From an aviation perspective, the first day of war on February 24th can be considered a serious tactical failure for Russia.

Its fixed-wing combat aircraft and strategic bombers failed to destroy the Ukrainian Air Force and associated radar and early warning infrastructure, leading to an ongoing and prolonged operation to clear the skies of UkAF adversaries. Alongside this, the Russian Air Force is confirmed to have lost no less than six helicopters on February 24th, two of which were Ka-52 “Alligator” Attack Helicopters.


The author of this article is Defence and Conflict Analyst @Sierra__Alpha, he can be found on Twitter by clicking here and can often be found in the UK Defence Journal as well as other publications providing an insightful view on current events. This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.


Since then, over 15 Ka-52s have been lost in action to Ukrainian Air Defence, equating to 12% of their overall fleet of 133 aircraft (as of 2020), nearly 15% if accidents during training missions in Russia are accounted for during recent months. So why is the loss rate so high for the Ka-52?

The first reason is somewhat obvious and the answer is simple. Missiles. Or to be specific, Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS.) During the weeks and months leading up to the invasion, the Ukrainian Armed Forces received a significant number of MANPADS from European nations and the United States, specifically Grom and Stinger systems. These systems were rapidly deployed and distributed to the majority of Ukrainian ground units in the East, especially around Kharkiv and Izyum leading to a large coverage of short-range Air Defence which proved effective against helicopters on close air support missions, due to the relatively short training process, simple deployment and enhanced operational mobility of operating MANPADS.

The second reason is that of the Ka-52s operational requirements. The Ka-52 primarily operates as an anti-armour attack helicopter operating in support of infantry units, by deploying Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs) from relatively close range, as there is ultimately a lack of long-range ‘rifle’ munitions. The ATGM deployment in a large number of cases requires the helicopter to be somewhat stationary in the air whilst the engagement takes place. We’ve seen a number of cases where Ka-52s in such a scenario have been brought down by even ground-based AGTM squads alongside MANPADS who have a relatively easy target to engage, as the ability to evade MANPADS from such a height is severely compromised.

Image by Fedor Leukhin – VVO_8020, CC BY-SA 2.0

This can also be attributed to a failure in Close Air Support tactics and lack of communication with Forward Air Control teams, the latter of which is virtually non-existent from a Russian perspective, thus leaving Ka-52 crews blind as to the territory they are operating over. The Ka-52 has become the Attack Helicopter of choice for the Russian Air Force in Ukraine, operating in both CAS teams alongside Mi-28N/UBs and Mi-8 variants in an escort role, thus meaning that it has a high mission demand due to its versatile nature, so in a rather obvious point, the fact that the Ka-52 is the primary attack helicopter platform for Russia means that Ukrainian Forces have a greater chance of engaging them and destroying them.

As a final point, there have been at least two Ka-52s lost as a result of mechanical failure. Although reliability is always a large factor in operating an aerial platform in a conflict scenario, the complexity of the twin-rotor assembly has increased its vulnerability to failure of vital components, reducing the ability to even fly the aircraft. This was observed during the attack on Hostomel Airport where GoPro footage from a Ka-52 pilot, released a number of weeks after, shows a mechanical issue forcing down the aircraft into a nearby field demonstrating its mechanical vulnerabilities.

Albeit a factor which affects all frontline aircraft in a combat scenario as discussed above.

The upshot is, expect the number of Ka-52s to rise as the war in Ukraine rages on. Its frontline duties, inability to engage with standoff munitions and distribution of MANPADS among Ukrainian units, alongside mechanical vulnerabilities are all factors which have meant that Ka-52 ‘Alligator’ Attack Helicopters, have the largest percentage of airframes lost during the ongoing war, a pattern which is set to continue into the foreseeable future.

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Tim
Tim
10 days ago

What does this imply for Apaches? If anything?

AlexS
AlexS
10 days ago
Reply to  Tim

Implies what almost no one wants to see. They are very vulnerable, more than tanks.

At least the US Army sees it, that is why they are installing Spike NLOS with 30km range in it.
NLOS means Non Line Of Sight. Means the missile can be launched behind a hill without exposing the helicopter.

Right now my tactic for use of attack helicopters would be as counter attack mission to defeat an enemy penetration in your own lines. Those are always chaotic phases in a battle and helicopters would have more chances to survive.

Steve M
Steve M
10 days ago
Reply to  AlexS

I thought that was the whole point of the longbow apache with radar on top of rota mast so it could hide and shoot

AlexS
AlexS
10 days ago
Reply to  Steve M

Yes, sort of . It has limited range and it is not passive. A missile can be sent in radar direction and fragments still hit the helicopter.

AlexS
AlexS
10 days ago
Reply to  AlexS

“An indirect attack is admittedly possible to a degree with the Longbow radar mounted atop the rotors of Apaches, which can “peak” above hills or trees to provide guidance for missiles without exposing an Apache’s hull. But an August 2019 test demonstrated the Spike-NLOS allows for a far more thorough concealment: a low-flying Apache launched a Spike from behind a steep 1,600-foot-high mountain in Yuma, Arizona, to strike a simulated Russian Pantsir-S target on the reverse slope. You can see the remarkable shot here. The test also simulated jamming in the final seconds of the attack to test whether the missile would stay locked onto… Read more »

LongTime
LongTime
10 days ago
Reply to  AlexS

Steve I’m not sure this is actually a major issue for Apaches be it, AH64D/E or AH1. HIDAS is 1 of the best heli defence systems around and realistically on a live battlefield it will be in Auto. They also have an amazing defensive sensor suite compared to pretty much any other attack helicopter. On top of that tactics is massively coming into it when the Ka52 is using active seeking weapons it is potent, it is massively reduced in its passive abilities and from what sources are available it must be under 30kts airspeed to be accurate and for… Read more »

AlexS
AlexS
10 days ago
Reply to  AlexS

Today Rafael presented the 6th generation Spike.

The range(land/heli) increases from 25/32km to 33/50km.

Control handover made easier. So an Apache can fire the missile, infantry for example takes over and control, than handover to a drone, vehicle, ship etc.
4 missiles can be fired in a salvo.

David John Bevan
David John Bevan
10 days ago
Reply to  AlexS

So the question is if you can fire from 30km away why not launch the missile off a cheap truck and not the stupidly expensive helicopter.

AlexS
AlexS
9 days ago

Depends on war theatre size and where you want to attack. Plus if fast mobility is crucial

It is for both, in fact the land range is stated because of that.
South Korea, Finland have i think 5th generation on land , otehr have on ships, The Exactor is also on land but i think those were 2nd or 3rd generation.

Jack
Jack
9 days ago

Like Brimstone in Ukraine.

Puffing Billy
Puffing Billy
8 days ago
Reply to  AlexS

Puffing Billy

Artificial hills required!! Get designing, manufacturing and deploying them quick. How many per Apache squadron?

Marked
Marked
10 days ago
Reply to  Tim

They they are also vulnerable.

But this can be mitigated through effective command and combined arms operations.

Unmasking to shoot whilst the ground below has friendly ground troops in control, top cover keeps enemy fighters at bay, artillery can keep enemy infantry heads down while the apache pops the hard targets. The sort of combined planned work the orks are incapable of.

AlexS
AlexS
10 days ago
Reply to  Marked

Indirect artillery can hit helicopters if they are in nap of earth and don’t move.

Marked
Marked
10 days ago
Reply to  AlexS

True. Same applies to anything that can’t dig itself in deep, be it a tank, sniper, helicopter, artillery, get your shot off then relocate fast on the assumption counter fire will be heading your way imminently. Staying still is a death sentence.

MJ
MJ
10 days ago
Reply to  Marked

Would it be fair to say Ukraine has more MANPADS than most countries too? It seems like they’ve got about a quarter to a third of the stocks of several of the biggest countries in NATO (US, Germany, many from others) on top of what they already had so even for a massive country, that’s a lot of MANPADS to be dealing with by anyone’s standards.

Marked
Marked
10 days ago
Reply to  MJ

It seems that way. Its something we should be taking note of and making sure MANPADS are widely available within all units. The policy of using specialist units for them is senseless, they aren’t so hard to use they need specialists.

accattd
accattd
4 days ago
Reply to  Marked

While it is good to have a few ‘for the rainy day’ at the company level (front line, or otherwise), only a layered AD can make MANPADS effective against both fixed wing and helicopters, due to reach and available reaction time). Integrating the input from the layered AD (sensors & comms that are not ‘there yet’ in infantry/ armoured units… fully-digitised battle field and all that) in the form of warning and threat approach direction can best – read realistically and cost effectively – be integrated with a specialist unit (company-sized) spread over a wider area, in support of, say,… Read more »

johan
johan
10 days ago
Reply to  Tim

That if you send your Attack Helicopters in to provide fire support for your Airbourne invasion.
your living in the 1950s and maybe under estimated modern weapons systems

Russia has lacked any real ground intelligence as it cannot get its airborne command over the areas.

Louis
Louis
10 days ago
Reply to  Tim

Implies that maybe we should’ve gone for the British Brimstone missile with a range of 12km for Brimstone 1 and 40km for Brimstone 2, instead of the new US JAGM with a range of 8km which is less than hellfire.

AlexS
AlexS
10 days ago
Reply to  Louis

Note that missile range depends on platform.

Louis
Louis
10 days ago
Reply to  AlexS

The ranges I gave we’re for rotary wing aircraft. I believe Brimstone 2 has a range of 65km from fixed wing aircraft.

AlexS
AlexS
9 days ago
Reply to  Louis

Thanks.

Klonkie
Klonkie
10 days ago
Reply to  Louis

I had wondered why JAGM has such a limited range, seems a real oversight?

Monkey spanker
Monkey spanker
10 days ago
Reply to  Klonkie

Not fitting brimstone is a terrible decision. What does it say about U.K. weapons when the U.K. won’t use them when it could. Madness

Klonkie
Klonkie
8 days ago
Reply to  Monkey spanker

Totally agree MS

DaveyB
DaveyB
9 days ago
Reply to  Klonkie

It’s basically just an upgraded Hellfire 2.

Klonkie
Klonkie
8 days ago
Reply to  DaveyB

cheers DaveyB

Joe16
Joe16
9 days ago
Reply to  Louis

Agreed, it’s baffling that it isn’t done- even as a hi/low mix of capability. US Army would likely consider it against Spike’s NLOS too.
JAGM isn’t even an insensitive munition; given the number of accidents/sabotage incidents we’ve seen in Ukraine with ammo dumps going up, you’d think that would be a consideration.

DaveyB
DaveyB
9 days ago
Reply to  Louis

I agree. I’m sure not allowing Brinstone to be integrated based on cost fails to follow the competition rules that DE&S are supposed to adhere to, as dictated by Parliament?

Ian
Ian
8 days ago
Reply to  DaveyB

I think it simply was cost/missile, the various figures I saw quoted were £250K per Brimstone 2, and once in full production JAGM was ~£50K. Against mortar emplacements in Syria, probably makes sense, in a more contested environment, the longer range of the Brimstone has to be king

Steve R
Steve R
10 days ago
Reply to  Tim

To be honest, chances are that going forward, drones will be used to ID and then paint a target. Then an Apache can just lainch missiles from behind a hill and take out tanks without breaking cover.

Joe16
Joe16
9 days ago
Reply to  Tim

Well, nothing much more than we learned in Iraq, when Apaches got quite badly hammered by air defences when conducting anti armour missions there. A couple of points to note: Ka-52s seem to only have semi active laser (SAL)-guided ATGMs, whereas AH-64 has fire-and-forget MMW guided options available too. Apache can also utilise their lonbgbow mast, or offboard sensors for cueing both SAL and MMW weapons which reduces their risk. I guess Ka52s could have forward air controllers lase targets for them, but the article seems to say that they don’t have good coordination between air and ground forces, so… Read more »

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
9 days ago
Reply to  Joe16

Just a guess, but the UK may be looking at integrating SPEAR down the road rather than Brimstone. They give up missile speed but get far greater range and perhaps a more useful suite of capabilities from that platform. Even if that isn’t the case, then integration of Brimstone later might also be easier and less expensive than today or in the past, since the new version 6 Apache, which the UK has purchased, will be capable of supporting the Modular Open Systems Approach, or MOSA, which is currently being developed and trialed on Apache, but will be used across… Read more »

nonsense
nonsense
10 days ago

More should be gained from the failure of the KA-52. Low flight, vulnerable to ambush – complex terrain; forests, terrain where cover can evade the search of attack helicopters, etc. The most important thing is that a solo flight without detailed tactical information such as movement and distribution of troops on the battlefield poses a risk even with the latest attack helicopters. In order to avoid Russia’s failure, it is necessary to have a system that has information on the battlefield where troops will be operated and can share it in real time even to the smallest unit, and that… Read more »

AlexS
AlexS
10 days ago
Reply to  nonsense

So helicopter can only fly where there are no humans, what targets then and what about future manpad robots?
.
Everyone can look at sky, see an helicopter and fire a couple manpads and that manpad team have maybe a radius of action of 2km. It is much easier to detect an helicopter than a tank.

The helicopter advantage is mobility/speed so they should only be used in circumstances that make that characteristic a battlefield advantage.

Using them as general flying AFV’s against general targets is wasting a costly asset.

Monkey spanker
Monkey spanker
10 days ago
Reply to  AlexS

Helicopters are really noisy. I can here them coming, go outside look around and find them easily. I had an Apache flying around in circles and I was thinking it’s such an easy target. Granted all of these haven’t on the deck.

DaveyB
DaveyB
9 days ago
Reply to  Monkey spanker

On a helicopter the most noise is generated by the tail rotor. On aircraft that have intermeshing blades like the Chinook the cross over point generates a load thump which reverberates of the skin generating a lot of noise that can be heard for miles. Coaxial helicopters on the face of it, you would think should be quieter, as there’s no tail rotor and the blades don’t intermesh. But seeing the videos of a Ka-52s doing low level flybys, you can hear it before you see it. I think this is due to the tip vortices of the upper and… Read more »

Monkey spanker
Monkey spanker
9 days ago
Reply to  DaveyB

Next great developments will be a much quieter/faster aircraft that can still have the plus points of a helicopter.

LongTime
LongTime
5 days ago
Reply to  DaveyB

Yes NOTAR is amazing for noise reduction and has a big benefit on airframe hours due to less vibration, maintenance BUT not really good on an attack helicopter, you’d be placing a massive IR signature at the ground where all the IR MANPADS and SAM’s can get a good look at it.
It’s why most Attack helicopters turbine outflows point to the sky a) to attempt to hide the signature b) use the rotors to push the hot air away.

Daveyb
Daveyb
5 days ago
Reply to  LongTime

Pointing the exhaust up, does very little to hide the hot exhaust outlet itself, especially when facing missiles with imaging infrared sensors, Against 1st gen seekers maybe. It’s far better to fit a forced air diffuser to the exhaust as per the Apache. Which drops both the exhaust plume temperature, but also hides the exhaust outlet. Pointing them upwards against today’s missiles is not a real answer. It also generates a hot spot on the rotor blades, which people seem to forget. Looking through a thermal imager at a helicopter, which is the best comparison to seeing what an imagining… Read more »

nonsense
nonsense
9 days ago
Reply to  AlexS

In an ideal situation, the drone could glide – hitting targets on the ground with very little noise. = The chance of being attacked like an attack helicopter is greatly reduced.

Considering the very difficult technology and the high cost of making attack helicopters silent, plus the difficulty of increasing the ground search range with radar and cameras, it is clear that low-cost ground attack drones will replace attack helicopters.

FOSTERSMAN
FOSTERSMAN
10 days ago

Excellent make them pay, hopefully not many aircrew made it back to Russia. It’s easy to replace helicopters but pilots that takes years of practice to learn there trade.
As regards to other comments about Apache, don’t we use completely different tactics to ensure survivability?
Also I would take there numbers with a grain of salt, I doubt they have considerable numbers left in there ready force.

Latch71
Latch71
10 days ago
Reply to  FOSTERSMAN

I’m not so sure that the Russians will be able to replace the helicopters easily. They can’t import the parts they need – hence them having to dust off T62’s

GlynH
GlynH
10 days ago

Plus, there have been several videos that show Russian choppers not taking any sort of evasive action while SAMs are rising all around; training, or lack thereof. Perhaps Russia simply doesn’t care, the dead, wounded or captured don’t need training.

Daveyb
Daveyb
10 days ago
Reply to  GlynH

Its more likely, they don’t have a defensive aids system (DAS) installed, that uses a missile approach warning system (MAWS) to warn the pilot of the incoming missile threat. MAWS can be either active radar, or use passive infrared or passive ultraviolet optical sensors. The basic MAWS will give you a quadrant warning of where the threat is coming from. Allowing the pilot to make some evasive manoeuvres. The more expensive ones can tell what type of missile has been fired at it, then tailoring countermeasures to decoy it away from the aircraft. Some are even combined with directed infrared… Read more »

Donaldson
Donaldson
9 days ago
Reply to  Daveyb

I presume all RAF, AAC and RN aircraft are fitted with all the above as standard?

DaveyB
DaveyB
9 days ago
Reply to  Donaldson

Yes, it’s a ongoing problem of making sure it remains up to date and not obsolete. A lot of these systems can’t keep up with the progress of technology. After 10 or so years they can become obsolete, as the manufacturer has moved on to something new, so no longer supports the kit that is fitted. It then costs shed loads to buy and do a 1 for 1 upgrade and replacement. All Wildcat, Merlin, Puma, Chinook and Apache have a AN/AAR-57 missile approach warning system (MAWS). In a few years time this will be replaced with an IR based… Read more »

GlynH
GlynH
9 days ago
Reply to  Daveyb

I don’t doubt what you say, but when your two wingman have just been taken down in fire balls, you don’t need DAS to tell you to break left and head for some cover in hills, woods, buildings etc.

Last edited 9 days ago by GlynH
Gareth
Gareth
10 days ago

Also could be due to the apparent scarcity of longer range precision guided munitions available to the Russians. Plenty of footage of Ka-52 lobbing unguided rockets like airbourne MLRS at Ukrainian positions but for any degree of accuracy with such weapons they have to get closer to their targets. Hellfire missiles are good out to about 10 km but the Soviet era S-8 unguided rockets the Russians are using have ranges out to about 4 km which brings the launch platform into range of much more anti-air defences.

Joe16
Joe16
9 days ago
Reply to  Gareth

Very true, even the air-launched ATGMs that they carry are shorter ranged than Hellfire.

johan
johan
10 days ago

Guessing the fact that they have been deployed so badly and in a very WW2 Fashion in that men are disposable.

and loses are acceptable to generals that do not give a flying fudge about sending lower ranks to their deaths.

entire Russian campaign is based around a very cold war and half hearted invasion.

more a laughing stock than a superpower. and highlights there supposed weapons tech as comedy gold

Airborne
Airborne
10 days ago
Reply to  johan

Agreed!

Barry Larking
Barry Larking
10 days ago
Reply to  johan

Have you watched the video of a 14 year old Ukrainian lad recruited to fly his drone over Russian tanks to spot them for destruction? The end of the piece where he, a nice quiet teenager, pondered the deaths of the men in the tanks he helped destroy, is very sobering. That bastard Putin has a lot to answer for.

Latch71
Latch71
10 days ago
Reply to  johan

It’s not just lower ranks that they’re losing though. They’ve lost a lot of very senior officers too…..

Klonkie
Klonkie
10 days ago
Reply to  johan

Spot on Johan, Russian tactical doctrine seems firmly entrenched in ww2 experience. Throw enough men’s lives away until you overwhelm the enemy. Good luck with that on a modern battlefield!

Daveyb
Daveyb
10 days ago

A couple of observations. The Ka-52 and the single seater Ka-50, like the Mil-28 have a radar warning receiver and an infrared missile approach warning system (MAWS). These can both activate chaff and flare decoys. Some Ka-52s have also been pictured with two directed infrared countermeasure (DIRCM) turrets – as shown in the attached picture, just in front of the two rear undercarriage wheels. DIRCM is supposed to jam/blind a missile’s infrared sensor. Of the two Ka-52s shot down, its difficult to say if they had DIRCM fitted due to the way one is sat in a field whilst the… Read more »

KA-52 belly.jpg
Airborne
Airborne
10 days ago
Reply to  Daveyb

Again, great info and knowledge mate! Cheers.

Klonkie
Klonkie
10 days ago
Reply to  Daveyb

excellent insights Daveyb, thanks for the detailed post.

PeterS
PeterS
10 days ago

Whilst lack of recent battle experience and weak tactics may have contributed to losses,helicopters are vulnerable. In the battle of Karbala in Iraq in 2003, a force of 30 Apaches was shot up so badly that it was out of action for weeks. This led to a change of US tactics with Apaches then used to identify targets to be attacked by artillery. The experience almost certainly contributed to the cancellation of the Comanche stealth helicopter, now seem as too vulnerable in urban environments. The Iraqis were using AA cannon from hard to find locations in built up areas. Much… Read more »

A Moore
A Moore
10 days ago

Wowee!!!Combat involves casualties and loss.Would you credit it???

AlexS
AlexS
10 days ago
Reply to  A Moore

Indeed. We unfortunately in West are too used to overmatch of last decades wars since Balkans in 90’s.

James
James
10 days ago

didn’t know this before reading this story however doesn’t surprise especially after seeing a video going around social media a week or so ago showing incredibly reckless and dangerous low aerobatics (less than 10 feet) next to some civvies who are filming it. This was over a small lake but they were doing it right on the bank and spraying the filmers with downwash!

Last edited 10 days ago by James
Steve
Steve
10 days ago

All out war, where no doubts the helicopters are being heavily used with a battlefield full of manpads, I would say only 15 lost is actually pretty impressive, so maybe they aren’t as vulnerable as you could perceive it.

Last edited 10 days ago by Steve
expat
expat
10 days ago

Many of these loses stem from the earlier days of the conflict. From reports Russia is getting its act together and coordinating EW, artillery and air strikes more effectively followed by ground assault to mop up. Ukraine would prefer Russia is bogged down in street by street fighting where they can be more effective and evenly matched. Ukraine badly needs to be able to counter and the best way would be from the air, over 3.5 months in an there’s still no discussion training Ukraine pilots and ground crews on western jets, something that will take months to achieve and… Read more »

John Clark
John Clark
9 days ago
Reply to  expat

Slight change of news, I see Norway is the latest European country to ditch the NH90, like Australia, they have had enough, though Norway is going for breach of contract and returning all helicopters and equipment for a full refund .. what a disastrous Helicopter, thank god we never got involved in that Euro mess or the equally poor Tiger.

DaveyB
DaveyB
9 days ago
Reply to  John Clark

Wow, that’s a proper kick in the teeth!

dan
dan
9 days ago

Like all other Russian kit they are vastly overrated with poorly trained/motivated crews.

izzy
izzy
9 days ago

Any heavily-used asset may suffer casualties, especially in a hot war against an equivalent adversary. The missing element is how effective they have been. During the 1980s, NATO exercises seemed to indicate that in a hot war situation against the Soviets, the attack helicopters of the era (Cobra, early model Apache, Lynx, etc.) would achieve approximately 12-1 kill ratio against Soviet tanks. This level of attrition was considered somewhat acceptable to blunt the “here they come through the Fulda gap” type of scenario – that is, in fairly open tank country (as Soviets were expected to b ypass cities to… Read more »

izzy
izzy
9 days ago
Reply to  izzy

Should say further that we don’t know the answer as Ukraine has been very, very close-mouthed about how it used its tanks, and armor losses in particular.

ChariotRider
ChariotRider
8 days ago
Reply to  izzy

That is a good point well made. To truly understand how well any system has done you need some idea of cost v. benefit (I don’t like that phrase in this context, but can’t think of a better way of putting it). You are also right to say the Ukrainian’s have been keeping their losses close to their chests but it is clear that their losses have risen lately given the change in Russian tactics. The Russian’s are making progress but at what cost. It seems that since a ‘line’ has formed in the East it is harder to identify… Read more »

Michael WK
Michael WK
4 days ago

Maybe the Russian didn’t do enough of the heli’s R&D for a battle’s worst case scenario. Or maybe the Ukraine war is for their trial and error assessment 🤷🏻‍♂️