First Clear Photos Of China’s New Z-21 Attack Helicopter (With Striking Resemblance To AH-64)

The new Z-21 heavy attack helicopter. (Image via @水雷屋 from Weibo)

The new Z-21 helicopter bears resemblance to the US-made AH-64 Apache and the Chinese Z-20 (derived from the UH-60 Black Hawk).

China is testing the prototype of a new attack helicopter, reportedly designated Z-21. After the first grainy photos emerged earlier this month, some new higher quality photos (although taken by a phone camera) now give us a better look at the helicopter, which appears to have been developed from the Harbin Z-20 helicopter, itself derived from the US-made UH-60 Black Hawk, and with elements that bear resemblance to the AH-64 Apache.

The new heavy attack helicopter reportedly uses the same powerplant, rotors and almost the same tail section of the Z-20 in order to speed up the development and reduce the risk/cost, according to Chinese military aviation expert Huitong. Compared to the Z-20, the fuselage appears slimmer as the new helicopter adopted a tandem cockpit configuration, instead of the side-by-side configuration of the Z-20.

The canopy is highly resemblant of the AH-64’s one, with the addition of AH-64-style cheek fairings which house various avionics and protect the cockpit on the sides. The electro-optical system and the gun (reportedly 23 mm) are also installed in positions similar to the Apache’s, respectively under the nose and under the fuselage below the cockpit.

The resemblance with the Z-20 and AH-64 is also confirmed by Andreas Rupprecht, one of the world’s most authoritative experts on China’s military aviation. While not clearly visible in the photos, some renderings found by Rupprecht show that also the engine pods are very similar to the Apache’s.

The photos appear to show also another sensor on the main rotor mast, which Huitong says it could be a millimeter-wave search radar. The stub wings appear to have a total of six hardpoints, which are seemingly loaded with inert weapons (anti-tank guided missiles, rocket pods and unknown white pods on the tips).

Certainly, after looking the photos of the new Chinese attack helicopter and its resemblance with the AH-64 Apache, the mind goes back to when, in 2013, the photos emerged online of what appeared to be an actual AH-64D being moved in China on a flatbed truck. The origin of that helicopter was never determined, however the two main theories saw it either as a perfect copy of the US-made helicopter used as a movie prop or one of the U.S. Army Apaches downed or crash landed in Iraq that was later fixed and exported in China.

That being said, it’s also important to highlight what discussed in detail in our story about the reports that China used stolen U.S. military technology for the J-20: while reverse engineering, industrial espionage, and cyber espionage can facilitate and accelerate the process of imitating advanced weapon systems, it is not a straightforward or easy process….

Anyway, the Z-21 appears to be intended to complement the Z-10 attack helicopter with better protection and heavier payload. In fact, China’s current primary attack helicopter is the CAIC Z-10 or WZ-10, an indigenously produced attack helicopter of primarily Russian design, originally developed under a secret contract with famous Russian helicopter builder Kamov.

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.