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From the time Russia launched its invasion in Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, the unexpected resistance its forces met led to a steady commitment of weapons, sophisticated and simple, for a widening range of functions. When it came to air support for its soldiers, tanks and guns, Russia has relied not only on jet airplanes like the Sukhoi Su-25 Grach (“rook”), but attack helicopters such as the Kamov Ka-52 Alligator.

History of the Kamov Ka-52

The Alligator’s evolution began in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union’s Kamov design bureau developed a relatively small, sleek single-seat attack helicopter lifted by Kamov’s signature coaxial contrarotating double rotors, which provided stability without a tail rotor, as well as the ability to perform loops and rolls.

It underwent its first test flight on June 17, 1982 and was accepted for production by the Soviet Council of Ministers on December 14, 1987. Designated Ka-50, its fifth prototype wore a jet-black finish in a popular Soviet-made action film called “Chyornaya Akula” (“The Black Shark”), which was adopted for the type’s nickname. In contrast, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization codenamed it “Hokum-A.”

Production was taken up by the Progressive Arsenyev Aviation Company in Arsenyev, Primorski Krai, but the economic turmoil that attended the dissolution of the Soviet Union resulted in the Ka-50s coming out in spurts — only a dozen as of Aug. 28, 1987, for example.

Moreover, in 1982 the Mil design bureau concurrently introduced a two-seater helicopter gunship, the Mi-28, whose firepower and 300 kilograms of armor earned it a production contract, as well as an appropriate NATO codename: “Havoc.”

In 1997, Kamov, aided by Israel Aircraft Industries, redesigned the Ka-50 as a tandem two-seater called the Ka-50 Erdogan, in hopes of winning a $4 million contract for 145 attack copters from Turkey. The contract was reduced to 50 and ultimately went to the Italian A129 Mangusta in 2007, but in the course of the Erdogan’s development, the Kamov team was inspired to redesign the floundering Ka-50 into a side-by-side two-seater, able to accommodate the latest in target acquisition systems. The first Ka-52 was unveiled in December 1996, got its first test flight on June 25, 1997, and was adopted as a complement to the Mi-28. Judging it too similar to its forebear to rate a separate codename, NATO designated the new two-seater “Hokum-B.”  

The Ka-52 had a day and night television and thermal sighting system contained in two spherical turrets, one above the cockpit and one under the nose. It had a fixed side-mounted cannon — unlike the Mi-28, whose gun was flexible — and its wings held six hardpoints for missiles, whereas the Ka-50 and the Mi-28 only had four. In the event of their aircraft going down, the crewmen had the rare resort of NPP Zvezda (“Star”) K-37-800 ejector seats, for which emergencies explosive charges would blow away the rotor blades above them.

For further comparison, the Ka-52 can fly 1,640 feet higher than the Mi-28 and at 52 feet is shorter, although the Mi-28 presents a smaller vertical profile. While the Mi-28’s four wing mounts carry anti-tank missiles with a 3.7-mile range, the Ka-52’s six hard points can carry 12 Whirlwind AT missiles with laser beam guidance and a range of 6.2 miles each, or IGLA-V and IGLA-S anti-aircraft missiles.

To compensate for its heavier ordnance and electronic equipment, the amount of armor and the capacity of the cannon feed and magazine were all reduced on the Ka-52. The later introduction of a Klimov RK-2500 engine also improved the helicopter’s performance. Combat weight is 19,981 lbs. and range 689.7 miles.

The Alligator in Ukraine

By the time of the Ukraine invasion, the Mi-28N and Ka-52N, both models boasting new radar and capable of day or night operations, had become the mainstay models. Under normal field conditions, Russian helicopter missions combined the Mi-28 and Ka-52 in order to play their respective strengths. The better armored Mi-28N leads the duo in the armed reconnaissance role, while the Ka-52N backs it up with wider battlefield coverage and provides escort for accompanying Ka-60 transport helicopters. In itself, the Ka-52 is quieter than its contemporaries because each of its contrarotating rotors dampens the other’s noise. On the other hand, there have been incidents in which excessive maneuvers caused the flexing rotors to strike each other, bringing the chopper crashing to the ground.

Attrition began to set in on the invasion’s first day, when a Ka-52 was damaged and crash landed. Another did on March 2. On March 12, the first one was shot down at Novomykolaivka, near Kherson, followed by another on the 16th.

On April 5, a Ukrainian Stugna-P team rejoiced to see one of its home-produced guided anti-tank missiles strike a hovering Ka-52. Another Ka-52 went down on May 5, killing its crew, and on May 1 another fell victim to a Stugna-P.

On June 4, the 128th Mountain Brigade claimed a Ka-52 on the northern front, and on the 27th an Alligator was forced to land after being hit by a British-supplied Martlet MANPADS (man-portable anti-aircraft defense system). On September 25, a Ka-52 was claimed by a MANPADS team armed with Soviet-built 9K38 Iglas. A Ka-52 was damaged in Donetsk Oblast on August 15, and on October 13, the Ukrainians claimed at least four helicopters destroyed by anti-aircraft missiles.

The more heavily armored Mi-28s have fared better than their backup. The first loss occurred over Lugansk Oblast, to a Starstreak MANPADS. On April 26, the Ukrainians found a wrecked Mi-28N outside of Gostamel, near Kyiv. Two more fell over Kharkiv on May 9 and 16, followed by another on June 12.

Not all of Russia’s losses were in the air-to-ground duel between its helicopters and Ukraine’s motley crew of MANPADS. On the night of Oct. 30-31, what the Russian press identified (so far) as saboteurs sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause set four explosive charges at Veret Airport near Pskov, 500 kilometers behind the southern lines in Russia. This Halloween prank destroyed two Ka-52s and badly damaged two others that had withdrawn there for repairs, but a greater casualty was the embarrassment it left on the quality of Russian base security.

On Nov. 5, the Ukrainians claimed to have shot down 12 Shahed bomber drones and another two Ka-52s. As of this time, then, the Russian helicopter support units have lost at least six Mi-28s and at least 23 of the 120 Ka-52s with which it began “special operations.”

At $13.7 million each, the Ka-52’s deployment has proven costly in more ways than one. The Alligator may be tough, but any claim to invincibility is so much Hokum.