Saturated with long-range and short-range anti-aircraft defenses (Manpads), the Ukrainian skies have everything from the death trap for rotary wings, as illustrated by the countless videos posted on social networks: since February 24, the The Russians have lost at least 42 helicopters, the Ukrainians seven, according to the specialized blog Oryx which lists the material losses in Ukraine on the basis of photos or videos collected on the battlefield.
Devices designed to support armored vehicles and ground troops, attack helicopters, although armored and over-armed, are particularly exposed.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, “the air defenses on both sides had a clear deterrent effect on helicopter operations”estimates Sash Tusa, British analyst at Agency Partners.
“These unpleasant reminders of the realities of high-intensity warfare against adversaries of nearly equal strength in turn undermine the case for additional investment and retention of Western air assault capabilities,” he writes in a column in the specialized magazine Aviation Week.
In other words, the future of the helicopter as an assault tool is in question, especially since many of their missions can now be carried out by much less expensive drones.
From the first day of the war, the failure of the Russian raid against the airport of Hostomel, near kyiv, repelled by the Ukrainians, showed the limits of the airborne assault.
A “Russian fiasco”, not due to the shortcomings of the helicopters but to the conditions in which they were used, according to Joseph Henrotin, researcher at the Institute of Comparative Strategy (ISC).
“The Russians have worked very poorly. Before an airborne operation, you have to make sure that the skies are cleared and the enemy anti-aircraft defenses are suppressed”, he explains.
Michael O’Hanlon, expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, agrees: helicopters “are not obsolete, but attacking a predictable place where the enemy is on alert does not usually work”, he mocks.
The use of combat helicopters corresponds to what the Mi-24, Mi-28 and Ka-52 were developed for during the Cold War, as well as their Western counterparts, the American Apache or the Franco-German Tiger, for major clashes as is the case today in Ukraine.
“They were designed at a time when they could have been engaged over Germany or Poland, with a very high density of fire and threats for helicopters”, recalls Joseph Henrotin.
Before predicting the end of helicopters, we must look at the “employment concept” What did the Russians do in Ukraine, conjures Patrick Brethous, military adviser to Airbus Helicopters.
“We have seen a lot of Russian helicopters flying by day, 100 meters above the ground, being shot down. It is a very dangerous job for a helicopter”, while it is necessary to favor night operations as close as possible to the ground to avoid enemy missiles, according to this former general responsible for the detachment of the helicopter detachment of the French special forces.
For Joseph Henrotin too, the conflict constitutes a “rather bloody reminder for the Russians of the fundamentals: a helicopter does not work alone” but must be coordinated with all the military means.
And if some of their missions, such as reconnaissance, can now be carried out by drones, the latter are complementary and cannot do everything.
“At the moment they don’t have the firepower of an attack helicopter,” recalls Joseph Henrotin: a Turkish Bayraktar drone used by the Ukrainians can carry four missiles, while the Ka-52 with its 12 missiles and baskets of rockets remains a “gunboat from the sky”.