China’s New Heavy Attack Helicopter Spotted For The First Time (Updated)

The latest Chinese attack helicopter is an apparent counterpart to the AH-64 Apache, based on the multirole Z-20 Black Hawk clone.

byThomas Newdick|
China's new Z-21 heavy attack helicopter
Via X


The latest offering in China’s seemingly unrelenting military aircraft output appears to be a heavy attack helicopter design, broadly similar in concept to the U.S. AH-64 Apache and seemingly developed from the Z-20 multirole utility transport helicopter that is widely known as China's H-60/S-70 Black Hawk clone. While the status of the program — which may be designated Z-21 — is unclear, the suggestion is that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) wants to rapidly field a heavier and more capable attack helicopter than those it currently operates.

Author's note: article updated with new profile view for the top shot. Details of what can be seen from this perspective can be read at the bottom of the article.

One of the first photos of the new attack helicopter rumored to be designated Z-21. Chinese internet

Photos began to circulate on social media today showing the new attack helicopter flying, seen from below. Immediately apparent are the boxy ‘cheek’ fairings, as found on the AH-64D/E, which run from the nose to the tail boom. While its bulk is in stark contrast to the slender body of the Z-10, currently China’s standard attack helicopter, the fuselage of the new helicopter is still much slimmer than the Z-20 from which it is apparently derived. This is to conform to the typical tandem two-seat configuration found on most modern attack helicopters.

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Another view of the Z-21 reveals some of its similarities with the Z-20, as well as an overall look reminiscent of the Russian Mi-28 Havoc helicopter gunship. Chinese interne Chinese Internet

Signs of Z-20 DNA can be seen in the tail section, with that on the Z-21 appearing almost identical, with a slab-like un-swept horizontal stabilizer. The stub wings follow a similar format and appear to already have some pylons fitted, perhaps carrying test equipment. At the same time, the nose of the helicopter sports an air-data probe, a common feature for flight testing. As yet, there doesn’t appear to be a chin gun fitted, although it will likely be a feature in the future.

A Z-20 (nearest camera) performs on the opening day of the 14th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, or Airshow China 2022, in November 2022 in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province of China. Photo by Chen Jimin/China News Service via Getty Images

Reportedly, the Z-21 already has a self-defense suite installed and there are certainly antennas and protuberances around the fuselage that could be associated with this. Also, the engine exhausts are directed upward, typically a measure taken to reduce the infrared signature when being tracked by ground-based air defense systems.

Unconfirmed claims from Chinese bloggers indicate that the Z-21 utilizes the same powerplant and rotor systems as found in the Z-20, which began life as a utility transport for the PLA Ground Force. The Z-20 has since been further developed for armed assault, as well as maritime missions, with more exotic concepts also being considered. Development of the Z-21 reportedly involves Harbin, responsible for the Z-20, as well as Changhe, which produces the Z-10 attack helicopter. The 602nd Research Institute, which played a key role in designing the Z-10, is also said to be involved in the development of the larger Z-21.

An armed Z-20 helicopter carrying KD-10 missiles on a stub wing system. Chinese internet

Borrowing heavily from the Z-20 should help to accelerate the program, as well as reduce the risks in its development. According to some unconfirmed accounts, there are plans for the Z-21 to enter service in only two to three years. It's worth noting that the U.S. AH-1 Cobra family evolved directly from the UH-1 Huey and the Black Hawk even had an attack helicopter variant concept that never came to fruition, the S-71. The Mi-24 Hind also has roots in the Mi-14 Haze design.

An S-71 mockup. Sikorsky Archives
Another S-71 mockup. Sikorsky Archives

With the lighter Z-10 having apparently been highly successful for the PLA, and now also being offered for export, there might have been some surprise about the appearance of a new Chinese attack helicopter at this point.

A Z-10 performs at the China Airshow at Zhuhai in November 2012. Peng Chen/Wikimedia Commons

However, Chinese military aerospace observer and writer Andreas Rupprecht told The War Zone that there were rumors about the maiden flight of the Z-21 (also previously referred to as the Z-XX) back in January of this year.

However, as Rupprecht points out, “most recent rumors all hinted toward a heavy coaxial design, somewhat like a stealthy Ka-52 Hokum or the SB-1 Defiant. On the other hand, we’ve seen the Z-20 as a testbed flying with weapons, gun, and sensors associated with a new attack helicopter design. In fact, had we simply put one and one together, we might have much sooner come to the realization that the new helicopter might look much more like this Z-20-derived design.”

Photos showing a Z-20 apparently adapted as a testbed for the new heavy attack helicopter, which could also potentially be its own gunship sub-type:

The PLA’s requirement for an attack helicopter in this class also seems to date back a while. To see why China might be looking at this point to develop a heavy attack helicopter (in the 10-ton class, compared to the roughly 5.5-ton Z-10), it’s worth looking back at its history with helicopters of this kind.

For many years, the PLA lacked a true attack helicopter. As long ago as the early 1990s, there were suggestions that China might be looking to buy a foreign-made heavy attack helicopter, namely the Soviet-designed Mi-24 Hind. Amid the upheavals of the collapse of the Soviet Union, this never materialized. The PLA did secure armed versions of the Mi-17 Hip.

A rare, if poor-quality, shot of a PLA Mi-17 armed with TY-90 air-to-air missiles. Chinese internet

At the same, it appears that there was an intense debate as to whether the PLA Air Force or the PLA Ground Force should be responsible for China’s armed helicopters.

Ultimately, at least in the short term, the Ground Force won through and it began to receive the PLA’s first ‘attack helicopter,’ the Z-9WA armed version of the Z-9 light utility helicopter. While this was armed with anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), bringing a powerful new capability, the Z-9WA was always expected to be an interim solution. 

A Z-9WA attack helicopter on static display ahead of the Changchun Air Show in August 2022 in Changchun, Jilin Province of China. Photo by Sun Lin/VCG via Getty Images

Experience with the Z-9WA no doubt helped form the requirements for the Z-10, which emerged as a true attack helicopter, with the familiar tandem two-seat configuration and which was armed with a new generation of ATGMs. There are several suggestions that the demands involved in developing a modern attack helicopter saw China call upon several foreign countries for assistance and this, too, may explain why a more achievable lighter attack helicopter was pursued at first. 

As it is, there are persistent rumors that the design of the Z-10 was actually the product of the Russian Kamov design bureau, while there are also reports that China considered direct purchases of either the Ka-52 or the Mi-28 Havoc.

Ultimately, the Z-10 entered PLA service in 2010, as its first dedicated combat helicopter design, and was followed two years later by the Z-19. The latter is a scout/attack helicopter developed by Harbin and a further development of the Z-9, now also with a tandem two-seat configuration. It is lighter than the Z-10, with a maximum takeoff weight in the region of 4.3 tons. Fulfilling a role similar to the U.S. Army’s now-retired OH-58D Kiowa, the Z-19 works alongside the Z-10 for armed reconnaissance and target designation. 

A Z-19 scout/attack helicopter making a low-level pass at the Zhuhai Airshow in November 2012. Alert5/Wikimedia Commons

Powerplant shortcomings, a longstanding issue of Chinese aviation, likely also drove the development of the Z-10 as a lighter attack helicopter. Test aircraft were powered by Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C turboshafts, but import restrictions meant these had to give way to less powerful Chinese-made WZ-9s in the series-production aircraft. Unconfirmed reports suggest that a lack of power in ‘hot and high’ environments may have resulted in Pakistan rejecting the Z-10 for its attack helicopter requirement, despite it evaluating it in-country.

Subsequent developments in Chinese aero engines mean that it can now better produce turboshafts able to power a heavier attack helicopter like the Z-21.

Despite some performance limitations, the Z-10 has rapidly established itself with the PLA Ground Force and also now serves with the PLA Air Force’s Airborne Corps. During exercises, the type has been used in amphibious operations but, so far, has not been ordered by the PLAN Marine Corps.

The introduction of the Z-10 and Z-19 attack helicopters were immensely important for the PLA, allowing a new kind of offensive operations to be undertaken in support of the troops. However, based on their size and powerplants, these types are unable to offer the kind of performance and capabilities — especially in terms of load-carrying — that the Apache can, especially in its latest AH-64E version.

A helicopter in this class, like the Z-21, would be hugely relevant to any kind of major military offensive aimed at Taiwan, something that U.S. officials might be coming sooner rather than later. The appearance of a huge new military heliport in China very close to the Taiwan Strait suggests that rotorcraft of different kinds would play an important role in future operations to control the Strait or even invade Taiwan.

 Z-10 attack helicopters from the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force during a live-fire exercise:

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Beyond Taiwan, there is also plenty of scope for China’s new attack helicopter to find roles elsewhere, too. One obvious theater is the Line of Actual Control along the Indian border. Here, helicopters have been prized for quick troop movements and logistics, as well as emergency relief work. This region has also seen new helicopter bases spring up.

Finally, with the Z-10 already being put through its paces in a maritime environment, there is plenty of potential for the Z-21 to be adapted for littoral combat, too. If acquired by the PLAN Marine Corps it could find a place aboard China’s growing fleet of amphibious assault ships. Even in a land-based role, it would lend itself to the kinds of island-hopping operations, including from manmade islands, which could define a future conflict in the South China Sea.

With all this in in mind, the appearance of the Z-21, offering superior performance and survivability to the Z-10, while carrying a heavier payload, is a logical step as China continues to build up its army aviation capabilities to make them better suited to a range of possible contingencies.

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We have a profile view of the helicopter which is quite interesting. Clearly a Z-20 descendent and the size is quite large. The flat windscreen/glazing is very prominent here. We can also see that a chin-mounted gun is indeed fitted. It very much looks (superficially speaking) like a AH-64/Mi-28 hybrid.