Warplanes: Russian Helicopter Renewal Reversed


November 12, 2022: The Russian air force had about 1,500 helicopters when Russia invaded Ukraine. Most (74 percent) were older transport helicopters though many were recent versions of the Cold War era Mi-8 transports and Mi-24 gunships. This helicopter force seemed formidable but the Russians had a shortage of pilots and maintainers. Most of the available pilots and maintainers were assigned to operate the 400 more recent models that had been introduced since 2006. These were the ones sent to Ukraine where they received their first real combat test against modern anti-aircraft weapons and aircraft. The new Russian helicopters did not do well. The KA-52 gunship (introduced in 2011) was thought to be well equipped to handle modern portable anti aircraft missiles like the American Stinger. The Americans had updated the Stinger more than the anti-missile defenses of the Ka-52 could handle. Transport helicopters were even more vulnerable. After eight months of combat Russia had lost nearly a hundred helicopters, mainly to ground fire. There were also losses due to accidents and mechanical failures. It was obvious that the most modern Russian designs were not up to the demands of combat against well-equipped opponents. This was disappointing because a decade ago Russian began a program to upgrade its helicopter force with new models and upgrades to older models.

Part of this upgrade program was putting all Russian helicopter companies into one firm; Russian Helicopters. To accomplish this, the government bought most of the shares in these companies. Russian Helicopters soon owned 75 percent of Rostvertol, 72 percent of Mil Moscow, 99.8 percent of Kamov, 60 percent of Stupino Machine Production, 75 percent of Ulan-Ude Aviation, 66 percent of Kazan Helicopters, 100 percent of Kumertau Aviation, 81 percent of Reductor-PM and 75 percent of Progress Arsenyev Aviation. As part of this effort, the Russian military ordered more helicopters, new designs were produced and export sales aggressively pursued. Russian helicopters were back as a powerful international brand. For peacetime operations or use against poorly armed opponents, the Russians helicopters were adequate.

Total annual production of all these Russian helicopter companies had collapsed to less than a hundred helicopters in the 1990s, mostly for export. By 2007 annual production passed a hundred again and continued to grow, but not enough to keep all these firms solvent. Many stayed alive by producing spare parts and refurbishing existing models. Thousands of aircraft produced by these companies are still in service and need spares, upgrades and maintenance. That meant more new models came out and were bought by the Russian military, and the export market boomed. These welcome developments were brought to a halt after 2014 when Russia was hit with economic sanctions for seizing Ukrainian territory. Those sanctions were increased after the 2022 invasion.

Among the ambitious building plans that were derailed was the 2007 decision to replace the 250 Mi-24 helicopter gunships with 300 of the more recent Mi-28s. The Mi-24 is a twelve-ton aircraft based on the Cold War era Mi-8/17 transport. The U.S. did the same thing with the AH-1, developing it from the UH-1 "Huey." But rather than adopt the two-seater (one pilot behind the other) approach of the AH-1 and AH-64 Apache, the Mi-24 could still carry troops or cargo in the back, and was not as nimble as the AH-1. The 11-ton Mi-28 looks more like the AH-64. That's because, by the end of the 1960s, the Russians realized that the AH-1 design was superior.

For several years, there has been intense competition to decide which of its two new helicopter gunship designs (the Ka-50 and Mi-28N) to standardize on. The 2007 decision settled the matter. About 50 Mi-28s were purchased by 2014 but plans to have 300 in service by 2019 were canceled because of the sanctions. Meanwhile over a hundred of the cheaper Ka-52s were built.

The Mi-28N is a more capable helicopter, costing about the same as the earlier AH-64A ($15 million each). The Russians know that their weapons sell much better when a rock bottom price is offered. The Mi-28N "Night Hunter" is an all-weather; night attack version of the 1980s era Mi-28A, with added FLIR (night vision sensor), night fighting optics and a two-man crew. The basic Mi-28 is a 11.6-ton helicopter that can carry 1.6 tons of rockets and missiles. The aircraft also has a 30mm cannon. The cockpits are armored, and the helicopter has missile countermeasures (chaff and flares), GPS, a heads-up display, laser designator and other gadgets. The Mi-28N has a top speed of 300 kilometers an hour and a one-way range of 1,100 kilometers. It can carry up to 16 anti-tank missiles, each with a range of up to eight kilometers. The helicopter can also carry 80mm rockets, bombs or fuel for additional range. The Mi-28 has been around in small quantities for two decades, but the Mi-28N is the most advanced model, on a par with the American AH-64D gunship (which is a little lighter.) The first version of the Mi-28N was shown in 1996, although the manufacturer, Mil, wasn't ready to offer for sale until 2004.

Another market niche that Russia has always been strong on was heavy lift models. The Mi-26 Halo, hauling 20 tons for only 550 kilometers or 15 tons for 900 kilometers, was in production again. In 2010, a new model, the Mi-26T2 made its first flight. Russia has also continued production of the Mi-24, as the export-oriented Mi-35M. This is the Mi-24 with a lot of the electronics, engines and other features of the Mi-28.

Russia had a good helicopter upgrade plan but underestimated what Western nations, especially the United States, were doing. That and the sanctions meant the upgrade program was largely a failure. Now Russia is sitting on a force of over a thousand helicopters that are largely unused because of budget shortfalls and the inability to recruit enough pilots and maintainers to keep these helicopters flying. The experience in Ukraine added to these woes and made it more difficult to obtain export sales.




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