One of Russia’s most advanced attack helicopters, the Mi-28 “Night Hunter,” crashed today while operating in Syria. Russian officials say that the helicopter was not taking enemy fire at the time and went down due to technical reasons, killing both crewman onboard. A team is reportedly on the scene trying to determine what exactly caused the crash.
If you take Russia’s statement at face value, it could mean the imminent grounding of the entire Mi-28 fleet. A similar occurrence happened after an Mi-28 crashed spectacularly at an air show in Russia last Summer. That crash was said to have been due to a hydraulics system failure.
After pulling its fixed-wing attack and fighter aircraft out of Syria relatively suddenly last March, Russia deployed more attack helicopters than the handful of Mi-24 Hind derivatives that had been operating in the war-torn country since last September. These new arrivals included Mi-28s and Ka-52s, Russia’s most advanced attack helicopters.
Russia’s sudden tactical efforts in Syria focus on providing very close air support for Assad’s forces. This move has resulted in significant gains, with the ancient city Palymyra being taken back from ISIS at the end of March. Both Mi-28s and Ka-52s have been filmed in action as Assad’s troops as they pushed east into ISIS-held territory.
The use of attack helicopters for close air support missions, as opposed to fixed-wing aircraft, makes much sense for Russia. The Mi-28 and Ka-52 are fitted with the most advanced night-fighting optics systems in the entire Russian air arm, and they can can employ unguided munitions like rockets with greater precision than their fast-flying counterparts. They can also fire comparatively cheap guided anti-tank missiles as needed.
Russia largely lacks modern targeting pod technology for its jet force. Even if the nation had that technology, it would likely only use it to deliver weapons sparingly, as costly precision guided munitions—even of the electo-optical and GPS types that don’t need laser designation via a targeting pod—were seldom used during their five plus month long bombing campaign over Syria. This makes fast jet close-air support and night strike missions troublesome. The use of advanced attack helicopters, which inherently possess this capability, makes a lot of sense. They can also work far more closely with troops on the ground using rudimentary communications than Russian fast jets can.
Many of Russia’s Mi-28s and Ka-52s are also outfitted with the best missile launch detection systems and countermeasure suites available, making them harder to strike with man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). The introduction of MANPADS into the Syrian civil war may have been inevitable, a reality that may have factored heavily into Russia’s decision to pull their jets from the fight.
It is known that Russian Mi-28s and Ka-52s are operating out of a at least two forward operating bases. One is Al-Shayrat Air Base, about 15 miles to the southeast of the city of Homs. The other is Tiyas Air Base, 30 miles further to the east. These forward arming and refueling points greatly increase these helicopters sortie rates and allow for on-call air support in a matter of minutes even when aircraft are not in the air.
Regardless of what caused today’s crash, Russia’s advanced attack helicopters, which are marketed heavily on the world’s arms market, have proven to be very effective in Syria. This fact has not been swept under the carpet. Russia has used Syria as an arms showroom to the world, and the introduction of these two weapon systems to the conflict is no different than showcasing the cruise missiles or super-fighters over the battlefield in months past.
Algeria has just increased its Mi-28 order to 42 and Egypt has recently solidified its order for 46 Ka-52s, many of which will fly from the decks of the Mistral class helicopter carriers that were once destined for Russia.