The Russian Defence Ministry confirms that KA52 helicopter gunships are operating alongside MI28 helicopter gunships fighting the Islamic State in Syria
Shortly after confirmation from the Russian Defence Ministry of the deployment of MI28 helicopter gunships to Syria, there is now confirmation that equally advanced and potent KA52 helicopter gunships have been deployed as well.
It seems that the KA52s are being used alongside the MI28s to support Syrian army operations around Palmyra.
The Syrian army needs to take full control of the territory around Palmyra before it can risk an advance on Deir ez-Zor. A failure to do so would risk an Islamic State counter attack on Palmyra as the Syrian army was advancing towards Deir ez-Zor.
The MI28s and KA52s are being used to support these Syrian army operations, which scored a major success on 3rd April 2016 with the liberation of the traditionally Christian town of Al-Qaryatayn.
The KA52 is a different type of helicopter gunship from its stable-mate, the MI28.
Unlike the MI28 it has an unconventional contra-rotating coaxial rotor system ie. it has one set of helicopter blades situated above the other turning in opposing directions.
Though this is not a system widely used for helicopters in the West, it is the favoured system of the Kamov design bureau, one of Russia’s two helicopter design bureaux, which designed the KA52.
The advantage of the contra-rotating coaxial system is that it makes a helicopter more manoeuvrable. It is able to turn more easily and rapidly on its axis and can lift faster than a helicopter with a more conventional configuration.
The result is a helicopter that is practically aerobatic. It can perform loops, rolls and "the funnel", where the aircraft maintains a line-of-sight to the target while flying circles of varying altitude, elevation and airspeed around it.
This gives the KA52 a big advantage, since a constantly manoeuvring aerobatic helicopter makes for a more difficult target whilst enabling the helicopter to launch its attacks from unexpected directions.
The coaxial arrangement is also sometimes said to be more effective in hot and high mountainous conditions such as those which are often found in Syria.
The coaxial arrangement also makes the helicopter more compact since it does not need a long tail for the tail rotor. By way of comparison, whilst the MI28’s length is 58 feet and 9 inches, the K52s is 52 feet 6 inches.
This greater compactness was historically important for the Kamov Bureau which traditionally designed helicopters for shipborne use from Russian naval warships where space was at a premium. The shorter length and greater overall compactness however also makes the KA52 easier to transport by ship and aircraft to distant locations such as Syria.
The coaxial arrangement also has certain engineering advantages resulting from the elimination of the tail rotor since the torque-countering tail rotor of a conventional helicopter can use up to 30% of engine power.
It also makes the KA52 less vulnerable because the vulnerable boom and rear gearbox are fairly common causes of helicopter losses in combat. By comparison with more conventional helicopters the KA52's entire transmission presents a comparatively small target to ground fire.
The coaxial arrangement does however come with one performance disadvantage.
It increases the height of the helicopter, with the KA52 being 16 feet 2 inches high against the MI28’s height of 12 feet 6 inches.
The extra height causes greater wind resistance, making the KA52 slightly slower than the MI28 in forward flight despite using slightly more powerful engines and despite being lighter.
Less is known of the guidance and electronics systems of the KA52 than those of the MI28. However they are at least as sophisticated and it is confirmed that the KA52 - like the MI28 - can operate at night and in all weathers.
Russian reports say that both helicopters have sophisticated jamming devices to deal with man portable surface to air missiles (“MANPADS”) such as the Stinger, the Igla and the Strela that are known to be used by the jihadi rebels in Syria.
The Russians claim these jamming systems have actually been used by the MI28s and KA52s in combat in Syria and that they have dealt with MANPADS launched at the helicopters by the jihadi rebels with “effortless ease”.
The KA52 and the MI28 carry similar but different armament packages.
Like the MI28 the KA52 has a powerful 30 mm cannon. Unlike the cannon of the MI28, which is in a rotating turret at the front of the helicopter, the cannon of the KA52 is side mounted and has only very limited movement.
This is a less of a problem than may at first appear appear since the KA52 compensates for the lack of movement of its cannon with its super-manoeuvrability, which enables it to manoeuvre itself into a position where it can aim and fire its cannon quickly.
Where the MI28 carries up to 16 radio guided Ataka anti tank and ground attack missiles, the KA52 carries up to 12 similar but different laser guided Vikhr missiles anti tank and ground attack missiles.
The overall effectiveness of the Ataka and Vikhr missiles is roughly the same though the two missiles are not related and were designed by different design bureaux.
As it uses laser guidance the KA52’s Vikhr is perhaps less effective in poor visibility conditions or in conditions of atmospheric disturbance - such as those caused by sandstorms - than the radio guided Ataka used by the MI28.
Unlike the MI28 the KA52 is also able to carry up to two of the much bigger Kh25ML laser guided missiles in place of the Vikhr missiles. This would provide a useful capability against more heavily fortified positions that might be invulnerable to attack from the smaller and lighter Ataka and Vikhr.
Lastly the KA52 can carry the same number of 40 S8 and 10 S13 unguided rockets as the MI28. As with the examples of these rockets carried by the MI28 it is not known whether those carried by the KA52 have yet been converted to laser guidance as is apparently being planned.
There has been considerable debate in the West about why the Russians have decided to order both the MI28 and the KA52 simultaneously (the Russian Aerospace Forces are said to have around 100 of each).
The answer is that the two helicopters are significantly different from each other and compliment each other and are used for different roles.
By comparison with the KA52 the MI28 is a cheaper, less sophisticated, more straightforward and more heavily armed and armoured helicopter, which is exclusively focused on ground attack. As discussed previously it is basically an aerial tank.
The more sophisticated and more expensive KA52 by contrast is used as much for scouting and reconnaissance as for ground attack.
Like the MI28 the KA52 is a force multiplier and will have a major impact on the Syrian battlefield.
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