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16 March 2022

AH-1W / AH-1Z Super Cobra Attack Helicopter

The AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter, which entered service with the US Marine Corps in 1985, was replaced by the AH-1Z Viper.
The AH-1W Super Cobra served as the US Marine’s attack helicopter for more than 34 years. Credit: Bell Textron Inc.
The AH-1Z helicopter completed its first flight in December 2000. Credit: Bell Textron Inc.
The H-1 programme was designed to upgrade US Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra fleet. Credit: Bell Textron Inc.

The AH-1W Super Cobra was the US Marines’ attack helicopter. Designed and developed by Bell Textron, which was previously known as Bell Helicopter, it entered service with the US Marine Corps (USMC) in 1985 and was retired in October 2020 after 34 years of service. The AH-1Z Viper, which is also manufactured by Bell Textron, replaced the Super Cobra.

The Super Cobra is operational with the Turkish Land Forces and the armed forces of Taiwan.

AH-1W Super Cobra upgrade programme

A major upgrade of the Bell Super Cobra known as the H-1 programme was launched in 1996. The programme called for the remanufacture of the USMC fleet of 180 AH-1W Super Cobra into AH-1Zs and 100 UH-1N to UH-1Y utility helicopters to an advanced four-bladed configuration to keep them operational beyond 2020. An upgraded cockpit configuration allows easy co-pilot access to the night targeting system (NTS). These were also remanufactured with “zero-time” airframes comprising advanced technology.

The original two-bladed semi-rigid, teetering rotor system was replaced with a four-bladed, hingeless, bearingless rotor system. The improvement in flight characteristics provided by the four-bladed configuration led to an increase 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.

AH-1Z Viper first flight and development

First flight of the AH-1Z took place in December 2000. The AH-1W entered low-rate initial production (LRIP) in October 2003 with deliveries to be carried out until 2018. Five AH-1W helicopters were remanufactured to AH-1Z standard and took part in flight testing at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. 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 Viper was attained in February 2011.

AH-1Z Viper design and features

The fuselage and other sub-assembly elements are all made of corrosion-resistant material. No two dissimilar metals of the structure are in contact. The helicopter features an epoxy primer layer on the exposed surfaces. It has an overall length of 58ft 3in (17.75m), overall height of 14ft 4in (4.37m), and rotor diameter of 48ft (14.6m). The maximum take-off weight of the helicopter is approximately 18,500lb (8,390kg).

The AH-1Z Viper is deployed to provide close air support, armed escort/reconnaissance, anti-air warfare, and anti-armour operations.

Cockpit

Northrop Grumman 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×6in multifunction displays and one 4.2in×4.2in dual function display, based on active-matrix liquid crystal colour technology.

The displays were supplied by L-3 Ruggedised Command and Control Solutions. Smiths Aerospace supplied the weapon stores control and data transfer system.

The communications suite combines the US Navy RT-1824 integrated radio, UHF/VHF, COMSEC and modem in a single unit. The navigation suite includes an embedded GPS inertial (EGI), a low-airspeed air data subsystem, which allows weapons delivery when hovering and a digital map.

Thales Avionics’ TopOwl helmet-mounted display system was chosen for the USMC AH-1Z in June 2002. 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 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 are 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 AH-1Z Viper for the USMC can be armed with 16 Hellfire missiles, six AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, 70mm rocket pods (7- and 19-shot), and a 20mm gun.

Sensors

Targeting for the AH-1W is provided by the night targeting system (NTS), jointly supplied by Tamam Division of Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd and Kollsman.

NTS integrates a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) which provides automatic target tracking with a laser designator / rangefinder and video recorder.

Lockheed Martin developed a longer range AN/AAQ-30 target sight system (TSS) for the AH-1Z to replace the NTS. TSS includes a third-generation four field-of-view FLIR based on a 3-5-micron staring array, CCD colour TV, Kollsman eye-safe laser rangefinder / designator and multi-target auto-tracker. L-3 Communications Wescam supplies the turret assembly. Lockheed Martin was awarded a contract to supply the first 16 systems to the USMC in March 2008. The first TSS, which serves as the fire control system for the AH-1Z Viper, was delivered to the USMC in June 2009.

Lockheed Martin received follow-on contracts worth $150m from the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), Crane division, for the lot 13 and 14 production of TSS for the USMC’s AH-1Z Viper fleet. The company delivered more than 100 TSS units to the USMC by 2017, with production and sustainment expected to continue through 2026.

Longbow International (a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman) developed the Cobra Radar System for the AH-1Z, based on the Longbow millimetre wave radar on the AH-64D Apache. Cobra is a pod-based radar that can be mounted on a wingtip or in a stores position. Cobra can automatically search, detect, classify, and prioritise multiple moving and stationary targets. It has a range of 8km against moving and 4km against stationary targets.

The two-way connection between AH-1Z Viper helicopter and ground control station using Link 16 was successfully demonstrated for the first time in June 2021. Developed by Northrop Grumman, the Link 16 package includes the Link 16 system, a digital moving map, a security architecture, and advanced networking wideband waveform (ANW2) datalinks.

Countermeasures on AH-1Z

The H1 Super Cobra upgrade includes the provision of a new electronic warfare suite. A new radar warner, the AN/APR-39(XE2) from Lockheed Martin, replaces the Lockheed Martin AN/APR-39(V)2 pulse radar warner and the AEL Industries AN/APR-44 continuous-wave radar warner.

The helicopters currently in service with the US Marines are equipped with the APR-39B(V)2 digital radar warning receiver (RWR), provided by Northrop Grumman. The receiver will be replaced with Northrop Grumman’s APR-39D(V)2 RWR, which is designed to provide improved situational awareness through interactive management of the countermeasures and sensors onboard the helicopter.

The ATK AN/AAR-47 missile warning system was included in the upgrade suite. AN/AAR-47 uses infrared detectors to detect the missile plume. The Goodrich (formerly Raytheon) AN/AVR-2A laser warning receiver was also added. The infrared countermeasures system is the AN/ALQ-144A developed by BAE Systems IEWS (formerly Sanders, a Lockheed Martin company).

The helicopter is also equipped with the AN/ALE-39 chaff and infrared flare dispenser manufactured by BAE Systems Integrated Defense Solutions (formerly Tracor) and Lockheed Martin Tactical Defense Systems.

Engines and performance of AH-1Z

Twin General Electric T700-GE-401 turboshaft engines provide a total of 2,410kW or 3,380shp.

In standard conditions, with an air-to-air ordnance load, the Super Cobra can take off and climb out at more than 4.1m/s on only one engine. It can hover out of ground effect (OGE) at 914m, with a load of four TOW and four Hellfire missiles, full turret ammunition and rockets.

GE Aviation received a contract worth $1.4m as an initial funding for nonrecurring engineering engine upgrade work on the AH-1Z platform in 2008. The contracted included upgrading 180 AH-1Ws from twin blade to four-blade rotor configuration under the AH-1Z standard. The AH-1Z is powered by twin Lynn-built T700-401C engines. It features a new main gearbox. The new T700-401C engine model provides about 10% better power output than the T700-401. The cumulative rated power of the T700-GE-401C is 3,600shp (1,800shp for each engine).

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 three hours and 30 minutes.

Orders and deliveries

Around 63 AH-1W helicopters were acquired by the Republic of China Army in 1990.

In 1990, the Turkish Army procured ten AH-1W Super Cobras to supplement their AH-1F Cobras. Six helicopters were operational as of July 2010. Two more AH-1W helicopters were acquired in early 2011.

The Turkish Army selected the AH-1Z King Cobra in July 2000 with a request for 50 out of a total requirement for 145 helicopters. The acquisition was cancelled in May 2004. The helicopters were to be built in Turkey by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI).

The Republic of Korea Army obtained eight AH-1J Cobras in 1978 and three were in service as of January 2010. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) approved a possible foreign military sale (FMS) of 36 AH-1Z Viper helicopters to the Government of Korea in September 2012. The contract worth $2.6bn also included the supply of associated equipment, parts, training, and logistical support.

The USMC 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.

The US Navy ordered 16 Lot 6 H-1 helicopters (five AH-1Zs and 11 UH-1Ys) in March 2009 bringing 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.

In September 2008, NAVAIR (Naval Air Systems Command) ordered 46 AH-1Zs bringing its total orders to 226. The US Department of Defense (DoD) awarded a contract worth $461.1m to Bell Helicopter to supply 12 UH-1Y Venom and 16 AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters and associated fuel kits to the USMC in March 2016.

The 100th AH-1Z was delivered to NAVAIR in September 2021. An additional 34 AH-1Z aircraft are expected to be delivered through 2023. The production contract under the H-1 programme includes a total of 349 aircraft comprising 160 UH-1Y and 189 AH-1Z helicopters. The final UH-1Y was delivered to the USMC in April 2018.

Bell Textron received the first performance-based logistics (PBL) contract from the Naval Supply Systems Command Weapon Systems Support (NAVSUP WSS) to support the H-1 helicopters in February 2020. The five-year contract worth $815m includes supply support covering 35 items including tail rotor blades, gearboxes, and yokes for the UH-1Y Super Huey and the AH-1Z Viper.

Philippines requested to buy six AH-1Z Viper and six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and associated equipment from the US in May 2020.

The first AH-1Z Viper helicopter for the Kingdom of Bahrain was delivered to NAVAIR in October 2021. The delivery was part of an order of 12 helicopters approved under the FMS programme in April 2018. Bahrain is expected to receive the first AH-1Z in 2022. The order was part of the US military’s ‘Lot 16’ production contract.

Bell Textron was contracted by the US Government for building flight training equipment for Czech Republic. The devices will be used to train pilots on the AH-1Z and UH-1Y fleet of Czech Republic. The company will supply four AH-1Z and eight UH-1Y military helicopters to the country, with deliveries expected to be completed by 2023.

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