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China’s Z-10ME Promises Significant Capability Gains

At Airshow China 2018, which took place in November in Zhuhai, Guangdong, AVIC (the Aviation Industry Corporation of China) officially unveiled the Z-10ME, an improved variant of Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation’s (CAIC) Z-10 attack helicopter.

Incorporating a wide-array of improvements in its onboard electronics suite, weapons compatibility and to the airframe, AVIC is actively marketing the Z-10ME for export. Thus far, three Z-10s were extensively tested by the Pakistan Army Aviation Corps (PAA) in 2015 and 2016.

According to AVIC (via Shephard Media), the Z-10ME incorporates “sand filters for the engines, infrared suppressors, crash-resistant seats for pilots and bullet-resistant armour for the cockpit.”[1] In other words, increasing survivability and pilot/personnel-protection was a key impetus to improving the Z-10.

However, ‘iterative’ would understate the intended impact of these improvements. Besides adding to the Z-10’s defensive characteristics, the Z-10ME also brings new offensive capabilities as well.

These capabilities include compatibility with the CM-501XA miniature cruise missile, ET60 324 mm anti-submarine warfare (ASW) torpedo, and SW6 air-launched drone.[2] Like the Z-10ME, AVIC is marketing each of these munitions for export.[3] AVIC is also marketing HJ-10 and TL-4 anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM).[4]

In 2016, Quwa noted that the preceding Z-10 variant appeared underpowered for its apparent maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 6,000 kg – it relied on the 956 kW WZ9 turboshaft engine.[5] Based on officially available information (via Shephard Media), it is unclear if AVIC/CAIC changed the engine.[6] However, some reports state that a 1,200 kW engine may have been installed, but this cannot be confirmed.[7]

There were no reports of the Z-10ME receiving a millimeter wave radar (mmW) either. If equipped with an mmW radar, the Z-10ME could independently target moving ground targets and, in turn, engage them with an active radar-guided air-to-ground missile (AGM), i.e., true fire-and-forget.

However, AVIC has access to both solutions — i.e., 1,200+ kW turboshaft engine and mmW radar – through programs such as the WZ16 and mmW radar suite for the Z-19-armed scout helicopter, respectively.

Thus, it would not be surprising if both solutions materialize in the coming years, but it is unclear if the Z-10ME will leverage them. On the other hand, the Z-10ME demonstrates AVIC’s willingness to upgrade the platform, and in relatively short-order. In fact, as its original Z-10s age, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) itself might have incentive to see a significantly improved variant emerge.

The hypotheticals aside, one should not understate the value AVIC has brought to the platform via the Z-10ME. The defensibility aspect alone spans across three key areas: (1) desert operations, (2) defensibility against infrared-guided missiles and (3) pilot/personnel protection and survivability.

Desert Operations

The Z-10ME’s engine intakes are equipped with sand filters. The intent is to position the Z-10ME as a full solution for desert operations. While observers have noted, and rightfully so, that AVIC will use this in its commercial efforts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Sub-Saharan Africa, a potential push to the Pakistani market should not be dismissed, nor should MENA be viewed as a likely candidate.

Firstly, the MENA market has largely settled on US-built attack helicopters, notably the Boeing AH-64D/E and, in Bahrain, the Bell Helicopter AH-1Z Viper. While AVIC has built a profitable niche in MENA with its unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) line – which can be attributed to the fact that the US was not forthcoming in selling its Predator or Reaper-lines – it is not doing as well with its other aircraft.

In fact, the leading customer of its manned aircraft is the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) via the JF-17 (albeit as a joint-program) and Y-8F600-based Karakoram Eagle airborne early warning and control (AEW&C). With Washington’s decision to withhold Coalition Support Funding (CSF) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF) from Pakistan affecting Bell’s sale of 12 AH-1Zs to the PAA, the Z-10ME is a plausible alternative candidate.

This is because the AH-1Z, though bought under the auspices of counterinsurgency (COIN), is an effective desert operations asset. In fact, a Bell Helicopter representative told Quwa that the AH-1Z’s sand intrusion protection qualifies at MIL-STD-810F, while its ability to operate in a threat-heavy environment (especially from infrared-guided surface-to-air missiles) is credible. Thus, the AH-1Z is a conventional asset.

The PAA had deployed the Z-10 in Bahawalpur at least one point (during an exercise in November 2016), which indicates that it was interested in having the Z-10 operate as an anti-armour asset. It is not known if the Z-10ME’s sand intrusion measures are MIL-STD-810F, but the PAA could have its own benchmark in terms of its operational realities, and CAIC might have achieved it with the Z-10ME.

Defensibility Against Infrared SAMs

According to AVIC (via Global Times), the Z-10ME is equipped with an “infrared depressor.”[8] This appears to be a Directional Infrared Counter Measures (DIRCM) system. DIRCMs actively jam infrared-guided SAMs by directing heavy infrared (IR) flashes against the incoming SAM’s IR seeker, rendering the seeker useless.

DIRCM has caught-on as a mainstay subsystem in other attack helicopter platforms, including the AH-1Z. However, the AH-1Z does not use the DIRCM alone, it includes decoys and chaff systems as well for IR and radar-guided missiles, respectively. It would be surprising if the Z-10ME does not include these as well.

The inclusion of DIRCM means that AVIC made increasing the Z-10 platform’s survivability a priority, and when sand intrusion is considered, a focus on conventional operations. However, ongoing updates to the Z-10 platform will be essential for this to hold-up through the long-term.

The modern battlefield comprises more than just IR-based threats, but active radar-homing SAMs as well; thus, the Z-10ME – like the T129B – will need to eventually incorporate active-jamming electronic warfare (EW) capabilities as well. It is unclear if the Z-10ME airframe will get an EW system, but AVIC had factored in the reality of needing EW by enabling the Z-10ME to deploy the SW6 drone.

Revealed in 2016, the SW6 can operate as an air-launched reconnaissance drone (using a high-definition camera) or as an EW drone (with a single radio-frequency jammer).[9] The SW6 weighs 20 kg and can carry a payload of 5 kg. It has a maximum speed of 100 km/h and flight endurance of one hour.[10]

Pilot Survivability

Finally, AVIC stated that the Z-10ME includes ‘crash-resistant seats’ for the pilot and armor for protection against small arms fire.[11] This can apply to asymmetrical, low-intensity operations such as COIN as well as conventional operations, though a complete family of subsystems (e.g., DIRCM, EW, etc) is necessary for fully assuring the latter. In any case, emphasis on pilot survivability is a notable addition, one that speaks to the standards other attack helicopter manufacturers are promoting.

Is Pakistan a Lock for the Z-10ME?

It is unclear if the PAA will operate the Z-10ME. On the one hand, the US withholding CSF/FMF and — since they are being funded through CSF/FMF – the AH-1Z, the Z-10ME does, in theory, another shot. Moreover, a potentially lower upfront cost than the AH-1Z could make procuring the Z-10ME in significant numbers (note: India could have more than 150 Light Combat Helicopters and 50-60 Apaches).

However, the T129 is still a factor. Turkish Aerospace – alongside other Turkish defence industry vendors – has made a concerted push to enter and retain the Pakistani market. There is an emphasis on sharing in production for Pakistani usage and, potentially, third-party customers and even Turkish users (this will be discussed in a separate IDEAS report). If the long-term is a factor, then Turkey will compete.

In fact, in lieu of the AH-1Z the PAA could procure a follow-on batch of the T129. Turkish Aerospace does not believe there are issues with getting approval for the CTS800 turboshaft engine from the US (many of Pakistan’s platforms rely on US-origin engines, including the AW139, Saab 2000, C-130, etc). Furthermore, the PAA would have the infrastructure and logistics base to support the T129 already, there is no need to raise a separate logistics line. Finally, even if the engine is a problem, the PAA can also wait for the ATAK-2, which will come equipped with a domestic Turkish engine as well as a range of improvements.

[1] Gordon Arthur. “Zhuhai Air Show 2018: Z-10ME attack helicopter breaks cover.” Shephard Media. 07 November 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 27 November 2018).

[2] Chen Chuanren. “China’s Z-10ME Showcased with Increased Capabilities.” AIN Online. 13 November 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 27 November 2018).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gordon Arthur. Shephard Media. November 2018.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Chen Chuanren. AIN Online. November 2018.

[8] Lio Xuanzun. “China’s export helicopter Z-10ME ‘invisible’ to infrared homing missiles.” Global Times. 26 November 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 28 November 2018).

[9] “AVIC discloses mini air-deployable UAV SW-6.” C4Defence. 04 November 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 28 November 2018).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gordon Arthur. Shephard Media. November 2018.

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