War in Ukraine is going on for the last two months now with no signs to end soon. There is a renewed offensive by large concentration of Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine as Kiev successfully blunted the capture sequel to near encirclement. Russian forces had to adjust the overall plans i.e withdraw from north and concentrate in east, sustaining considerable losses in men and material not to mention death of 8 General officers. In east the important port city of Mariupol in Sea of Azov has emerged as main objective of Russia to reconnect Crimea to main land Russia through land route. As of 20th April three news dominate the international media. One, Western countries have considerably increased the military aid to Ukraine, including heavy weapons. Two, Russian Forces have now concentrated in east in a traditional manner and are launching a major offensive along the line Kharkiv, Luhansk and Dontesk aiming for the capture of land and encirclement of Ukrainian pockets of resistance. After consolidating control over Mariupol Russian forces may advance towards Odessa to completely landlock Ukraine. Third, Ukrainian Forces having been successful in defeating the Russian primary objectives through employing unconventional system of forces have now emboldened and are now confident to enter into counter attack mode in conventional manner. The town of Kramatorsk is fast emerging the point of contest in coming days due to its strategic location in relation to Russian forces. This is the setting as of 20th April.Ever since, the breakout of hostilities helicopters are mainly appearing as a victim of shoulder launched missiles rather than force multipliers. Though, claimed total of above 100 helicopters is hard to digest there is general consensus that around 60 helicopters have been lost. Given the low field elevation, absence of mountains and low temperatures there could be no technical reason related to degraded performance of helicopters like in Afghanistan. Therefore, the reasons are likely to be combat related which need to be highlighted out of available information vis a vis technical specification. Deeper scrutiny would only be possible subsequently i.e after the culmination of war.
Russian military’s attack on Ukraine didn’t come as a complete surprise to many around the world. The initial unfolding of the plan of war matched the composition of the buildup of forces along borders and the geography of the operational area i.e vast flat areas of Ukraine hardened by winter snows. Reportedly there were 1200 tanks and about 250 helicopters were poised to spear head the shock and awe kind of war plan aiming for quick capitulation of will to fight of the Ukrainian political leadership in Kiev. The multiple axis advance comprised fast moving armored and motorized columns spearheaded by air assault elements, combat helicopters and ground attack aircrafts like SU-25s (Frogfoot) primarily aiming to capture the airfields near important cities. Aviation enthusiast all around the world who were expecting a larger and critical role of Russian helicopters especially the combat helicopters were soon to be disappointed. Despite using over 200 helicopters the inability to capture the Gostomel Airport near Kiev was to prove detrimental to the whole operational plan for the capture of the Ukraine capital. Spear head Air Assault attempts badly failed resulting in loss of elite troops and highly trained helicopter crews before the main fight began.
At the same time due to reasons better known to Russians the use of air component especially bombers and fighter aircraft was very selective and less in strength rather it was visible that there was heavy reliance on ground-to-ground missiles instead. This strategy didn’t guarantee air superiority let alone air domination which one would have expected. Initial thrust of ground forces which comprised Battalion Tactical Groups, nevertheless, was as fast as covering 200 kms in 4 – 5 days and it seemed probable that rapidly advancing columns would encircle Kiev and other major cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol within 10 days forcing the Ukrainian Government to capitulate in Blitzkrieg type of operation.
Then by first week of March i.e only after 5 days of initial breakout advance appeared grinding to a slow crawl. Soon it was being speculated that the momentum had been lost beyond the limits of conventional operational pause perhaps owing to logistical failures both at tactical and operational levels. By 15 March i.e on the 19th day the nature of attack emerged to change to conventional instead of fast moving hard hitting coordinated advance. It became abundantly clear that instead of causing paralysis to the Ukrainian leadership it was the Russian leadership which was showing signs of frustration and forced to rethink and alter the whole war plan. As a clear sign to have abandoned the idea of capturing Kiev Russian military rapidly withdrew from north taking full circle towards east joined the forces in Eastern and Southern Sectors.
After having inflicted heavy losses on Russian forces mainly through unconventional system of forces and compelling them to readjust to lesser political objectives Ukrainian Army too is readjusting to opt for more conventional approach now i.e planning counter attacks with conventional structure of forces. That is the reason their demand is now for artillery, tanks and aircrafts which is being met by USA and other western countries.
Since the purpose of this article is to explore the efficacy of combat helicopter operations in particular, I would restrict myself to the subject only. Given the dis-proportionate disparity between the helicopter forces of opposing forces i.e 40 against 250 combat helicopters, I would only restrict to the combat helicopter operations of Russian Army, not withstanding the reported trans frontier attack by two Ukrainian Mi-25s on Russian Oil facility located in Belgorod in the vee hours of 1st April.
Russia has large number of Combat helicopters in its arsenal of forces i.e over 500. Largest number is the erstwhile fearsome “Hind” i.e MI-24/25 which has seen many upgradations and is in service with number of countries including Pakistan. Other type being MI-28 “Hokum” is quite modern and is marketed as an all-weather day and night platform, is slated to replace Mi-25s in future. Highly maneuverable and the most modern Ka-52 “Alligator” with axial rotor system is termed as an Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter with greater range and modern avionic suite. Both Mi-28 and Ka-52 are under Russian usage with over 100 of each type. Operating as part of the larger Russian concepts of Operational Maneuver Groups these ought to pose a serious threat to enemy armour and fixed but critical installations. What could be the reasons for this unexpected outcome? ie disproportionate loss of Russian combat helicopters in this war.
One thing which is singularly obvious is that in contrast to USA, Russians follow the concept of distinct machine parts commonality in all types of helicopters. While they aim to achieve diversity through aerodynamics and materials the presence of a common engine class and similar onboard weaponry essentially leaves little space for varied employment concepts. On the contrary it leads to complex training and logistic needs even in peace time let alone a fast-paced war. I will try to highlight my argument with the help of a chart:-
|Type||Engine||Max Weight||Range||Cruise Speed||Missiles||Rockets||Canon|
|MI – 25||2 x TV3 – 117 ; 2200 shp each||12 Ton||450 kms||300 km/h||16 Ataka-V||9k114 Shutrum||Flexible 23 mm or 12.7 mm|
|MI-28||2 x TV3 – 117 ;2200 shp each||11.5 Ton||435 kms||270 km/h||16 Ataka-V or 9k121 – Vikhr 2 x Igla AA||Same as above||30 mm, stabilized on 2 axis|
|Ka – 52||2 x Kilimov VK-2500 : 2400 shp each, Digitally Controlled||10.8 Ton||540 kms||270 Kms/h||12xVikhr A Tk 2 x Igla AA msls||80 x 80 mm or 12 x 122 mm||Semi rigid 30 mm Shipuniv 2A42|
Combat Helicopter versus Integrated Tank Hunting Parties. Combat helicopters are best suited to destroy tanks / Armoured Vehicles. This ability is maximized through near real time intelligence of target location and quality of training to exploit the correct intelligence about target location, preferably identifying the target from a safe distance. This process is often hard to achieve especially once the enemy does not present clear lines of defense i.e a small detachment of less than 10 soldiers taking cover of forestation or urban structures. Many analysts have now concluded that Ukrainians successfully exploited an inherent weakness of Russian Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG) i.e shortage of infantry soldiers to protect tanks from flanks. 200 infantry soldiers in the BTG has emerged far too less to protect the 10 tanks supported by 40 Infantry Fighting Vehicles once confronted with loose detachments of soldiers equipped with fire and forget or shoot and scoot shoulder launched antitank missiles. Equipped with Javelin anti-tank missile having the range of 4 kms with ability to attack the tank from top Ukrainian tank hunting parties virtually played havoc with Russian BTGs. Here come the attack helicopters which must be immediately called if not already integrated with advancing troops. One of the hardest things for a pilot is to visually locate human bodies which are under cover and static. Whereas, slow flying helicopters became ideal for a two men party carrying a Stinger on their back, just waiting for such an opportunity. Given the absence of Ukrainian helicopters in airspace it allowed greater individual level initiative to fire at will rather wait for orders. Situation was exacerbated for the Russians when the logistics also failed and tanks simply couldn’t maneuver and combat helicopters took the brunt in desperate attempt to save halted BTGs. That is the reason that by 20th day of the war we started witnessing less and less of Russian combat helicopters. Threat and near inability to react against newly found threat appear to have forced the Russians to hold back a very large combat potential.
Inadequate Precision Guided Munition (PGMs) with Russian Airforce. Yet another vulnerability which has emerged is that Russian Airforce has been prohibitively selective in using PGMs. Implying thereby that aircrafts employed in support of ground forces will have to dive down to drop unguided bombs and rockets i.e compelled to risk the altitudes where Stingers can take those on. That is the reason that we continued to witness the losses of SU-25s right up till 20th March. This short fall of ground attack aircrafts also created extra demand of attack helicopters for desperately needed close air support.
Pilots and Training – Asymmetry. On 14th March a Russian pilot was able to land back with a nearly crippled SU – 25SM “Frogfoot”, a close air support aircraft after sustaining a missile hit. This is in addition to number of fixed wing pilots who ejected once unable to sustain flight. But that’s seldom possible in case of low flying combat helicopters. Ka – 52 which is equipped with ejection seats have not been able to exploit that so far except one odd. If we believe the Ukrainian sources the total kills of helicopters go beyond 100. Even half of that number which is now generally accepted is huge, loss of 100 pilots is very high by any standards. It is nearly impossible to replace such large numbers of highly trained combat helicopter pilot in a short time frame. On the contrary time bracket to train a young and educated soldier to fire a Stinger missile is almost negligible i.e hardly a week’s time in comparison to multiyear training regime for pilots. Afghan Mujahideens achieved 87% of kill ratio within days despite being uneducated. It is not incidental that Russian withdrawal from North and reconstitution of structure of forces came soon after the western announcement of supplying over 2000 Javelins, 1000 Stingers and even deadlier NLAWs anti tank missiles. Not to mention that one Stinger costs about 120,000 USD while average price of Russian combat helicopter is 40 Mn USD.
Fast Moving Logistic Requirements. Remaining restricted to topic, the key is to place the refueling facility as far forward as practically possible to enable the helicopters to take more munition with minimum approach time and maximum engagement time, reducing the fuel requirements as a byproduct. Surprisingly, Russian Army could not demonstrate the logistic ability to keep pace with tanks what to talk about combat helicopters. Russian Combat helicopters consume much more fuel than their western counterparts which add extra burden on logistics. In the very initial day of attack it is not hard to estimate how little time the Combat helicopters would have had while supporting air assault on Gostomel Airfield, located over 200 kms from launch airfields in Belarus. That was the most crucial time of the attack which quickly fell in favour of Ukraine as lead troops of special forces lacked fire power in the initial phase. Subsequently hitting of logistic trains, especially fuel wagons, by Ukrainian drones and destruction of critical bridges disrupted the supply chain within the very first week. That must have forced the helicopters to fly from safer rear areas adopting extended approach times. Here, yet another factor comes into play helicopters have to fly low to avoid detection and reduce the time of exposure to Stinger parties. Low flying phenomenally increases the fuel consumption, hence, increasing the strain on logistics. Fuel requirement of Russian Combat helicopter would be large for a single squadron of 20 helicopters i.e about 80 tons / day for 3 sorties of 2 hours each.
Modernised FIM-92J Stinger Missile. If we compare the capabilities of current Stinger Missile which is FIM-92J with the ones which played decisive role in Afghan War i.e 1987 onwards, the J model is far more lethal once it comes to engage the low flying helicopters and small signature drones. In Afghanistan Russian Mi-24 pilots learnt to evade Stingers by flying low and using flares, as those Stingers had to physically hit the target to destroy it. The J model is not only equipped with proximity fuse but is also capable to fast maneuver towards the main target intelligently picking up the primary target and avoiding the deployed flares / decoys. Yet another seemingly small technical advantage may be playing a pivotal role in high kill ratio i.e the more than 30 mins of battery time after activation of tube. This allows adequate time to the firer to engage the target at the best possible moment rather being under pressure to fire within few minutes. All helicopters downed so far have been engaged by Stinger Missiles that include all 3 types of Russian Attack helicopters. Ka-52 which lacks Infrared Radar Warning system but is equipped with anti-aircraft missiles must have been found handicapped while facing Stingers. Mi-28N able to fight at night and equipped with moveable 30 mm canon with adequate ammunition could have ideally hunted down the human parties but to achieve a sure kill with canon helicopter has to go closer i.e at best 2000 Ms which makes it vulnerable. Doctrinally Russian helicopters do not engage targets while being at hover at a safer distance presenting smaller cross section. Instead, these fly fast and often resort to dive attacks after pulling up once target is identified. That also exposes the large body Russian combat helicopters to Stingers. That is the reason we often witness Russian helicopters deploying flares while pulling up.
Asymmetry in Night Fighting Capabilities. This is yet another asymmetry which must have taken a heavy toll on complete system of Russian forces let alone the helicopters. Reportedly Ukrainian tank hunting parties have been given Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) which they are exploiting to the maximum advantage. MI-28N pilots and Ka-52 pilots do use NVGs and carry the latest Vikhr missile which can out range the Stingers but pin pointing human bodies require highly advanced infrared detectors which can thermally locate human bodies from safe distances. Therefore, unlike western helicopters like Apache, Russian helicopters lack superior night fighting and target locating capability which could have allowed safer standoff distances. Additionally, assuming that it was Ukrainian MI-25s which hit the oil storage in Belgorod as reported by Russia, it would have only been possible that Ukrainian Mi-25 crews had been hard training for such mission using American Night Vision Goggles, having greater range and field of view than Russian NVGs and highly accurate western navigational aides. Engaging with missiles or rockets is the easy part but the hardest part would have been to navigate at low levels in the dark of night for long duration sneaking flight carefully avoiding Radars and other ground obstacles. That brings me to another important factor i.e heavy requirements of training for night fighting capabilities. To keep the helicopter crews efficient for night fighting the training requirements double in comparison to day time fighting capabilities. Russian Air Force have generally been known and accepted for less monthly training in comparison to western counterparts, mainly due to economic reasons. For comparison the international consensus is 120 hrs per year by Russian Pilots in comparison to 220-250 hrs of yearly training by the NATO countries.
Lack of Small Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter & Drones. One of the critical lessons of Vietnam War was the need to integrate a small single engine fast moving helicopter for reconnaissance and target identification. In Vietnam War helicopter had to save their soft skins from small arms fire especially while landing for air assault or resupply / casualty evacuation. The small signature helicopter played very important role in such environments as it was difficult to engage and even locate by a rifle / machinegun man. Same concept crept in the form of scouts while engaging the tank formations in NATO versus Warsaw Pact scenarios. Russian Army Doctrine has no concept similar to this therefore Russian Army lacks a light category helicopter altogether. This situation could have been partly addressed with the help of lighter helicopter equipped with Forward Looking Infrared cameras and secure communication sets which could spot and direct the targets to heavier but more vulnerable MI-25s or Mi-28s. Smaller scout helicopters are more logistically light footed hence, are more flexible in employment i.e can keep pace with the advancing armour columns. The integrated use of drones could have also played the role of scouts and target spotters. Russia instead has categorized Ka-52 as Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter. Given the size, absence of flexible canon turret and probably lack of long-range high resolution FLIR may likely be proving unsuitable to the task in hand. The very reason that we continue to witness the downing of Ka – 52 helicopters at disproportionate scales. Therefore, in a traditional battle of scouting and counter scouting Russian forces are revealing their disadvantageous situation. Turkish supplied armed Baryktar TB-2 Drones have emerged very critical in enabling Ukraine Army to exploit Russian weaknesses in force protection beside providing vital battle field intelligence. It is now being reported that drones played the vital role in providing the most accurate geo coordinates to Ukrainians which enabled the fatal hit on Russian Black Sea Fleet flag ship “Moscva” by “Neptune” anti-ship missile.
Conclusion. Javelin and Stinger equipped tank hunting parties capable to operate day and night have proved ascendency of infantry soldier against superior forces and this advantage is projected to be further enhanced in coming days. As of now Ukrainian forces are being equipped with British Star Streak shoulder launched anti aircraft missiles. This particular missile which travels at Mach 2.5 having the range of 6 kms can defeat the missile protection suites of Russian Combat Helicopters which are based on infra-red and laser. The coming phase of war is more likely to be traditional i.e long range Artillery supported Russian advance where firing platforms remain in safety while immediate fire support is available through artillery observers. That may challenge the operations of Ukrainian infantry to a greater level but the Ukrainians are receiving large US assistance which comprise medium artillery regiment, Artilleryn (FH-777s) RADARs and over 200 M 113 A3 Armored Personal Carriers. Stinger and Javelin detachments may now operate in the relative safety of M 113- A3 offsetting artillery advantage of Russians and FH-777s firing Excalibur rounds in conjunction with Artillery Radars may seriously challenge Russian Artillery. To conclude I must state that despite the absence of two traditional enemies of helicopters i.e high temperatures and higher altitudes, Russian helicopters will have to operate under highly disadvantageous battle space. Large sizes, heavy logistic foot print, inadequate training and rigid tactics stand to squeeze the space for decisive role of such a large combat potential. At the end it was the demonstrated resilient courage of Ukrainian foot soldiers which stood the ground and convinced the reluctant and calculating Western Powers to incrementally enhance the supply of critical weapon systems to Ukraine.