Kamov vs. Mil: prospects for Russian chopper fleet
By the end of this year, Russia’s Far East air base of Chernigovka will be fully reequipped with new Mi-8AMTSh and Ka-52 attack choppers that will replace the obsolete Mi-8s and Mi-24s. Designed as a special forces' support helicopter, the Ka-52 is gradually growing to become the army’s main attack gunship.
Plans to launch Ka-52 batch production were announced as early as in 2006. Under the modernization initiative, Ka-52s were to make up only a small portion of the 300 attack helicopters – just several squadrons of 70 to 80 choppers – while the Mi-28N was to act as the air forces’ workhorse.
This situation has changed. Russia’s air forces and naval aviation units have already received the first batch of 80 to 90 attack helicopters out of some 400 choppers that are to join the nation’s air fleet by 2020, with some 100 Mi-28Hs, about 50 Mi-35s (the latest version of the Mi-24) and 140 Ka-52s still pending. Considering that the navy aviation is also to be outfitted with some 80 Ka-52 helicopters, the number of these choppers, which are slated to enter the Russian military fleet, can exceed 200 units, putting the Ka-52 on par with the Mi-28.
The Russian army has been on the quest to build its main gunship since the Soviet times (when it didn’t yet merge with the air forces), long before either Mi-28 or Ka-50 tried their wings in 1982. Both design bureaus presented plausible arguments to tip the scales toward their jet. At the end of the 1980s, the Kamov bureau finally emerged as the winner only to see military modernization stalled after the Soviet collapse. Just a few years before the country’s break-up, the rival Mil design bureau showed off its advanced Mi-28A version with a better sighting and navigation system and started developing its new Mi-28N all-weather attack helicopter that exceeded the original Kamov aircraft in its equipment capabilities.
In its turn, the Kamov design bureau, whose one-seat Ka-50 chopper critics slammed it for being too small for the pilot to simultaneously navigate and operate its weapons, came up with a two-seat variant, the Ka-52, which entered the 2006-2015 State Arms Program and later made it into its 2011-2020 edition.
Many military mavens believe that, having opted for both Ka-52 and Mi-28, the modern Russia has repeated the mistake the Soviet defense ministry made when it ordered the production of several different kinds of weapons aimed at fulfilling one and the same task. Still, there are quite a few arguments to justify this choice.
First and foremost, the Ka-52 and Mi-28 have a different range of capabilities. The Ka-52 has shown good performance in the mountainous terrain and at sea, making it a perfect onboard aircraft for “Mistral” warships, whereas the Mi-28N with its thicker armor and a top-mounted radar station is better suited for the European Theatre of Operations and its advanced anti-missile shield.
Despite all their external distinctions, the two helicopters have quite a lot in common, starting from their power plants and armament, which simplifies their simultaneous maintenance.
Russia’s current political and economic situation is also playing in the hand of the Ka-52, keeping afloat its producer, the Arsenyevsk Helicopter Plant, which is one of the few high-tech enterprises of Russia’s Primorye region.
In fact, Russia’s arms production remains its only industry that has a competitive advantage at the international level and has virtually set the benchmark for the rest of the world. Both the Ka-52 and Mi-28 are considered some of the best choppers worldwide, so it was only natural to seek for a compromise between the two of them.
The need to reequip the Russian military has become increasingly urgent after the 20 post-Soviet years effectively undermined the nation’s military capability. Today, neither the Rostvertol helicopter plant, the Mi-28 producer, nor the Ka-52 manufacturer, Progress, has enough production capacities to build large numbers of high-quality choppers. In this situation, putting all eggs in one basket could postpone the aviation revamp again.