MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Viktor Litovkin) - The key to rescuing the drowning is in the hands of the drowning themselves.
The Kamov design bureau followed this catchphrase from a famous Russian comedy by Ilf and Petrov both literally and figuratively. They started marketing the Black Shark helicopter abroad.
Will foreigners buy it or not? Will they get a foreign trade permit? Answers to these questions did not matter. What mattered was that foreigners would know about the Black Shark; it would attract the attention of the press, which, in turn would promote its adoption by the army, and training of pilots; the all-weather assault (or fire support) helicopter would help troops to win in battle. This was the idea of the Kamov bureau.
For the first time, the public saw the declassified Ka-50 Black Shark helicopter (which carries NATO codename Hokum A) in February 1991 during tactical exercises in Machulishchi, Belarus; in August of the same year, it took part in the air show in Zhukovsky, near Moscow. In September 1992, the Black Shark was displayed at the Farnborough Air Show near London, where it created a real stir. Strange as it may seem, the credit for this does not go to the Kamov designers only.
The UK Embassy delayed a visa to the Black Shark's general designer Sergei Mikheyev, and he had to give instructions on its unloading from an An-124 Ruslan cargo aircraft by phone. When he finally made it to London, it transpired that technical support experts and test pilots had no visas. Colleagues from the Tupolev design bureau helped Mikheyev unpack the helicopter, and assembly it for the exhibition. But he had no right to fly it, and had to put a notice on the windscreen: "Sorry, we cannot fly because..."
CNN reporters saw the notice, and staged a huge row. Everyone was talking about "insidious rivals." The Brits immediately provided the visas, but the pilots arrived in Farnborough when the air show was about to close.
This is how Sergei Mikheyev and his team started learning the seamy side of the world arms market. It appeared that some arm producers would stop at nothing to prevent their rivals from scoring success. Sometimes, these attempts border on a joke. I was involved in one of these myself.
At the time, I was working for a newspaper which issued the first joint Russian-American publication entitled "We." Materials were prepared in Moscow and Washington, D.C., and printed in the United States. Color print was not used for weeklies in Russia in the early 1990s. The KA-50 general designer and I decided to write an article about two helicopters - the Russian Kamov vs. the American Apache. We compared the characteristics mentioned in ad booklets. The Shark surpassed the An-64 Apache in cruise speed and some other indicators. The Apache was better fitted our for night operations. This was an unbiased comparison.
We were very surprised to see the proofs which arrived from Washington. All characteristics of our Ka-50 were downgraded compared to the Apache. They quoted the Shark's cruise speed with Apache' attack speed, which is bound to be higher than in normal flight. We showed these official documents to the Russian editor. He corrected everything in our presence and sent the proofs back to the U.S. But the newspaper was published with the U.S.-preferred figures.
Mikheyev was very upset, all the more so since on August 25, 1995 the Russian President issued a decree on the Black Shark's adoption by the Russian Armed Forces. He took the American demarche as an insult of his brainchild and even the Russian Armed Forces as a whole.
Mikheyev also felt bad because despite the long-awaited decree no money was allocated from the federal budget for the Ka-50's large-scale manufacture. Even the start of the war against the Chechen terrorists and separatists did not change the situation. This is despite the fact that the Black Shark would have been of great help both in the mountains and in conditions of limited space and poor visibility. But the scant defense budget was spent on other things. Even the Crocodiles - Mi-24 choppers - were not ready for the war, to say nothing of new helicopters. The pilots did not have the required equipment, and when they were downed, not all of them could be saved in time for lack of operating search indicators.
In 1998, the Kamov design bureau took part in Ankara's tender for the supply of attack helicopters to Turkey. One of the terms was to launch production of helicopters at the republic's aircraft-building plants. The Black Shark joined the competition. The Kamov designers even made a special helicopter code-named Erdogan (Falcon) for the Turkish army. On Ankara's recommendations, Israeli avionics was used in its electronic fittings. As distinct from the Shark, it was a two-seat helicopter, with one pilot sitting behind the other, as in a training fighter. The Ka-50 helicopter was equipped with a thermal imager, and was fit for day and night operations.
But once the backbone of the U.S. Army attack helicopter AH-1Z King Cobra emerged on the horizon together with Bell, its manufacturer, and their lobby groups from the Capitol, and the Department of State. The Kamov helicopter could not compete in this weight category.
Although the King Cobra won the tender, the Turks refused to buy it. The experience amassed by Mikheyev in the development of the Erdogan allowed him and his colleagues to build a new version of the combat Kamov - Ka-52, which was later codenamed Alligator (V-80Sh2). It is also a two-seater, but the pilots sit side by side. While one of them is at the wheel, the other selects targets for attack. This is why this version is called attack-and-reconnaissance. These helicopters are equipped with fluid crystal color displays and helmet-mounted indication of readings. Ka-52 pilots have almost completely matched their foreign colleagues.
Specialists have even suggested tactics for using Ka-50 and Ka-52 in action - a group of five to seven helicopters, where two Alligators will conduct reconnaissance, select targets, and function as a flying command center. In the meantime, Sharks will destroy the located enemy armor, control points, or terrorists, their ammunition depots, and training camps. They will become real terminators.
The idea is wonderful but unrealistic. We have very few Sharks, and our commanders have not yet mastered the conduct of a controlled combined arms operation involving space, air, and ground troops. On the one hand, we have no technical or financial means for that, and on the other, there is no urgent need for such training. Similar operations are taking place in the Middle East rather than Russia.
But one Black Shark pilot was awarded the title of Hero of Russia for taking part in the anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya in 2001. Ka-50 and Ka-52 designers received Russia's State Award, while the Kamov bureau general designer Sergei Mikheyev was honored with a Hero's Gold Star.
(the final part of this article will be posted soon)