The Army and Air Force once conducted an air-to-air combat experiment between jet fighters and attack helicopters. Called J-CATCH, or Joint Countering Attack Helicopter, it was not the first of its kind but the most conclusive using modern technology.
The results showed attack helicopters proved remarkably deadly when properly employed against fighter aircraft. And it wasn’t even close.
First conducted by the Army using MASH Sikorsky H-19s, airframes developed in the 40s and 50s, the modern J-CATCH test started in 1978, as the Soviet Union expanded their helicopter forces. Of special concern was the development of the Mil Mi-24 or Hind helicopter gunship. The four phase J-CATCH experiment started in earnest with the Army, Marines, and Air Force participating in simulations at NASA’s Langley labs. The second phase was a field test, pitting three AH-1 Cobras and two OH-58 Scouts against a Red Team force of UH-1 Twin Hueys and CH-3E Sea King helicopters and developed many new helicopter air-to-air tactics and maneuvers designed to counter the Russian Hind.
Phase Three is where the fighters came in. The Air Force chose F-4, A-7, A-10, and F-15 fighter aircraft to counter whatever the Army could muster in the exercise. The F-4 and F-15 were front line fighters with anti-air roles while the A-7 and A-10 had air-to-ground missions.
For two weeks, the helicopters trounced the fighter aircraft. The fighter pilots in the test runs sometimes didn’t even know they were under attack or destroyed until the exercise’s daily debriefing. The Army pilots were so good, they had to be ordered to follow Air Force procedures and tell their fixed-wing targets they were under attack over the radio. This only increased the kill ratio, which by the end of the exercise, had risen to 5-to-1 in favor of the helicopters.
The fourth phase of the exercise saw the final outcome of the test: fighters should avoid helicopters at all costs, unless they have superiority of distance or altitude.