Attrition: Tiger Has Much To Learn

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October 30, 2017: In late September Germany allowed its 25 Tiger helicopter gunships to resume flying after being grounded for two months. The grounding order was the aftermath of the July 26th incident where one of four German Tigers in Africa crashed during a surveillance mission 70 kilometers outside the city of Gao in the desert northeast of Mali. The two crew (pilot and weapons officer) were killed.

With the resumption of flying Tiger pilots were warned to avoid flying in very turbulent weather and to be especially careful when switching from autopilot to manual controls during turbulence. Airbus, which developed and builds the Tiger said the crash investigation was continuing and that the exact cause of the Mali crash were still not known.

Initially eyewitness accounts and examination of the wreckage indicated the cause was mechanical failure because one of the rotors appeared to come off causing the helicopter to go down. The Tiger has had problems like this in the past and was considered more time-consuming and costly to maintain in a combat zone than other helicopters. Mali peacekeepers preferred AH-64s but appreciate whatever they can get. In early 2017 Germany agreed to send four Tigers and four NH90 transport helicopters to Mali to replace the four AH-64 helicopter gunships and three CH-47 transport helicopters the Dutch sent in late 2014 to provide fire support, transportation and medical evacuation for the 5,000 peacekeepers then in northern Mali.

While the Mali peacekeepers were glad to have the smaller Tiger gunships and smaller helicopter transports they missed the Dutch aircraft. The problem was that the Dutch helicopters had proven invaluable and by early 2107 there are now more than twice as many peacekeepers depending on those helicopters. But the Dutch pointed out in early 2016 that the seven helicopters have suffered a lot of wear and tear and need extensive refurbishment that could not be carried out in Mali. The UN has been trying to get some other Western nation to step forward with replacements since then and Germany was finally persuaded to step in when no one else would.

Northern Mali is at the edge of the Sahara Desert and the French, who have operated there for over a century, warned that the heat, dust, sand and wind were hard on modern military equipment. The Germans thought they had learned to cope in Afghanistan but they underestimated conditions in Mali. Some equipment, like their Tiger helicopters and small quad-copter UAVs, could not operate in the hottest hours of the day during the three hottest months. Their wheeled armored vehicles and trucks, although adapted to handle Afghanistan, went through spare parts more quickly in Mali and the German military supply system could not move fast enough to keep more than half the vehicles operational during the hot months.

There have been other problems with the Tiger. In 2012 Australian Army helicopter pilots refused to fly their new Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters because of the army’s refusal to ground their 22 Tiger’s until a permanent fix was found for a recurring problem with fumes getting into the cockpit. The army did not consider this a major problem. The fumes were usually caused by the failure of electronic components. There have been three fume incidents by late 2012 and 24 since the Australian Tigers entered service in 2007.

The seven ton Tiger helicopter has a crew of two and a max speed of 280 kilometers an hour. It cruises at 230 kilometers an hour and usually stays in the air about three hours per sortie. It is armed with a 30mm automatic cannon, 70mm rocket pods (19 rockets per pod), and various types of air-to-ground missiles (eight Hellfire type missiles can be carried). It can also carry four Mistral anti-aircraft missiles. On paper it is a formidable gunship.

Development of Tiger began in 1987, before the Cold War ended, and only began entering service in 2003. The Tiger costs about as much as the AH-64 Apache and was developed to emulate the success of the Apache (which entered service in 1984). So far 200 Tigers have entered service with France being the major user while Australia, Germany and Spain are, so far, the only export customers. Over 1,100 AH-64s have been built so far and many of these have served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Israel with great success.

 


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