Special Operations: Spetsnaz Special Mi-8

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February 9, 2020: The Russian military is receiving ten Mi-8AMTSh-VN special operations helicopters in 2020. These were ordered in 2019 and are already being assembled. These helicopters were a response to demands from special operations (spetsnaz) troops for something comparable to the all-weather helicopters Western commandos have been using for years.

Mi-8AMTSh-VN is basically upgrades of the current latest model (Mi-8AMTSh-VA) with some new features prompted by special operations experience in Syria with various models of the Mi-8AMTSh assault helicopter that entered service about the same time Russian forces showed up in Syria. Some special operations troops had already been in Syria but that was not publicized and these troops operated as advisors and observers. After 2015 Russian special operations forces were much more active in Syria and relied a lot on the Mi-8AMTSh for transport during combat missions.

Most of the new features on the Mi-8AMTSh-VN have been requested for years and, given the growing importance of special operations, the money in a shrinking defense budget was found. The Mi-8AMTSh-VN will receive a more powerful engine plus new main and tail rotors for improved high-altitude performance (speed and agility), especially in hot climates. These upgrades are the main reason overall weight will increase to 13.5 tons. Other improvements are to electronics, specifically sensors (day/night), fire control and cockpit controls in general. There will be an improved “glass cockpit” with more use of touch screen multifunction displays as well as an analog backup system. There are also more attachment points for weapons pods and the ability to carry two forward-firing 12.7mm machine-guns. This was at the request of helicopter pilots who operated a lot in Syria where unexpected opposition on the ground had to be eliminated before the troops could be landed. The existing capability for carrying missiles or unguided rockets was not ideal for situations like that but a pair of 12.7mm machine-guns  would take care of it.

The new fire-control will have a stabilized electro-optical sensor for clear day/night view of what the helicopter is flying towards on the ground. This system can be used in conjunction with the pilot’s night vision goggles. These new capabilities are already in use with the latest models of Russian helicopter gunships. Some of the Mi-8AMTSh pilots flying special operations missions in Syria had flown the new gunships and had practical experience with what those new sensor capabilities could do. The Russian military hopes the Mi-8AMTSh-VN upgrades are the last ones for the Mi-8 because new assault helicopter designs have been developed and tested but so far there has been no money to put them into production. Instead, there have been more specialty models of the Mi-8, which first appeared in the 1960s.

Despite the age of the Mi-8 design, it has proved very hospitable to all manner of modifications. For example, in 2017 the Russian Navy received the first of the new arctic version of the Mi-8. This model, the Mi-8AMTSh-VA, is equipped to operate in frigid arctic conditions. For example it is capable of starting its engines in temperatures as low as -60 degrees Celsius (-76 degrees Fahrenheit) and continue flying in those temperatures. The navy received three more, the last one delivered in 2020. One reason for developing this model was the growing need for this sort of helicopter by commercial firms operating in the arctic. There are commercial versions of most Mi-8 variants, with weapons and military communications removed. These sell well worldwide.

The Mi-8AMTSh-VA also has a navigation system built to handle the low-light conditions common in the arctic, in addition to the low temperatures and high winds. The tech developed for this military helicopter can, and probably will be adapted to the Mi-17, which has long been the export version of the Mi-8. But since the 1990s there has been more demand for Mi-17s because until recently the Russian military didn’t have the money to buy a lot of new helicopters. That changed after 2000 with a trickle of new helicopters and money to undertake long-overdue updates and refurbishment programs.

Spending a lot on many new Mi-8 variants is a response to reduced defense budgets. In 2014 the Russian Air Force received the first four of several hundred updated Mi-8 helicopters. The decision to buy these was made in 2012 and the order was placed in 2013. There are several updated Mi-8 models involved. The first ones delivered were the Mi-8AMTSh. This is described as a "combat assault helicopter" that could carry and use missiles as well as an autocannon in addition to as many as 37 troops or four tons of cargo. Among the many improvements are a new engine and mechanical components that are more efficient and easier to maintain. Compared to older Mi-8s the Mi-8AMTSh can go longer (2,000 flight hours compared to 1,500) between overhauls and has a longer service life (35 years versus 25). Operating costs are at least 25 percent less and a lot of this is due to more modern electronics and the incorporation of continuous system monitoring systems found in most new automobiles. Another new model, the Mi-8MTV5-1, had new engines that enabled it to operate at high and hot altitudes, which are difficult conditions for helicopters. This was one of the upgrades the Mi-8AMTSh-VN received.

Rather than seek out and buy a new medium transport helicopter design, Russia is continuing the decades-old policy of upgrades and improvements to the original Mi-8 design. This has made the Mi-8 a reliable and affordable choice for armed forces around the world and in Russia itself, which currently has about 600 Mi-8s in the air force alone plus more in the navy, army and other security forces. Currently, there are over 8,000 Russian helicopters in service in 110 countries worldwide. The most common Russian model is the Mi-8 and its export variants, the Mi-17.

The basic Mi-8 is a twin-engine helicopter that is a contemporary of the U.S. UH-1 of the 1960s. But the Mi-8/17 is still in production and is the most widely exported (a quarter of the 12,000 made) helicopter on the planet. The Mi-8 is about twice the size and weight of the UH-1 but only hauls about 50 percent more cargo. However, the Mi-8 has a larger interior and can carry 24 troops, versus a dozen in the UH-1. The UH-1 was replaced by the UH-60 in the 1980s, while the Mi-8 just kept adding better engines and electronics to the basic Mi-8 frame. The UH-60, while weighing ten tons (compared to UH-1's 4.8 tons), could carry as much as the 13 ton Mi-8. But the Mi-8 costs about half as much as a UH-60 and the larger interior is popular with many users.

 


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