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Russia's Helicopter Gunship Fleet in Syria

Russia has fielded a powerful force of MI24 gunships and MI17 transports for perimeter air base defence and potential pilot rescue

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

As the jets and missiles home in on their targets, few have so far asked what the purpose of the helicopters at the Latakia air base is?

The helicopters are a mixed force of MI24 gunships and the MI17 variant of the MI8 transport.

The MI24 is a venerable first generation gunship that first entered service with the Soviet Air Force in the 1970s.  It received its baptism of fire in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where it acquired a formidable reputation.

It is heavily armoured and can carry a powerful range of bombs and guided and unguided missiles and rockets.  

It has a powerful cannon which (depending on the MI24 variant) ranges in calibre from 12.7 mm to 30 mm.  Film of the MI24s based Latakia shows that they have the 30 mm cannon.

The MI24 is also fast, and has powerful engines, so that it can operate effectively in “hot and high” conditions, where some helicopters with less powerful engines struggle to operate effectively.

The Russians appear to have used helicopters more extensively and more successfully in Afghanistan than the US led coalition has done.  This may be because of the MI24’s greater effectiveness in “hot and high” conditions, and the fact that it has simpler maintenance demands than some US aircraft.

The MI24 is limited by comparison with more modern gunship helicopters like the Russian MI28 and KA52 or the US Apache by its large size and weight, which make it significantly less manoeuvrable than the more modern helicopters. 

It also has less sophisticated weapons and sensors than more modern gunships such as the MI28 and KA52 and the Apache.

It is nonetheless a potent gunship, of proven capability.

The MI8 is an even older aircraft, which entered service in the 1960s.  

It is however the “Dakota” or “Hercules” of transport helicopters - an evergreen design that no-one seems able to improve on.  

Since the USSR’s collapse it has conquered the market in military transport helicopters, becoming one of Russia’s most successful exports.  Even the US air force uses it (in Afghanistan) - a fact that has provoked howls of outrage in Congress.

The reason for the MI8’s runaway success is its ruggedness and simplicity, and its large load capability, which enables it to carry (depending on the variant) 28-32 troops - more than comparable US troop carrying helicopters can carry.

Like the MI24 the MI8 can operate successfully in “hot and high” regions, especially the MI17 variant which uses more powerful engines.  Reports suggest that it is indeed the MI17 version which has been deployed to Latakia.

There are no reports of the helicopters at Latakia being used in attacks, and that does not seem to be their purpose.  

If the Russians were intending to use helicopter gunships to carry out ground attacks, they would presumably have deployed more modern and powerful gunships such as the MI28s or KA52s.

The helicopters are nonetheless an essential part of the strike force.  

Their primary purpose is almost certainly to find and rescue pilots or navigators whose aircraft have been shot down, and to supplement the perimeter defence of the Latakia air base.

For both of these purposes the helicopters would work in close conjunction with the paratroopers who are guarding the base. 

The MI24s can operate as a powerful airborne artillery to support the paratroopers if the base comes under attack.

They would also provide top cover to the MI8s used to rescue any shot down pilots or navigators, and for the paratroopers who would be inserted by the MI8s to carry out the rescue.

The Russians have said the total number of aircraft at the base is 50.  Of these 34 are known to be fixed wing aircraft, leaving 16 helicopters to make up the helicopter force.

The precise mix of MI24s and MI17s is not known for sure.  Satellite pictures however seem to show at least 7 MI24s.  A good guess might be an equal number of 8 MI24s and 8 MI17s.

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