Electronic Weapons: Wired For All Sorts Of Things

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December 5, 2017: Some things are only possible because of better, cheaper, and more compact electronics. For example in November 2017 the Russian Air Force received the first eight of 26 Mi-28UB helicopter gunships. The UB (dual control) training version of the Mi-28NE was first demonstrated in 2013 and both Russian and export customers expressed enthusiasm for this model. Dual control aircraft have long been used for training, usually by building two-seat versions of single-seat fighters so that an instructor can accompany trainee pilots until the new pilots had proved they could handle the aircraft on its own. Single seat helicopters were never common and two-seat helicopter gunships first appeared in the late 1960s (the AH-1) and it was soon obvious that some dual-control models would make training quicker and safer. Because the AH-1 used mechanical flight controls the TH-1 dual control versions were not suitable for combat.

Fly-by-wire (electronic flight controls) made it more practical to give both seats in a helicopter gunship flight controls. This was not seen as a useful feature for combat models in the West but in the 1990s Russia began introducing two-seat helicopter gunships equipped with electronic controls and found that this could be supplied in such a way that the cost difference was not enormous and combat performance was not compromised.

Since 1990s fly-by-wire has become increasingly common. This technology replaces mechanical linkages for flight controls, with electronic commands sent over wire. It is more reliable, and saves weight. The U.S. Army has successfully tested a UH-60M helicopter equipped with fly-by-wire flight controls in 2009 and went on to make it a common upgrade for older helicopters of all types.

A year after the new two-seat Russian Mi-28 helicopter gunship entered service in 2009 the manufacturer began working on a “combat capable” dual control “UB” version. Prototypes were demonstrated in 2013 and customer response was enthusiastic. Fly-by-wire made it possible. Algeria was the first export customer to specify that a large number of the Mi-28NE helicopter gunships they ordered in early 2014 be UB versions. This was not just for training but so both crew members can be pilots and fly the aircraft. This would come in handy if the designated pilot is wounded. One crew position will still have the weapons controls and the two pilots could switch roles as pilot and weapons officer.

Russia began replacing its 250 Mi-24 helicopter gunships with 300 Mi-28s in 2013. The Mi-28N, the first model of the Mi-28, was a much more complex aircraft than the Mi-24 and required more skillful and better trained pilots. To deal with this problem the Russian Air Force developed a dual control model early on and the Russian air force sought to obtain 60 of these Mi-28UB helicopter trainers. The UB model has dual controls that enable an instructor to also control the helicopter from the weapons systems operator’s seat. Each squadron was to receive 4-6 of the UB model to help build and maintain pilot skills. The Mi-28UB solves the problem of quickly getting new pilots up to speed on how to handle this much more capable gunship. Algeria is a long time user of the Mi-24 and has about 30 in service. Apparently Mi-24 pilots will be trained to handle the Mi-28, just as many Russian Mi-24 pilots are doing, with the help of the UB model.

The older Mi-24 helicopter gunship has been in service for nearly half a century. It is a twelve ton chopper based on the Mi-8/17 transport comes with dual controls. Although the Mi-24 had the same pilot-weapons officer layout as the AH-1 Russia resisted building dual-control versions because the Mi-24 was still close to the Mi-8 in flight characteristics. Eventually about 25 dual-control Mi-24s were built and, of course, they were unarmed.

The U.S. did the same thing with the AH-1, developing it from the UH-1 "Huey" in the 1960s. But rather than adopt the radical redesign seen in 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 was intense competition, to decide which of its two new helicopter gunship designs (the Ka-50 and Mi-28N) to make standard. The Mi-28N is a more capable helicopter, costing about the same as the earlier American AH-64A ($15 million each).

The Mi-28NE "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 an 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, head 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 (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 since the 1990s and the Mi-28N is the most advanced model, on 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 it for sale until 2004. The fact that the basic Mi-28 has been around for decades and was known to be reliable and effective made it an easy, and safe, choice for the Mi-24 replacement.

 

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