Warplanes: Russian Combat Helicopters Return to Ukraine


February 8, 2023: Russia has sent about half a dozen of their new Mi-28NM combat helicopters to Ukraine, where they expect to thrive and survive using new weapons and countermeasures. Not many Russian helicopters have been seen in Russian occupied Ukraine since so many were destroyed during the first months of fighting. At the time of the invasion the Russian air force had about 1,500 helicopters. 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 merged all existing helicopter manufacturers (Rostvertol, Mil Moscow, Kamov, Stupino Machine Production, Ulan-Ude Aviation, Kazan Helicopters, Kumertau Aviation, Reductor-PM and Progress Arsenyev Aviation) into a single state-owned firm called Russian Helicopter. 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. Against better armed opponents the new Russian helicopters performed poorly and Russia is trying to remedy this with the new Mi-28NM.

The Mi-28 is an old design that has been updated several times. Mi-28 began development in the 1970a and first flew in 1982. The first Mi-28 entered service as the Mi-28N in 2009. This came after being canceled a few years earlier in favor of the Ka-50. The air force was dissatisfied with the Ka-50 and revived support for the Mi-28N in 2007. Russia planned to buy 10-15 Mi-28Ns for the air force and export customers.

The Mi-28N is a capable helicopter, costing about the same as the earlier AH-64A ($15 million each for the basic model). 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 cockpit for the two-man crew is 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 slightly lighter American AH-64D gunship.

The much-improved Mi-28MN first flew in 2016 and, after a few more delays, was delivered to the air force in 2021 for user testing. That took nearly a year and the first combat-ready Mi-28MN were delivered in late 2022. Before the Ukraine invasion and all the sanctions, Russia expected to deliver 98 Mi-28NMs by 2027. That plan was disrupted by the failed Russian attack on Ukraine and the resulting sanctions. Now Mi-28NM deliveries will be much smaller and irregular. This depends on how well the Mi-28NM does in Ukraine against weapons that devastated earlier attempts to use combat helicopters.

The Mi-28NM upgrades include more capable mission systems and weapons. There is a new BRLK-28 radar system that includes an N025M radar mounted atop the rotor mast, an OPS-28M Tor-M electro-optical turret carried in a cylindrical housing under the nose and a new SMS-550 turret for the pilot (seated at the front). Both crew members are provided with an NSTsI-V helmet-mounted sight and display. The new radar system has more capabilities, like surface mapping, detecting surface targets, and indicating targets for the electro-optical sight, as well as weather and air-to-air functions. There is also a new IFF (identification friend or foe) system. The Mi-28NM’s new defense system uses a L150-28M radar, L-140M laser, and L370-2 ultra-violet warning receivers, a countermeasures-launching system, and an L370V28-5L laser-based directional infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) system. A new KSS-28NM (S-406-2NM) communication suite enables the helicopter to operate within the army’s aviation command system. All this makes existing weapons more effective.

The upgrades included the introduction of the new LMUR (izdeliye 305) missile. This 100mm (diameter), 105 kg (231 pound) air-to-surface missile was designed for use by helicopters. LMUR uses solid fuel and has a max range of 14.5 kilometers moving at up to 450 kilometers an hour (230 meters a second), and carries a 55 kg (110 pound) warhead. It can approach the target at altitudes as low as 100 meters. LMUR can operate autonomously and home on a photo of the target taken by other aircraft. LMUR can also be launched under human control until the LMUR sensors detect a suitable target and pass data to the LMUR operator so the image and location can be sent back to LMUR, turning it into an autonomous homing missile. Only 200 LMURs were initially built and nearly half of them have been used, first in Syria and then Ukraine. Russia has released nearly fifty videos showing successful LMUR attacks.

LMUR is considered a success and more helicopters are being equipped to carry and use it. Some of the LMURs that missed their target or ran into equipment problems have crashed in Ukrainian territory largely intact. This has enabled Ukrainians to analyze how LMUR works and what can be done to defeat the missile before it hits a target. LMURs cost over a million dollars each if the manufacturer can get the parts that are sanctioned and difficult (and expensive) to obtain. As long as LMUR continues to hit targets most (or nearly half the time), it is worth the cost. If the Ukrainians come up with countermeasures, as they have already done for so many new Russian weapons, LMUR may no longer be worth using against Ukrainian targets.




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