Russia Expands Combat Helicopter Fleet
Dec 04, 2018

Amid the existing geopolitical tensions and terror threats, Russia is finishing a large-scale expansion of its fleet of combat helicopters, planning a further focus on selective supplies, according to recent statements by senior officials of the Russian Defence Ministry and leading local experts in the field of combat aviation.

As part of these plans, General Yury Borisov, a former Russian Deputy Defence Minister who was recently appointed as Deputy Prime Minister of Russia (responsible for the development of military and industrial complex), announced the intention of the Russian Air Forces to purchase more than 100 Ka-52 helicopters this year.

Former Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yury Borisov was recently appointed as Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation.

The Ka-52 Alligator, together with the Mi-28N Havoc attack helicopter, will be the main combat force of the Russian Air Force for the next several years.

The Ka-52, according to recent statements of a spokesman of the Russian Defence Ministry, is a reconnaissance-strike helicopter that represents further development of the iconic Ka-50 Black Shark model, which was used during several military campaigns in the past, including the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) and the Chechen wars.

Designed to destroy tanks, the new Ka-52 helicopter is capable of hitting vehicles and live forces on the battlefield and air targets in the sky. It is ideally suited for the implementation of combat missions.

These planned purchases of Ka-52 helicopters will allow the Russian Air Force to almost double its existing fleet and completely decommission the remaining Mi-24 models, which are seriously outdated.

The addition of Ka-52s will help the Air Force maintain a fleet of about 400 helicopters in years to come. Eventually, more than 250 will be Alligators.

As for the Havoc, according to Russian military experts, the new all-weather, two-seat anti-armor attack helicopter has solid combat capabilities – it carries a single gun in an under-nose barbette, plus external loads carried on pylons beneath stub wings. The full amount of Mi-28N weaponry is currently not disclosed.

The supply of Mi-28N helicopters to Russia has continued over the last several years, however, to date, these purchases have been in relatively small numbers.

The Mi-28N was tested by Russia during its military operations in Syria against the Islamic State, where the Havocs proved its combat capabilities, including in difficult conditions: at night, in a dust storm, and during the attacks on mobile small-sized targets.

In the meantime, in addition to the Mi-28N and Ka-52 helicopters, further expansion of the combat helicopter fleet will be fulfilled by the additional purchase of Mi-17 medium-sized multipurpose helicopter, as well as the super-heavy Mi-26.

According to recent statements by Konstantin Sivkov of the Russian Academy of Missile and Artillery Sciences, the current version of Mi-17 could be a direct competitor to the US UH-60 Black Hawk. In addition, he asserts that the Russian model is significantly more advanced than the Black Hawk. “While Mi-17 has practically comparable radio electronic equipment and weapon systems with US UH-60 Black Hawk, it is still better [than] the US model by approximately 30-40%, taking into account various parameters.” These include a longer range (950 compared to 495 kilometers); higher load levels 26 troops versus 11); and engine power of 1,400 h/p of the Black Hawk, compared to 2,0000 h/p, of the Mi-17. These powerful engines improve flight safety in “hot and high” conditions.

At the same time, in the light helicopter category, an increase of production of Ansat helicopters in recent years, has solved the previous gap of such capability in the Russian army.

The lightest helicopter in the helicopter fleet of the USSR and Russia is the Ansat, shown above.

Ansat, built by one of Russia’s leading helicopter manufacturing companies, Kazan Helicopters, is positioned as a replacement to Mi-2, which, despite its large size, was the lightest helicopter in the previous USSR fleet.

According to a spokesman for Russian Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoigu, the Ansat helicopter remains relatively inexpensive (in terms of price and cost of use).

In addition to land forces, helicopters for Russia’s naval aviation fleet will be also expanded. As part of this, there are plans to complete modernization of the flagship Ka-27 naval helicopter and to start the design of new models. The Ka-27 design dates back to the 1960s and is significantly outdated.

Current numbers and capabilities of upgraded Ka-27 (shown) and Ka-29 combat helicopters are not enough to meet Russia's modern needs.

New designs, in particular those of a heavier class (mostly intended for landing on destroyers and corvettes), has become an acute necessity for Russia’s naval aviation in recent years. As such, the Russian Defence Ministry plans to build at least two helicopter carriers for the Russian Navy in the coming years.

Two years ago, the Russian Defence Ministry had officially announced the design of a new naval helicopter known as Minoga, however, no updates regarding the current status of the project have been released so far. According to some Russian military experts, there is a high possibility that implementation of the project was suspended for an indefinite period of time.

Given that the first helicopter carrier should be delivered to the Russian Navy fleet in 2024, suspension of the Mingoa project creates the need to purchase medium- to heavy-lift helicopters for the new carrier, as even modernized Ka-27 and Ka-29 (even in combination with the combat Ka-52K) will not be able to meet all the needs for the air group in Russia.

In the meantime, in addition to purchases of the already existing models, the Russian Defence Ministry is placing orders for the design of completely new models of combat helicopters in years to come.

For example, according to recent statements by top management of the Russian helicopter monopoly, Russian Helicopters Corporation, a massive production plan for a new high-speed combat helicopter may begin implementation next year.

The new model, based on the Mi-24 attack helicopter, will be able to reach speeds of more than 400 kilometers per hour. It will be specially designed for special combat missions and will have its own unique niche, not competing with any other types of helicopters in Russia.

According to Russian military paper Voisko, the new helicopter will be ideally suitable for conducting attacks into the enemy’s rear, supporting sabotage groups and reconnaissance battalions on the front lines.

The company did not specify who will become the lead developer for the project, but noted that several design bureaus and holdings of the Corporation will be involved in the implementation of this project.

The new helicopter will be equipped with the unique rotor system designed by Russian Helicopters and which is expected to be patented by the company soon.

The new system significantly reduces the possibility of airflow breakdown and increases the speed of the helicopter, while maintaining its classic layout.

The majority of existing helicopters are designed for the maximum speed of about 350 km/h. The new helicopter will be designed for almost twice the speed of the existing Mi-8 / Mi-17 multipurpose helicopters.

It will be equipped with a VC-2500M engine with 3,000 h/p capacity. The engine is based on the Klimov VK-2500 turboshaft engine, which is currently used for the Mi-8/Mi-17 helicopters, as the replacement of the banned Ukrainian engines.

The Russian army puts high hopes on this new helicopter, despite the fact that its fuel consumption will be probably the highest among the already existing analogues.

Leading Russian military analysts believe the role of helicopters in modern wars is constantly growing, which is especially obvious in the case of local conflicts and anti-terrorist operations.

Former deputy commander of the Russian Air Force, Colonel-General Nikolai Antoshkin.

“Future prospects for high-speed attack helicopters are very good,” says Colonel-General Nikolai Antoshkin, a former deputy commander of the Russian Air Force. “High speed is a very big advantage for a helicopter, especially at the front, which allows it to quickly move over the battlefield, after the completion of the mission. In addition, these helicopters are less vulnerable for small arms and the majority of other weapons.”

One of the biggest unsolved problems for planners is the absence of Russian-based mass-production of engines.

Prior to 2014, the majority of engines for Russian military helicopters were supplied from abroad, mostly the U.S. and the EU, however the beginning of sanctions wars and the end of Russia/U.S. military cooperation has resulted in the almost complete suspension of that supply chain.
Currently Russia is continuing its efforts to establish series production of engines for its military helicopters, however that requires significant time and financial expenditure.

Vadim Bazykin, an honored Russian pilot, is one of Russia’s major experts in the field of combat aviation. In an interview on Russia Today TV Channel, he said the design of a new engine typically takes from 5-to-7 years. However, according to him, due to the current restriction on the supplies from West, Russia will be able to establish production much faster.

That will be also due to the fact the requirements for the building of military helicopter engines are not so strict, as in the case of civil. That means fuel saving and a large operating resource will not be among the priority design properties for these combat helicopter engines.

According to numerous sources in the Russian Air Forces, the renewal of the domestic fleet of combat helicopters is currently nearing to its final stage. This process initially began in the late 2000's, when the annual volume of supplies varied in the range of 120-140 units. The main goal of the purchases of that period was to replace the Soviet-built Mi-8 and Mi-24 models – the main combat force of Soviet and Russian Air Forces during the 1980-90s – with next generation helicopters.

In addition to the overhaul and modernization of other Soviet-built helicopters, this helped to renew helicopter fleets of the military units and to significantly strengthen their combat capabilities. That means the volume of purchases of military helicopters by the Russian Ministry of Defence will significantly decline in the coming years. This is confirmed by some latest announcements of the state. According to a recent report from the Russian Defence Ministry, about 60 new combat helicopters will be purchased this year for the national Air Force. This is slightly lower than the figures from 2017, which were equal to 70 units. Analysts are now predicting that these figures will not be higher than 40 units per year starting in 2019.

– Eugene Gerden is a FrontLine correspondent who specializes in military and defence.