The Russian attack helicopter fleet is taking a beating in Ukraine, and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft systems, such as the American FIM-92 Stinger missile, are making life hard for Russian pilots.
“There have been at least 23 verified losses of Russia’s Ka-52 HOKUM attack helicopter in Ukraine since the invasion. This represents over 25% of the Russian Air Force’s in-service fleet of 90 Ka-52s, and nearly half of Russia’s total helicopter losses in Ukraine,” the British Military Intelligence assessed in its latest estimate of the war.
The proliferation of handheld anti-aircraft systems combined with the fact that the Russian air forces failed to take out the Ukrainian air defenses is most likely the main reason behind the fact that even nine months into the war, the superior Russian military has failed to achieve air superiority.
“Russian attack helicopters have likely suffered particular attrition from Ukrainian man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), while the helicopters frequently operate with less consistent top-cover from combat jets than they would expect under Russian military doctrine,” the British Military Intelligence added.
“Russia is still failing to maintain adequate air superiority in order to reliably carry out effective fixed wing close air support near the front line, and its artillery ammunition is running low. Russian commanders are likely increasingly resorting to conducting high-risk attack helicopter missions as one of the few options available to provide close support for troops in combat,” the British Military Intelligence added.
The British Ministry of Defense is assessing that the Russian military has lost less than the 248 attack and transport helicopters that the Ukrainian military is claiming to have shot down. Since the start of the war, there has been a certain degree of tension between the numbers that the Ukrainians are putting out and what has been actually verified visually and independently by open-source investigators, like Oryx, for example, and Western intelligence services.
The fog of war certainly plays a part and, at the end of the day, the Ukrainians are fighting the war from the ground and have better visibility, but there is a big gap between the Ukrainian claims of 271 fighter, attack, and transport jets and 248 helicopters shot down and the 63 and 54 that have respectively been visually verified.
A Surprise for Everyone
When the war in Ukraine began more than nine months ago, many believed that the Russian armed forces were in for a walk in the park and that they would defeat their smaller, less technologically advanced adversary within a matter of a few days.
It was hard not to believe this assessment when looking at the two orders of battle and the arsenals of the two militaries. Despite a panicked influx of Western weapon systems to Ukraine, mainly FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank weapons, FIM-92 Stinger anti-air missiles, and Next Generation Light Anti-Tank (NLAW) weapons, in the days leading to the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian forces were vastly outgunned.
That was the case especially in the air, with the Russian Aerospace Forces boasting a near-peer capability—at least that what was believed at the time—with hundreds of advanced fourth-generation fighter jets and attack helicopters.
Expert Biography: A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.