After taking a brutal beating in the first year of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, the Russian air force’s attack helicopter regiments—what’s left of them—are adopting new tactics.
They’re digging in at their front-line bases to protect against Ukrainian drone strikes, artillery barrages and sabotage. And they purportedly are combining different helicopter models in the same flights—banking on the ’copters countermeasures to provide overlapping defenses against Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles.
The Russian air force’s 11 attack helicopter brigades and regiments—together operating around 100 Kamov Ka-52s, 80 Mil Mi-28s and 150 Mil Mi-24s—have had a hard war. Those 330 helicopters in the current inventory are what’s left after the Ukrainians shot down at least 30 Ka-52s, 11 Mi-28s and 11 Mi-24s starting last February. An eighth of the pre-war force.
The Ka-52s have proved particularly vulnerable. In the war’s first few weeks, the two-seat Ka-52s ranged deep behind Ukrainian lines. That exposed them to layers of Ukrainian air-defenses. To use their best Vikhr anti-tank missiles, Ka-52 crews must hover a few hundred feet off the ground for seconds at a time, compounding their exposure to ground-based air-defenses.
Russian helicopter operations evolved as Ukrainian defenses stiffened. Today the Ka-52s, Mi-28s and Mi-24s rarely operate behind Ukrainian lines. They range up and down the front, targeting Ukrainian troops and vehicles with their unguided rockets and guided missiles.
The ’copters still are vulnerable to Ukrainian troops’ missiles and guns. But less so than they were a year ago.
Air-defenses aren’t the helicopter brigades and regiments’ only problem, however. Ukrainian special operators, drone crews and artillery batteries also have worked over the Kamov and Mil helicopters, damaging or destroying many of them while they’re sitting on the ground.
To protect the rotorcraft at their forward bases, units are digging in and fortifying. A Kremlin-produced video highlighting the 440th Independent Helicopter Regiment depicts the regiment’s helicopters operating from inside a veritable castle of concrete, metal containers, spare tires and earthworks at its staging base near Taganrog, 30 miles from the border with Ukraine.
Equally interestingly, another official video—an interview with a Ka-52 pilot—hints at new aerial tactics. The pilot claims Ka-52s and two-seat Mi-28s operate in combined teams. While Russian doctrine long has encouraged mixed ’copter flights, practically all the video evidence from the current war indicates most flights have involved single types—or even single rotorcraft, operating alone.
But there are good reasons why a regiment would want to pair Ka-52s and Mi-28s, the pilot explains in the video. A Ka-52 has countermeasures against laser- and infrared-guided munitions such as Ukraine’s Stinger man-portable missiles, while the Mi-28N has countermeasures against radar-guided missiles.
A Ka-52 and Mi-28 operating as a team could defend each other from a wide array of guided missiles. The problem, of course, is that Ukrainian air-defenders also operate unguided air-defense weapons such as towed- and self-propelled guns.
Past is prologue. During the Afghanistan war in the 1980s, the Soviet air force’s helicopter regiments suffered heavy casualties from mujahideen anti-aircraft guns. When the Soviet crew began flying higher to stay beyond the range of the guns, Afghan fighters adapted—and began firing SA-7 and Stinger missiles they acquired from foreign allies.
The Afghanistan war “demonstrated the disproportionate impact that can occur when insurgencies obtain modest technological upgrades to their weapons arsenals,” Edward Westermann explained in a 1999 edition of Journal of Conflict Studies.
The Ukrainians aren’t insurgents, but they are the smaller, theoretically weaker power in the current war. And like the mujahideen before them, they could adapt faster than the overly bureaucratic Russians can do.
We don’t know what tactic the Ukrainians might adopt next as they aim to shoot down the rest of the Russians’ helicopters. Maybe we’ll see more Gepard mobile guns on the front line.
It’s a safe bet they’ll try something new as the wider war grinds into its second year and Russian helicopter regiments redouble their attacks.
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