The Buzz

Russia's New Attack Helicopter Is a Beast (But Has One Big Problem)

The Russian Navy’s Kamov Ka-52K attack helicopter will complete another round of shipboard tests before the end of 2019. The Russian Ministry of Defense will take delivery of the new aircraft shortly thereafter.

“The helicopter trials are planned to be completed before the end of 2019. So, the deliveries to the Defense Ministry will start right after the trials,” Russian Helicopters—a division of Rostec—told the Moscow-based TASS news agency.

While the Ka-52K attack helicopter is a capable machine, the aircraft is not likely to be produced in numbers since Russia does not currently have a need for it.

The Ka-52K performed well during combat tests in Syria when the Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov deployed to the Mediterranean last year, but the gunship was primarily designed to operate from the two French Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that the Kremlin had ordered from France. After the collapse of the Mistral deal, the Ka-52K does not really have a good place in the Russian Navy’s order of battle.

“Without Mistrals, this helicopter is not especially needed for the Navy, they will probably buy one squadron, no more,” researcher Mikhail Barabanov, editor of the Moscow Defense Brief—published by the Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST)—told The National Interest.

The Russian Navy does not have any large-deck amphibious assault ships. Right now, only Kuznetsov and the future Ivan Gren-class landing ships are capable of hosting the Ka-52K.

“The only real platform for them is our only carrier. There are also Ivan Gren-class landing ships, but they can carry just two helicopters and there are just two of them planned,” Vasily Kashin, a senior fellow at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics told The National Interest.

Kuznetsov does not really need the Ka-52K, there are many other aircraft onboard that are more important for the carrier’s primary mission.

“Not so much with Kuznetsov, as [she sails] with escort and patrol warships. ASW missions--and ASW helicopters--in peacetime are not very necessary,” Barabanov said.

Kashin said that the Russian Navy might be able to find some novel ways to use the Ka-52K from Kuznetsov.

“Basically, Kuznetsov can act as helicopter carrier, and at close range missions, helicopters may even be more effective and they would be able to generate a larger number of sorties,” Kashin said.

Moreover, if the Ka-52K—which is fitted with a powerful surface search radar and X-35 anti-ship missiles—worked with other carrier-borne assets, it might prove to be a very potent multirole platform.

“You can have a helicopter carrier with Ka-52K capable of using Х-35 and Hermes air-to-surface long range missile plus AEW helicopters. Such a ship can perform many missions which are performed by the carrier battle group at a fraction of the cost,” Kashin said.

“Of course, there are many limitations, but still... Especially when combined with surface combatants and submarines carrying long range SAMs and heavy cruise missiles. Allows us to get the maximum from our old aircraft carrier, I think.”

Michael Kofman, a research scientist specializing in Russian military affairs at the Center for Naval Analyses, is less optimistic.

Kuznetsov—which is entering into overhaul this year—is not a reliable vessel at the best of times and is of limited military use.  

“The principal issue is that there is no ship from which to field Ka-52Ks for likely the next 10 years, and the only ship that might be available, Kuznetsov, is practically useless,” Kofman said.

The Russian are discussing building an amphibious assault ship to fill the hole left by the cancelled Mistral purchase, but those ships will be available for more than a decade—assuming they materialize at all.

“There is currently discussion of two principal variants of universal amphibious ships, or LHDs, but they don't look to be in the cards until mid-2020s at the earliest,” Kofman said.

Only time will tell if and when Russia might build a new large-deck amphibious assault ship.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @Davemajumdar.

Image Credit: Creative Commons 3.0.