. With the Agents of Gaming going out of business and I am unable to get my hands on the EarthForce GROPOS manual, I cannot add any information from the wargame. One day...
The Airwolf Next-Generation Covert Attack Helicopter/Scout from the Airwolf TV Series
The "Blue Thunder" Next-Generation Police Helicopter from Blue Thunder (1983)
One of the forgotten films of the 1980's was the oddball film about a next-generation police helicopter and the crew that pilots the Blue Thunder around metro LA. This advanced military-grade police helicopter was designed to counter civil unrest for the upcoming Olympic games with offensive armaments, stealth technology, and 1983-art-of-the-art surveillance gear. This allowed the Blue Thunder to assist police during urban operations, engage hostiles, and watch people fuck. The actually helicopter was a France Aerospatiale Gazelle SA-341G with some Apache parts bought for $190.000. It is believed that the film producers wanted an AH-64 Apache, but were turned down by the military. This film spawned a short-lived television series that lasted only 11 episodes that could was cancelled due to Airwolf.
The G-Police VTOL Gunships from G-Police Video Game (1997)
One of the best games on the original PlayStation was 1997's G Police. This was set in 2097 on a off-world domed colony on the Jovian moon of Callisto. Here corporations, gangs, organized crime, and the government battle for control. The Government Police, or the GP, instead of using patrol cars, they use the armed VTOL thruster DASA-Kamov AG-60 "Havoc" attack craft mostly called gunships in the game and it is hinted that they are military surplus. Throughout the game, the armaments change for the gunships, and by the end missions, you are flying a god-of-war. This game was quite enjoyable back in the day of the original PlayStation, and I actually owned it. The mechanics of the VTOL were well done as well as the armament. This is one of the few games I've run across that centers around an VTOL gunship. Here's to hoping they make an PS4 update of G-Police!
The Imperial Navy "Vulture" Gunship from Warhammer 40K
The Umbrella Corporation ATTG from Resident Evil:Afterlife and Resident Evil: Retribution
Okay, before we begin with the discussion of these rare examples of an ATTG in a film let me just say that I think these film are shit. Pure shit. Now that I've got that off of my chest, let us move on with this entry. In the last two most recent Resident Evil films, we see a horde of the ATTGs owned by the Umbrella Corporation. These are not just transport vehicles, but also heavily armed with miniguns and missile launchers. These unnammed sheath ATTG are modeled after V-22 Osprey, and were entirely a product of CGI and were designed Rob McCallum. Honestly, there is no information on these ATTGs, which is part and parcel to the entire lame Resident Evil series. It is too bad, too. The Umbrella Corp ATTG is one of the best looking fictional tiltrotors.
The Durant Class Sub-Orbital Gunship from Endangered Species
The Republic LAAT/i "Gunship" from the Star Wars Universe
One of the most impressive vehicles of the Prequel films was the Low Altitude Assault Transport/Infantry (LAAT/i). To most fans, it was simply the "republic gunships". This endoatmospheric repulsor troop transport was heavily armed, allowing for the LAAT/i to serve as also an attack aircraft. This craft quickly became one of the symbols of the Clone Wars and the Republic war effort. This warhorse of the war against the CIS was readily built and fielded through the galactic front, and why it was cheap to produce, the LAAT/i did have two weakness: lack of exoatmospheric ability and the large crew needs. Unlike a number of Star Wars military craft, the LAAT/i could not venture into space, and instead had to be deployed in atmosphere by landing craft.
The AT-99 "Scorpion" Attack VTOL Rotor from AVATAR
In the fleet of aircraft that populate the RDA operations on Pandora, we have this attack VTOL ducted fan aircraft: the AT-99 Scorpion. This little attack craft was designed for standard air-to-surface attacks and CAS, but on Pandora, the Scorpion was assigned to escort and guard duty for units outside of the wire. According to sources, the Scorpion was designed to counter terrorist EMP technology that knocked out drone/UAVs. The base Scorpion was armed with four 12.7mm machine guns, missiles, rockets and all of this was controlled by a single pilot. There was a badass toy made of the Scorpion...need to add that to my "future office" collection.
The Southern Cross AJACS VFH-10 Armored Veritech Assault Helicopter
The Scylla Aerosystem C-21 "Dragon" Assault Ship or Gunship from AVATAR
While there have been many gunships, attack helicopters in sci-fi, there has been nothing like the Dragon gunship seen on-screen. During key battles in the three hour 2009 film, the C-21 Dragon brings the hammer down on the blue aliens with being flanked by an number of light inducted-fan rotor military aircrafts, like the SA-2 "Samson" and the AT-99 "Scorpion" that can provide defense and add more capability.
The A-61 "Mantis" Gunship from the Mass Effect Universe
In the Mass Effect games, one of the universal aerial war machines is the A-61 Mantis, and it occupies the role of the attack helicopter in the Mass Effect universe. The Mantis uses multi-vector thruster combined with a element zero core and mass effect fields to allow for VTOL and hovering. Most Mantis are armed with mass effect M350 machine guns in a heavier caliber with various missile types. In both ME2 and ME3, we see examples of various races and groups using the A-61 Mantis in roles similar to modern day attack helicopters. This was especially seen during the battles of Earth. Thessia, and the STG base on Sur'Kesh. Oddly, the Mantis base chassis can be modified to allow the Mantis to be transformed into a endo-exo fighter. Mantis gunships have also been seen airdropping mechs into battle.
The Armed Ornithopters from the DUNE Universe
The G79H-TC/MA "Pelican" Gunship Variant from HALO: 4
It seems that the iconic and beloved Pelican tactical transport of the UNSC gets changed every single time a new HALO game comes out., For HALO 4 in 2012, we see one of the greatest changes to the tactical transport. After the war, the new Pelican, the D79H-TC, was altered with hard learned lessons from the war, and injection of new technology, some rumored to be alien. As with the other Pelican transports, there is a gunship variant, and the one for the D79H-TC is the G79H-TC/MA. This gunship variant was used by the Master Chief and Cortana for their assault on the controls of the Didact's shield controls.
The Space Ork "Deffkopta" from WH40K
The AV-22 "Sparrowhawk" Attack VTOL from the HALO Wars
The CIS HMP Droid Gunship from the Star Wars Universe
One of the more interesting examples of an gunship on this list is the Droid Gunship from the 3rd Prequel Star Wars film. The Confederacy of Independent Systems Heavy Missile Platform gunship is actually an endo/exo atmospheric airspeed that is armed to the goddamn teeth will all manner of missiles, repeater laser cannons. While not the fastest airspeeder, the Droid Gunship makes up for this with its weaponry, and ability to bombard a target with missiles from a stable aerial platform that could support ground units. In The Revenge of the Sith, the droid gunships are seen at the Battle of Kashyyyk, and even talking with droid General Kalani. This gunship was made into a Lego set as well. As for sci-fi gunships, the Star Wars CIS droid gunship is a nice example, but it is quite boring, and like many of the CIS droid military units, it is oddly designed, and bears none of the fear that the Skynet Hunter-Killer vehicles do.
The AV-14 Attack VTOL "Hornet" from the HALO universe
The Skynet VTOL HK-Model A4 Type 400c Series 400 from the Terminator universe
Terminator 2029 website. Since the first two good films, the other shitty Terminator films have established more HK aerial units, but none has reached the same iconic status as the original HK patrol aircraft. In the NOW Comics series that takes place in 2031, the "Sarah's Slammers" resistance group from Miami, actually captured an Model A4, and piloted it to safety after Skynet raided their base.
Various Inner Sphere Attack Helicopters from the Battletech Universe
In the excellent 2013 Tom Cruise sci-fi film Oblivion, we see a rather unique sci-fi example of an attack/scout VTOL endo/exo craft: the Bubble-Ship. The Bubble-Ship was designed by Daniel Simon with interior input from Tom Cruise, who is a pilot and was made to be an futuristic tiltrotor-like vehicle. In the film, the Bubble-Ship was the primary transport and protect of Drone Tech 49 Jack Harper. His assignment was to maintain the drone fleet on Earth while preparing for the colonization of Titan, and the Bubble-Ship was heavily armed for such a light craft due to the presence of the alien Scavengers. During the climax of the film, we see Jack engage several drones with some sort of rapid-fire pulse DEW cannons mounted on the sphere cockpit module. Some sites I have seen say that the Bubble-Ship is armed with 10mm Gauss rapid-fire magnetic cannons. While the Bubble-Ship is futuristic, it does have properties that would allow it to function in the real-world, if technology allowed. The inclusion of a rear-rotor assembly was an especially nice touch.
Next Time on FWS...