The threat of Russian attack helicopters

The threat of Russian attack helicopters

Yann Yann
Aviation Helicopters Russia Ukraine War with Russia

Military aviation, including attack helicopters, is an integral component of modern war and combined arms operations in general. Under favorable conditions, its use can be comparable in impact to powerful artillery strikes, and its speed of response allows for lightning attacks.

Speaking of enemy attack helicopters on the Ukrainian battlefield, one immediately thinks of such stars of the Oryx list as the Ka-52 and Mi-28, as well as their lesser-known predecessor, the Mi-35. The Russian army has been actively using these aircraft since the beginning of its invasion on February 24, experiencing certain ups and downs that somehow correlated with events on the frontline.

When entering the active phase of the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian General Staff hoped to conduct a series of lightning breakthroughs with the participation of army aviation. We could observe in all its glory a large-scale operation to penetrate deep into Ukrainian territory by an airborne group on transport helicopters with the support of attack helicopters.

The helicopter wing bypassed the air defense system that covered the Kyiv region, passing beyond the radars at extremely low altitudes along the Dnipro River and Kyiv reservoir. Then units of the 45th Special Forces Brigade of the Russian Airborne Troops on Mi-8 transport and Mi-24 multi-purpose helicopters managed to break through and land at Hostomel Airport while losing a few aircraft due to the fire of MANPADS operators.

Read more on the Hostomel Airport and the Kyiv region defense in an interview with an “Omega” special unit operator

Despite the general suicidal nature of the operation, which ended with the failure and elimination of abandoned paratroopers by artillery fire, helicopters showed their conceptual importance and ability to perform tasks unattainable for fixed-wing aircraft.

The Ka-52 attack helicopters, which followed the transport helicopters, played a key role in clearing the landing site. They were able to temporarily provide fire cover for the ground forces and buy them time to disperse.

Such a deep and decisive strike could have had a chance of success if not for the delay and disorganization of the main strike group caused by the low level of operational planning of the Frunze Military Academy graduates. The momentum was lost, and some of the air umbrella helicopters were shot down.

However, at the end of the second month of the three-day special operation, it became clear that the invasion troops would not be able to reach the capital with individual deep infiltration strikes and would subsequently be defeated in numerous encircles if it did not retreat in time and form a full-fledged front line.

The transition from isolated operations of individual groups to combined arms operations at the brigade level led to a change in the army aviation tactics, which were now focused on supporting ground forces.

The first half a year of the Russian-Ukrainian war was characterized by the active movement of the line of contact with numerous maneuvers. Such conditions carried a risk of unexpected entry into the zone of responsibility of Ukrainian MANPADS and army air defense.

Russian aircrews who had no experience in the war against the professional Army, aside from shooting poorly armed rebels in Syria, started to suffer significant losses.

Repeated shootdowns of valuable helicopters forced the military to switch from direct fire support and “free hunting” tactics to shooting up the sky with 80mm unguided rockets from $15 million attack helicopters.

The low-toss rocket firing became a trend in the Russian-Ukrainian war because this war became a sticking point for the use of unguided weapons and the high availability of anti-aircraft weapons at the front. Such tactics made it possible to somehow operate from a long distance avoiding the threat from the enemy’s SAM.

The low-toss rocket firing involves a helicopter flying close to the contact line at extremely low altitudes, rapidly climbing and firing several rocket pods at a high angle, like an MLRS. This is followed by a rapid descent with the firing of heat traps.

The total salvo of such a launch is 40 rockets, provided that two B8V20 pods with 80mm rockets are used, or 10 rockets if two pods of 122mm S-13 rockets are used. The firing range with this tactic is about 3 to 4 kilometers, but accuracy and efficiency leave much to be desired.

The situation for the aviators began to improve as the frontline stabilized, allowing them to refer to the map more reliably and approach the front line closer.

To date, Russian attack helicopters have reached their peak in the defensive during the offensive of the Ukrainian military in the South in the summer of 2023. Ka-52 and Mi-28 attack helicopters were able to apply their high maneuverability on the battlefield to quickly come to the aid of ground units as “fire teams” and shoot defenseless convoys of AFU armored vehicles at maximum range.

The critical low availability of medium-range anti-aircraft systems with the Ukrainian ground forces and the general weakness of the UAF fighter aircraft led to the fact that Russian helicopters were able to operate safely in the near-front zone.

In general, attack helicopters have demonstrated their potential due to the possibility of hovering over the battlefield and the use of a “battery” of anti-tank guided missiles from long distances. Integrated onboard all-weather optical sensors allow them to autonomously identify targets without external targeting.

Aircraft armament

Modern attack helicopters, including Russian ones, have a fairly standardized set of weapons, consisting of an automatic gun, suspended pods with unguided rockets, and an anti-tank missile system.

The Russian-Ukrainian war showed that the close clash of aviation with targets on the front lines came to an end, and the future now belongs to long-range guided weapons.

Given the relevance of weapons, we will consider several types of guided aircraft weapon systems currently in service with the Russian Federation:

Ataka ATGM

9M120 Ataka is a Russian supersonic anti-tank guided missile with a semi-automatic command to line of sight guidance method, developed on the basis of the Soviet Shturm-V missile.

The 130-mm missile is capable of hitting targets at a distance of up to 6,000 meters. However, one of its major drawbacks is its insufficient range in modern conditions, as well as the need to constantly guide the missile to the target while hovering at one point, which puts the crew at risk. The missile is also vulnerable to electronic interference.

The missile is integrated into all modern Russian attack helicopters, along with multi-purpose Mi-24 and Mi-35. It is still used today, although a more complete Vikhr-M missile has long come to replace it.

Vikhr-M ATGM

The 9М127-1 Vikhr-M is a Russian supersonic laser-guided anti-tank missile that started to enter service with the Russian military in 2013.

Vikhr ATGM is currently one of the most effective anti-tank missiles used by Russian aviation to date. Their maximum range of 10,000 meters and high flight speed allow comfortable operation from safe distances without entering the lethal enemy MANPADS line.

The missile retained a significant drawback in the need to constantly aim the missile at the target in a stationary position. Another problem was also identified: during the final segment of the flight, the laser beam guiding the missile is directed for a short time at a target that can react to irradiation and activate countermeasures in the form of smoke and laser weapons.

The missile is integrated into Ка-52 helicopters, as well as in the latest versions of Mi-28N manufactured after 2021.

It is worth noting that both the Ataka and the Vikhr ATGMs need a powerful optical sensor to lock on the target and point the missile at it. However, electro-optical observation and laser targeting systems installed on the Ka-52 (GOES-451) and Mi-28 (OPS-28) have insufficient characteristics to distinguish between the type of target and its status at medium and long-range distances.

Izdeliye 305

The LMUR, also known as the “Izdeliye 305,” is a Russian helicopter-launched multipurpose missile guided by an optical TV guidance channel.

The missile was only adopted in mid-2022 but was used as a prototype in the war in Syria and Ukraine.

According to its concept, LMUR is not an anti-tank missile but is characterized as a multi-purpose munition to destroy fortifications, armored vehicles, and important targets. For this, it is equipped with a 25-kilogram HE-Frag warhead.

LMUR is able to hit targets at a distance of up to 15 kilometers and is guided online by the operator due to the transmission of pictures on the television channel. The latter allows it to target outside the field of view and hide the helicopter behind the folds of the location immediately after launch. It also eliminates the disadvantages of the optical sensors of Russian helicopters when shooting over a long distance.

During the Russian-Ukrainian war, the only carrier of this ammunition was the Mi-28MN attack helicopter, although according to the statements of the Russian military, it was also integrated into the Ка-52М. Despite its potential and serious characteristics, the missile was used only sporadically, presumably due to the lack of mass production.

Range of Russian helicopters

Russian Mi-35, Ka-52, and Mi-28 have quite similar flight specifications. Their flight range without external fuel tanks is about 1,100 kilometers, but the operational range is limited to 450 kilometers. Two additional external tanks with a total volume of 1,700 liters can double this range.

With a cruising speed of 250 kilometers per hour, the helicopter will be able to reach the edge of its operational zone of 450 km in one and a half to two hours.

This operational range allows Russian helicopters to operate from the Ukrainian airbases captured in the south without needing to deploy new airfields. However, it is worth noting that, if necessary, to reduce the response time, Russians can use staging airfields.

The main locations of Russian attack helicopters in the south are the airfields of Berdyansk, Melitopol, and Mariupol. Not long ago, they were marked by a series of missed missile strikes from Ukrainian tactical aircraft.

All these airfields are 70-100 kilometers from the current line of contact, which allows the rapid response team to fly to the front line within less than half an hour.


Attack helicopters, as well as their modern Russian models, have demonstrated their high potential and significant danger on the modern battlefield.

The current potential of Russian strike combat units is significantly limited by the use of outdated second-generation guided weapons and imperfect detection tools, but this forefather can be lost during this war.

To counter this threat, which in a large-scale offensive can disrupt the whole operation at its beginning, it is necessary to capture the air initiative over the battlefield under any conditions or at least disrupt it for the Russians. To do this, Ukraine needs modern tactical aviation and army air defense systems.

Also, as the practice has shown, the Russians station their aviation in relative proximity to the front line, which allows them to strike with cruise missiles and massive swarms of kamikaze drones.

Aviation Helicopters Russia Ukraine War with Russia


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