- Russia’s aviation forces have struggled to operate effectively in Ukraine.
- The toll has been especially high for Russia’s Ka-52, one of its newest attack helicopters.
- The ineffectiveness of Russian jets and the Ka-52’s own flaws have left the helicopter more exposed.
Of all the Russian Air Force’s helicopters, the Ka-52 is perhaps the most distinctive.
Featuring an unusual coaxial rotor design and a side-by-side tandem crew seating arrangement, it has been on the frontline and involved in the thickest fighting more than any other Russian attack helicopter since Russia’s attack began in February.
Because it’s been the most active, the Ka-52 also appears to be taking the most losses of Russia’s helicopters. In October, the British Defense Ministry said that at least 23 Ka-52s had been shot down since February.
That represents over 25% of the Russian Air Force’s in-service Ka-52 fleet and makes up nearly half of Russia’s total helicopter losses in Ukraine, the ministry said.
Designed by the highly regarded Kamov helicopter company, the Ka-52 — known in Russia as the “Alligator” and called the “Hokum-B” by NATO — is an improved variant of the Ka-50 Black Shark attack helicopter, which was introduced in 1995.
The Ka-52 entered service in 2011. It has a ceiling of 18,000 feet and a top speed of 186 mph. In addition to coaxial rotors, which eliminate the need for a tail rotor, it has ejection seats for its pilots — both rare features for helicopters.
Two stub wings give it the ability to carry some 4,000 pounds of rockets and missiles. It’s also armed with a 30 mm autocannon mounted on the right side of the fuselage. Some variants also have a nose-mounted forward-looking infrared camera for targeting.
Despite being one of Russia’s newest helicopters, the Ka-52 already has several variants.
A version designed for naval operations was to be paired with two French-built Mistral-class amphibious ships purchased by Moscow, but the deal was canceled in response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Egypt subsequently bought both ships from France and then bought the helicopters from Russia.
The most recent variant, the Ka-52M, first flew in August 2020. According to Russian media, it has a number of improvements, including a longer-range gyro-stabilized opto-electronic target acquisition and identification system and a new digital drive.
The Ka-52’s armaments also continue to be upgraded as well, with battlefield videos appearing to show it firing a new anti-armor missile in Ukraine this summer.
Ka-52s have had an important role since Russia launched its attack.
In the first weeks of the war, they were seen supporting Russian airborne forces at Hostomel Airport and escorting Russian convoys. They were particularly useful for hunter-killer missions behind Ukrainian lines in the first two months of the war, sometimes flying as far as 50 km into Ukrainian-controlled territory.
According to a recent Royal United Services Institute report, Ka-52s have seen “more intensive use than the other fleets, both by day and especially at night, on all fronts in Ukraine.”
But the high operational tempo has also led to a high attrition rate.
The UK says 23 Ka-52s have been lost, while open-source tracking site Oryx counted 25 as downed as of mid-November. This is compared to the loss of only eight Mi-24/-35 and six Mi-28 helicopters, according to Oryx’s tallies.
Those losses are more than one-quarter of the 90 Ka-52s in active service before the war, according to the British Defense Ministry. (The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2021 Military Balance report, compiled before the war, cited Russia as having a total of 133 Ka-52s.)
The ministry cited man-portable air-defense systems, like the US-made Stinger missile, and a lack of “consistent top-cover from combat jets” as the most likely reasons for the disproportionate losses.
Russia’s continued inability to suppress and destroy Ukrainian air defenses has made it hard for Russian jets to work in tandem with helicopters to conduct effective combined-arms operations — in part because many Russian jets have been shot down.
The Ka-52’s outsize losses also stem from a number of deficiencies, including less armor and poor vibration dampening.
Less armor means the Ka-52 is especially vulnerable to shoulder-launched missiles and small-arms fire. Poor vibration dampening makes it harder for the helicopter to acquire targets and affects the accuracy of its weapons, particularly of unguided rockets. That forces Ka-52s to get closer to targets, increasing their exposure.
The Ka-52 also uses anti-tank guided missiles that require the helicopter to remain almost stationary so the missile can hit its target. That also increases its exposure — so much so that Ukrainian soldiers appear to have shot down Ka-52s with anti-tank missiles fired from the ground.
Russia’s helicopters have changed tactics in response to Ukraine’s successful use of shoulder-fired missiles and other air-defense systems, but Russian forces still need close air support. Consequently, Ukraine continues to claim Ka-52 kills.
With newer, more modern air-defense systems arriving in Ukraine, those losses will likely increase.