Military Analysis: Russian Attack Helicopters Come of Age



Written by Brian Kalman exclusively for SouthFront: Analysis & IntelligenceBrian Kalman is a management professional in the marine transportation industry. He was an officer in the US Navy for eleven years. He currently resides and works in the Caribbean.


The Russian Federation and the Soviet Union before it were always at the cutting edge of helicopter production. The attack helicopter has a Russian genesis, and the armed services of Russia have a longer history than anyone including arguably, that of the United States in the development of combat helicopters.

Currently, when someone thinks of a combat helicopter they often time envision a Boeing Apache, Huey Cobra or a Mil Mi-24 Hind. Few realize that the Mi-24 Hind’s official acceptance in the Soviet military in 1972 follows the Cobra (1967) by only 5 years, and predates that of the Apache (1986) by 14 years.

Russia has been producing and perfecting the concept of the attack helicopter for over 40 years, and originally started to pursue the concept in the 1960s. Although the Mi-24 Hind is unique in the category of attack helicopters, in that it is also a transport, later Russian designs fully embraced the singular role of attack for rotary wing aircraft.

Russia observed the use of helicopters by the United States in the Vietnam War, and as Russians tend to do, learned a great deal from the experience of a potential adversary. War always provides a sharp learning curve, and all major attack helicopter designs are a result of the sharp learning curve imposed by the Vietnam conflict. The United States and Russia both drew conclusions from this bloody lesson, and those conclusions were shared and divergent in a number of respects.

The Soviet interdiction in Afghanistan in 1979 would have an important influence on the further development of attack helicopters under the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation. This additional baptism of fire and accompanying sharp learning curve has been instrumental in the development of the modern family of Russian attack helicopters. Russia learned a great deal at a great cost.

A unique and amazing attribute of the Russian culture and the Russian martial tradition is the ability to absorb adversity and suffer hardship in the face of superior tactics and weaponry on the part of the adversary. Equally unique and amazing, is the Russian ability to adapt and overcome by learning how best to adopt the strengths of the enemy and improve upon them rapidly, making them truly their own and melding them into the Russian martial structure.

This becomes readily apparent from the days of the long Muscovy resistance to the Huns, the great struggle of the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany, and after the fragmentation of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

The great engineering achievements that gave birth to the iconic Soviet attack helicopters that saw so much service in the Soviet Afghan War have adapted and overcome since that baptism of fire, and the many conflicts that have taken place in the interim, to emerge as the pinnacle of combat helicopter design. A mixture of thoroughbred and work horse, and in the case of the Mi-24 both, these machines are very much the product of the Russian martial spirit; simple, rugged, and brutally effective.

They have shown their merit again in the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict, and have showcased the Russian military’s ability to adapt and overcome with new tactics born of decades of hard won knowledge and experience. Modern high-tech improvements have increased aircraft survivability on the battlefields of the 21st century and will ensure their relevance for years to come.


Without a doubt, the Mil Mi-24 (NATO designation Hind) is an iconic symbol of Soviet and Russian military prowess and engineering achievement. Although designed in the 1960s, it is still the fastest attack helicopter in the world. I boasts great speed, firepower, transport capability (a unique attribute amongst the many attack helicopters of the world) and survivability in one big, brutal package. Its export variants have been welcomed into the service of no less than 56 other nations (including the United States for training as OPFOR). It is without a doubt the most internationally embraced of all attack helicopter designs ever conceived.

The Mi-24 was designed and put into service between the years of 1966 and 1972. The Soviet designers decided to create a fast attack helicopter that could perform multiple roles in support of ground forces. They uniquely decided that in order to best support ground forces, the attack helicopter should have the ability to carry a squad of troops, either for insertion/extrication or emergency medical evacuation.

This concept may have been a combination of lessons learned by the U.S. experience in Vietnam and the Russian innate preoccupation with the common infantryman and his role as the foundation of any military endeavor; however, it soon proved impractical in combat by in Afghanistan. Pilots were too concerned with taking troop casualties to effectively engage in attacks, and in order to gain speed and altitude advantages most aircrews removed the armor protection in the troop compartments of their aircraft.

As with the American practice in Vietnam, attack helicopters would operate in support of transport helicopters, in the case of the Soviets this was the Mil Mi-8. Aircrews; however, often made use of the extra space to load extra ammunition for the helicopter, and would land to rearm themselves if so required and if they had sufficient fuel, would return to their ground support duties.

Soviet pilots and aircrew posing with Mil Mi-24Ds in Afghanistan.
Soviet pilots and aircrew posing with Mil Mi-24Ds in Afghanistan

The Mi-24 has been improved much since its initial introduction into service in 1972, and has been produced in a number of variants. The chief advantages of the Mi-24 are high speed, long range (and hence loiter time), high payload and load-out options, ease of maintenance and extreme ruggedness.

With combat experience earned in many conflicts across the globe, and most importantly the Soviet war in Afghanistan that lasted a decade, many improvements were made early on, including the installation of heat shields/dissipaters to the engine exhausts and installation of chaff flare dispensers to defend against MANPADs, and better air filters for the main engines.

Current aircraft in service with the Russian military are of the Mi-24D, P or V variant and make use of more modern avionics, targeting and information systems, and the “President-S” air defense system. A current effort by Mil Helicopters to improve the speed of all Russian attack helicopters aims to increase speeds by up to 30 percent with use of curved rotor blades (for added stability at high speed), advanced Klimov VK2500 engines, and a new modular avionics package developed by the company KERT. The Mi-24 test-bed aircraft for these improvements first began test flights in December, 2015.

Modern Mil Mi-24 of the Czech Republic armed with missiles and rockets
Modern Mil Mi-24 of the Czech Republic armed with missiles and rockets


Crew: 2-3 (if a technician is carried)

Troops: 8

Engines: 2 x Isotov TV3-117 turboshaft engines producing 2,194shp each

Speed: 143 knots cruising/181 knots maximum

Range: 500 kilometers/ 311 miles

Service Ceiling: 4,500 meters/ 14,764 feet

Empty/Max. Takeoff Weight: 8,500 kg./12,000 kg.


Internal guns

  • flexible 12.7 mm Yakushev-Borzov Yak-BGatling gun on most variants. Maximum of 1,470 rounds of ammunition.
  • fixed twin-barrel GSh-30K on the Mi-24P. 750 rounds of ammunition.
  • flexible twin-barrel Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-23 L on the Mi-24VP and Mi-24VM. 450 rounds of ammunition.
  • PKB passenger compartment window mounted machine guns

External stores

  • Total payload is 1,500 kg of external stores.
  • Inner hard points can carry at least 500 kg
  • Outer hard points can carry up to 250 kg
  • Wing-tip pylons can only carry the 9M17 Phalanga (in the Mi-24A-D) or the 9K114 Shturm complex (in the Mi-24V-F).


  • Bombs within weight range (presumably ZAB, FAB, RBK, ODAB etc.), Up to 500 kg.
  • MBD multiple ejector racks (presumably MBD-4 with 4 × FAB-100)
  • KGMU2V sub-munition/mine dispenser pods

First-generation armament (standard production Mi-24D)

Second-generation armament (Mi-24V, Mi-24P and most upgraded Mi-24D)

  • UPK-23-250 gun pod carrying the GSh-23L
  • B-8V20 a lightweight long tubed helicopter version of the S-8 rocket launcher
  • 9K114 Shturm in pairs on the outer and wingtip pylons


Soviet helicopter designers learned a great deal from the military intervention in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. They learned that helicopters employed in the attack role required speed, maneuverability, armor protection for the aircrew and engines, and an effective operating range that would allow helicopters to remain on station for longer periods of time.

Countermeasures against modern MANPADS in future design was essential. Since the troop carrying function of the Mi-24 was mostly abandoned in practice, future helicopters would make accommodation for 2 pilots/aircrew only. Smaller size would aid in reducing weight, increasing maneuverability and making for a smaller target.

Mil designed the Mi-28 “Night Hunter” (NATO designation Havoc) largely as a result of lessons learned with the Mi-24 in combat in Afghanistan. It was designed for all-weather, day and night operation, to provide anti-air and anti-armor capability and to be paired with Mi-24s in combat.

While the design had its origins in the 1970s and the first prototypes flew in the 1980s, the design was not accepted by the Russian armed forces until 2003, with the first units being delivered in 2006. The overall design was much improved over the intervening years, and electronics and radar were improved as well as ECM and information processing systems. The final variant that was accepted for service with the Russian military is the Mi-28N.

Although this is a pure attack helicopter, having tandem cockpits for one pilot and one weapons officer, there is a small compartment in the fuselage/tail section that can accommodate up to three people. This small compartment provides for the occasion that the helicopter must conduct an emergency rescue of the downed aircrew of another helicopter or while conducting air rescue operations of downed air force pilots. This is a unique departure from other nations’ attack helicopter designs.

Mi-28 passenger compartment for rescue situations
Mi-28 passenger compartment for rescue situations

The Mi-28N is most often compared to the Boeing AH-64 Apache. It is very similar in design, armament and function. The Mi-28N can carry a mast mounted target acquisition radar much like the AH-64D Longbow. This allows the aircraft to track and acquire targets while positioned below intervening obstacles and terrain, as well as to share this information with other friendly helicopters.

Target acquisition and engagement systems link directly to the weapons officer or pilots helmet Heads-Up Display (HUD), so they merely need to see a target at closer ranges to acquire a target lock and engage that target.

The development of the Mi-28 occurred at the same time as the Kamov Ka-50. These two helicopters were competing designs for the attack helicopter desired by the Soviet military. While the Mi-28 prototype started government flight trials in 1984, the Soviet Air Force chose the more unorthodox Kamov design later that same year.

Interestingly, both helicopter designs were eventually seen as desirable for acceptance into the military of the Russian Federation, and now serve side by side in different, yet complementary roles.

A good illustration of the Mi-28 Night Hunter’s fearful aspect while on the attack
A good illustration of the Mi-28 Night Hunter’s fearful aspect while on the attack


Crew: 2

Engines: 2 x Klimov VK-2500 providing 4,200shp.

Speed: cruising speed 143 knots/Max speed of 175 knots.

Range: 234 nautical miles on internal fuel/ 600 mile ferry range.

Service Ceiling: 11,800ft.

Empty/Max. Takeoff Weight: 18,960lbs./25,350lbs.


Internal Guns

  • EO chin turret. 30mm cannon: Shipunov 2A42 with 300 rounds.

External Weapons and Systems Load:

  • Mast-mounted Phazatron Arbalet
  • Wingtip mounts for added ECM/IR warning and defensive systems.

4 underwing hard points for:

  • 23mm gun pods
  • Fuel tanks for extended range
  • Rocket pods 20 x 80mm S-8
  • Rocket pods 5 x 122mm S-13
  • KMGU-2 mine dispenser
  • 4 x SA Igla or SA-24 Igla-S air-to-air missiles in Strelets launcher
  • 8 x AT9s2 Ataka-V or AT-6 Shturm SACLOS radio command guidance missiles


Ka-50 Black Shark

Kamov was in competition with the Mil helicopter company to win the contract to produce dedicated attack helicopters as specified by the Soviet military in the mid-1970s. The Kamov Ka-50 was chosen in 1984 as the best design, beating out the Mil Mi-28. Interestingly, in time, both designs were accepted into Russian Air Force service.

It is surprising that the Ka-50 was chosen over the Mi-28, as the former had many unorthodox design features, most importantly its contra-rotating coaxial main rotor design. Production of the Ka-50 was ordered in 1987, with the first production run commencing in 1990; however, the dissolving of the Soviet Union put a halt to the helicopter’s production until at least 2006. Very few units were accepted into service before that time.

The Ka-50 “Black Shark” (NATO designation Hokum) is an amazing rotary aircraft design. The use of contra-rotating coaxial rotors eliminates the need for a tail rotor assembly. One of the main causes of helicopter crashes due to mechanical failure are due to failures of the tail rotor drive assembly and transmission. In a combat helicopter, reducing vulnerabilities is crucial, and the Ka-50 dispenses with this major vulnerability all together.

The need for a long tail boom section is eliminated. It is generally accepted as a rule of thumb that 30 percent of the main engine’s power is directed to a tail rotor in a conventional helicopter design. The Ka-50 main engines use 100 percent of their power to drive the main rotors, and due to the design requires shorter rotor blades that do not have to rotate as rapidly as a conventional lay-out.

The helicopter can gain higher top speeds, and greater maneuverability due to the contra-rotating coaxial rotor design. A faster, more maneuverable, less vulnerable and more compact design are all resultant advantages of the Ka-50.

Ka-50 Black Shark. This photo illustrates clearly the position of the semi-directional 30mm cannon, retracted landing gear and boxy, armored cockpit
Ka-50 Black Shark. This photo illustrates clearly the position of the semi-directional 30mm cannon, retracted landing gear and boxy, armored cockpit

Another odd feature of the Ka-50 design is its use of an ejection system for the pilot. No other helicopter in production in the world (other than the related Ka-52) has an ejection system for the crew. The K-37-800 rocket assisted ejection system is similar to ejection systems utilized in fixed-wing combat aircraft; however, with a helicopter there is the very real problem of the main rotors spinning above the cockpit.

The system utilizes a series of explosive charges built into the main rotor blades that blow the rotors clear prior to the rocket assisted ejection of the crew seat through the canopy, which also is blown clear in similar fashion. (Although the ejection system gives the pilot a chance of survival where historically this was an impossibility, the crash of a Ka-52k in October of 2012 was deemed to be caused by the “malfunction of the ejector mechanism” which resulted in the involuntary initiation of the system and the explosive detachment of rotor blades and ejection of both crew members. There were no fatalities.)

Another departure of the Ka-50 design is that the machine has a crew of one pilot. It was deemed sufficient that one man could perform all the tasks required for both flying and acquiring and engaging targets in combat. It is notable that the further development of the Kamov design, the Ka-52 is crewed by two. This is due to the added specifications of this helicopter for use in reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and in light of the information processing and intelligence gathering systems of the newer aircraft. The multirole Ka-52 requires two crew to successfully carry out its varied and complex missions.


Crew: 1

Engines: 2 x Klimov VK-2500 providing 4,800shp.

Speed: cruising speed 150 knots/Max speed of 177 knots.

Range: 294 nautical miles on internal fuel/ 630 nautical mile ferry range.

Service Ceiling: 5,500m./18,000ft.

Empty/Max. Takeoff Weight: 17,000lbs./23,800lbs.


Internal Guns

  • Semi-rigid 30mm Shipunov 2A42 cannon with 460 rounds of AP or HE (dual feed).

Four underwing hard points:

  • 23mm UPK-23-250 gun pods.
  • 80 x 80mm S-8 rockets or 20 x 122mm S-13 rockets.
  • 2 x APU-6 missile racks for 12 x 9K121 Vikhr anti-tank missiles, Kh-25 laser guided air-to-ground missiles, or Vympel R-73 air-to-air missiles.
  • 4 x 500 liter (130 US gal.) fuel tanks.
  • 4 x 250kg./550lb. bombs or 2 x 500kg/1,100lb, bombs

Wingtip hard points:

  • 2 x twin Igla air-to-air missile pods.
  • 4 x UV-26 chaff dispensers (512 chaff/flare cartridges each)

Ka-52 Alligator

The Ka-52 Alligator is the most advanced multi-role attack helicopter in the Russian military inventory, and quite possibly the world. The Ka-52 is intended as a scout helicopter, as well as an attack helicopter that can also act as a command aircraft in a larger force of helicopters due to its modern battle management systems.

The Ka-52 shares roughly 85% of its airframe and machinery parts with the Ka-50 which alleviates maintenance and inventory cost for the Russian Air Force, as well as making battle field repairs easier as swapping salvageable parts from helicopter casualties or inoperable craft is an option for maintenance crews.

The Ka-52 is all-weather, day and night helicopter that packs the most advanced battle management system available to the Russian Air Force. It has the ability to share target tracking and targeting information with other helicopters in its flight, as well as other fixed-wing attack aircraft and bombers, and  AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning and Control) aircraft. Its ability to share information in real time with multiple combat and command assets is a vital element of its scout role.

The crew has the ability to use night vision googles for night flying, the helicopter is equipped with advanced radar and FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) thermal imaging. The helicopter can mount all of the armaments of the Ka-50, as well as advanced ECM pods and is equipped with the new “President-S defense system. While the original design was developed during the last years of the Soviet Union, this is a truly 21st century scout/attack aircraft of the highest order.

This angle clearly illustrates the compact design of the Ka-52. Main rotor diameter is only 14.5 meters
This angle clearly illustrates the compact design of the Ka-52. Main rotor diameter is only 14.5 meters

Ka-52k Naval Version

The Ka-52k is the naval version of the Ka-52 that was developed for use on what was supposed to be, two Mistral Class LHDs ordered from the French defense shipbuilder DNS. The helicopter was designed and built in anticipation of Russia taking delivery of the two vessels between 2013 and 2014; however, the French government invalidated and reneged on the contract.

The reason given was due to the Russian “invasion” of the Ukraine and Russia’s acceptance of the people of Crimea’s democratic, self determination to once again rejoin with the Russian Federation (as they had previously voted in 1991). This reason was just a cover for a NATO member violating centuries-old contract law to deny Russia a very powerful tool in the increasingly probably Russian intervention in Syria.

Russia had invested a great deal of energy, resources, training and funding in preparing the crew of the first Mistral, which was to be commissioned into the Russian Navy as the Vladivostok, and had developed the Ka-52k as the main scout/attack aircraft for the vessel. Aircrews had to be trained to operate their aircraft aboard these large naval vessels. This is far from an easy process, but a great deal of progress was made in preparation of operating two of these powerful vessels in the Russian Navy.

The Russian military was supposed to take delivery of 32 Ka-52ks; however, only four were delivered immediately after the Mistral contract was canceled. These aircraft are different from the standard Ka-52 in a number of respects. The Ka-52k is equipped with folding rotor blades and wings, so that they can be stowed aboard ship in the hangar deck and thus take up minimal space.

The airframe and systems are coated with an anti-corrosion treatment to withstand the brutal marine environment. The fire control radar is also capable of operating in a naval environment and engaging anti-ship ordinance such as air-to-surface anti-ship missiles.

Ka-52k exhibiting stowability aboard ship with wings and rotors folded
Ka-52k exhibiting stowability aboard ship with wings and rotors folded

After being financially compensated for the reneging of the contract by the French government, the Russian Ministry of Defense made it known that they would be soliciting the design and manufacture of a suitable replacement for the Mistral Class vessels indigenously.

The Ka-52k will still be required in such a case and with some irony, after it was announced that the two “Russian Mistrals” were being sold to Egypt, the Egyptian government agreed to purchase 46 Ka-52ks from Russia for these new warships. Apparently, Egypt purchased the vessels at a very competitive price and saw the benefit of employing the Russian attack helicopters that were tailor built for them.


Crew: 2

Engines: 2 x Klimov TV3-117-VMA providing 2,200shp. each.

Speed: cruising speed 140 knots/Max speed of 170 knots.

Range: 290 nautical miles on internal fuel/ 630 nautical mile ferry range.

Service Ceiling: 5,500m./18,000ft.

Empty/Max. Takeoff Weight: 17,000lbs./23,800lbs.


Internal Guns

  • Semi-rigid 30mm Shipunov 2A42 cannon with 240 rounds of AP or HE (dual feed).

Four underwing hard points:

  • 23mm UPK-23-250 gun pods.
  • 80 x 80mm S-8 rockets or 20 x 122mm S-13 rockets.
  • 2 x APU-6 missile racks for 12 x 9K121 Vikhr anti-tank missiles, Kh-25 laser guided air-to-ground missiles, Ch-25Ml short range air-to-ground guided missiles, or Vympel R-73 air-to-air missiles.
  • 4 x 500 liter (130 US gal.) fuel tanks.
  • 4 x 250kg./550lb. bombs or 2 x 500kg/1,100lb, bombs

Wingtip hard points:

  • 2 x twin Igla air-to-air missile pods
  • 4 x UV-26 chaff dispensers (512 chaff/flare cartridges each)


As soon as Russia decided on its current military intervention in Syria, it was obvious that the need for attack and transport helicopters would have to be filled. Thankfully, Russia had a large number of capable aircraft to pull from, and highly trained and skilled pilots and aircrews so as to employ them in any number of intended roles. As soon as news emerged of the Russian presence at the Khmeimim airbase in Latakia, images immerged of both Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters based there.

Russia built a great deal of infrastructure at the Khmeimim airbase so that a small air contingent of fixed-wing attack aircraft, bombers and their fighter escort could be sustained and logistically supported indefinitely. In order to sustain this base and provide an adequate security zone around it, Mi-24s were called upon. Roving patrols of Mi-24P attack helicopters provide security for the base on an around-the-clock basis.

Not long after the start of the Russian air campaign to support the Syrian Arab Army and to degrade and destroy the various terrorist groups present in that country, small groups of terrorists attempted to attack the Russian airbase. They were quickly liquidated by the combined effort of Russian troops and Mi-24 helicopters based there.

Mi-24 aircrew preparing for a mission at Khmeimim Airbase in Latakia, Syria
Mi-24 aircrew preparing for a mission at Khmeimim Airbase in Latakia, Syria

Stunning footage soon emerged at the beginning of October, 2015, of Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters supporting Syrian Arab Army forces by conducting low level rocket and cannon attacks on enemy positions. The high degree of skill and determination exhibited in these attacks left little doubt, even under the most tertiary scrutiny that these were definitely Russian helicopters and crews.

The tactical doctrine being shown, of approach to target flying Nap-of-the-earth as to avoid detection, raising up in altitude to fire ordinance and then rapidly turning out of anti-aircraft fire at extremely low altitude while emitting countermeasures (flares/chaff), and repeating this process at differing attack azimuths was developed by the Russian Air Force after a decade of combat experience in Afghanistan.

At times in the video footage the Mi-24s are flying so low that they are obscured by ground structures, and their flares can be seen literally bouncing off of the ground. The extreme low level maneuvering was conducted at high speed and in an area of urban development. Needless to say, military analysts around the world were awed by the skill and tenacity exhibited by the Russian pilots.

Mi-24 engaging ground targets in Syria. This image is a still taken from video footage
Mi-24 engaging ground targets in Syria. This image is a still taken from video footage

Photographic evidence would emerge later in October and November of the presence of at least one Mi-28 helicopter in use in Syria, as well as the Ka-52. It was unofficially announced by defense industry insiders on January 15th of this year that Ka-52 helicopters were being deployed to the Khmeimim airbase for the purposes of base security and scout/rescue missions in support of air operations. The new helicopters are equipped with both the “Vitebsk” Electronic Warfare system as well as the “President-S” defense system.

Russia not only has decided to field some of its newest and best equipment in Syria, but is also taking the opportunity to test this equipment, Russian aircrews and command structures in utilizing the equipment in a practical combat environment. Lessons learned will be evaluated and used to improve the equipment and to develop the most effective tactical doctrine for its employment on the modern battlefield.


Russia has always been at the cutting edge of helicopter design, especially in respect to attack helicopters. Russian aircraft designers have designed exemplary machines, the defense industry has proven up to the task of producing them, and Russian pilots have proven themselves very capable at employing them in both civilian and military roles.

Russia has taken a leading role in designing and developing some of the best attack helicopters in the world, and have been at the forefront of developing the tactical doctrine to most effectively employ them on the modern battlefield. This process has taken many decades and much sacrifice in both times of peace and war. Russia should be proud of its accomplishments.

The Russian intervention in Syria will prove to be yet another arena by which to test the metal of both Russian aircrews and the aircraft they fly. It must be looked on as an unfortunate, and yet necessary opportunity to validate so many years of development, cost and human ingenuity and endeavor.

Hopefully, the early proof of battlefield success by Russian attack helicopters will continue as long as Russian forces are called upon to stabilize and improve the situation in Syria and to roll back and destroy the menagerie of Islamic fundamentalist forces that have reeked so much havoc, death and destruction on one of the Middle East’s once stable and secularly ruled nations.

Much of the world has looked on in awe and admiration as Russian servicemen and women have put themselves in harm’s way, answering the call of their nation in a time of great adversity to protect their nation’s safety and prosperity. They are also fighting a larger battle to preserve the freedom and prosperity of much of the world.

One truth is for certain, they enter the fray in attack helicopters of a long and proven pedigree, and that bring to the fight an array of deadly weaponry and outstanding capabilities that will greatly aid Russia in her struggle against the forces that aim to destabilize and destroy the civilized world.

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