Ukraine lessons: is bringing an attack helicopter to a missile fight too dangerous?
The absolute number of helicopters downed or written off amounts to possibly 10% of the Russian operational fleet, but as these are likely more advanced variants flown by better crews, that remains a significant dent in capability. Interestingly, it is the relatively modern Ka-52 model that forms the bulk of these losses.
The reasons for this experience, and how the situation has evolved, are of interest to other operators keen to draw lessons on their own approach to rotary-wing operations, especially as the US and others are accelerating new helicopter development.
Why has Russia lost so many helicopters in Ukraine?
When Russian rotorcraft have been active over Ukraine, they have generally performed in small groups with little apparent coordination and forward air control (FAC) has been noticeably lacking. Helicopters have been seen pitching up rapidly from over their own lines to fire rockets in a vague direction before dropping down while turning back.
This latterly ineffective approach provides clues as to the problems suffered by Russian forces (and some solutions found). As this piece was being written, the Ukrainian counter-offensive was making slow progress, and the effectiveness of Moscow’s attack helicopters appears to have increased.
One of the truisms of the conflict has been the essential role played by traditional, physical weapons. Russian helicopters have overwhelmingly fallen at the hands of ground forces using SHORADS, machine guns and anti-armour rockets. This massive firepower direction is another part of the lesson concerning what attack helicopters can and cannot do.
During the first few months, the Ka-52, fast but relatively lightly armoured, operated tens of kilometres behind enemy lines on ‘armed reconnaissance’ flights, looking for known targets and those of opportunity, utilising speed and surprise.
Ukraine’s air defences proved extremely mobile, frequently surprising Ka-52 crews. The former could not easily be located and – being mostly passively guided – could shoot first. Plus, the distance from Russian lines meant a damaged aircraft had less chance of getting home.
What has Russia done to reduce helicopter losses?
By this summer, less ambitious Russian operations, stretched Ukrainian forces and a paucity of air defence units have reduced losses. Russian fast jets appear to have stepped up SEAD/DEAD activity, further reducing the threat to attack helicopters.
Night attacks have increased, making use of the Ka-52’s comparatively advanced all-weather capabilities. Finally, a combination of slightly newer helicopters and a Darwinian effect on Russian crews has likely increased survivability, and concurrently their destruction of Ukrainian air defences.
In short, they have become more realistic, more creative, more capable and have better managed their impact-versus-risk calculation.
As a counterpoint, the heavier Mi-28 seem to have suffered fewer casualties and seen less operational changes. These are used in a more conservative role as ‘flying artillery’ and closer to home, and their heavier construction and armour reduce vulnerability.
Above: The Mi-28, operating closer to Russian-held territory, has not faced the same losses or challenges as the Ka-52. (Photo: Rosoboronexport)
What wider conclusions on the role and utility of the attack helicopter can be drawn? Such operations without air superiority in the teeth of mobile air defences is foolish and much Russian equipment is old and well-understood by the Ukrainians. Pilot hours and training are also a fraction of their NATO equivalents.
NATO equipment, pilots and doctrine are undoubtedly superior, but the basic roles – and vulnerabilities – of Apaches and Tigers are not that different from those of Hokums and Havocs. NATO would pair these assets with UAVs and FAC, but these are also vulnerable, can be located and their effectiveness marginalised.
It is extremely rare for air forces to meet the opposition they expected or suffer fewer casualties than planned. By August 2023, through painful trial and error, Russian attack helicopters now appear to pose a far greater threat to Ukrainian forces than 12 months previously.
This is a worrying trend for Ukraine and will generate a response, but what was previously dismissed as another Russian failure seems to be evolving into an effective force.
Do NATO and its allies need to reconsider their own approach?
Starting with the aircraft, the ubiquitous AH-64D and E’s sensors and defensive aids are likely far more advanced than Russian equivalents, while its weapons are more accurate at longer ranges. Using highly networked communications, the aircraft should be far more survivable, and working with fast jets, UAS and ground forces this operational approach should avoid most of the problems listed above.
Above: The AH-64 has a number of technological (and arguably doctrinal) advantages over its Russian equivalents but is still at considerable risk against a peer adversary. (Photo: US Army)
Nonetheless, the Apache cannot fly or climb faster than Russian helicopters. To engage targets with most weapons it must advance deep into SHORAD/MANPAD territory. Its armour reduces risk but the aircraft can still be brought down by a single missile. A broadly similar assessment could be made of the Tiger or AW129.
So despite best efforts, NATO attack helicopters can certainly be surprised and ambushed by a modern foe in both kinetic and possibly electronic or cyber attacks. Having experienced this, Russia pulled back, swallowing considerable crew operational pride.
Even if not comparable directly, there is a case for reviewing how well NATO crews would fare undertaking equivalent missions in a similar situation against a well-equipped foe. The Taiwan scenario springs to mind here.
The Ukraine battlespace, then, is an example of an operator (Russia) pressing a solution while ignoring (at least initially) the problem.
Using this to peer into a cracked mirror, NATO’s doctrine of dispersed operations with a focus on EW and stand-off weapons might equally be stumped by myriad cheap drones bombing fuel and spare parts supplies, and/or hundreds of MANPADS distributed to all enemy formations plus basic UCAVs attacking with air-to-air missiles, all over a jamming screen that prevents most stand-off weapons from locking on.
The output of a study into NATO equipment and doctrine might conclude that the current approach is still viable. But 2023 is certainly a good point to continue evaluating, in the face of more information and evidence from an unexpectedly dynamic war.
As the US is only at the beginning of its Future Vertical Lift programme, the last 18 months of combat in Europe have come at a convenient time to review the assumptions and requirements on which that and similar projects are based.
This story originally appeared in Shephard's monthly Decisive Edge: Air newsletter. This delivers expert insights and in-depth coverage of the latest defence industry developments. Don't miss out on the opportunity to be among the first to read these exclusive stories as soon as they publish by signing up to our newsletters here.
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