Why Russia Loves “Flying Tank” Helicopters

credit: Creative Commons

Yet another “flying tank” helicopter is entering Russia’s arsenal. The Spetznaz commandos are getting a new flying machine that will combine the troop-carrying capacity of a transport helicopter, the immense firepower of an attack helicopter, and the protection of an armored vehicle.

Except the Mi-8AMTSh-VN, which is scheduled to begin testing in the autumn, is not exactly new. It’s based on the venerable Mi-8 (NATO code name “Hip”) transport helicopter, which first flew in 1961. The ubiquitous Mi-8 has been flown by dozens of nations, from Algeria to Mexico. The 7-ton helicopter has a speed of 150 miles per hour, can carry 24 soldiers, and can be armed with machine guns, unguided rocket pods and anti-tank missiles.

But what Russia has in mind seems closer to the legendary Mi-24 Hind, a 1970s derivative of the Mi-8. The 9-ton Mi-24, flown extensively in the Soviet-Afghan War, was a fearsome beast armed with machine guns, 23mm and 30-mm cannon, rockets, six anti-tank missiles and capacity to haul a dozen soldiers. It was essentially a rotary-wing version of the famed World War II Il-2 Sturmovik, a heavily armored ground attack aircraft designed to survive dense curtains of German low-altitude flak.

The Mi-8AMTSh-VN sounds like a Hind on steroids, capable of hauling troops, hunting tanks and shooting down enemy aircraft. “This innovative machine will transport Spetsnaz and provide them with supporting fire,” claims Russian newspaper Izvestia. “In its most heavily-armed version, it will carry up to four extended-range Hermes missiles, up to eight supersonic Ataka missiles, or up to two tons of aviation bombs. This payload will enable the helicopter to engage ground, maritime, and aerial targets at a range of up to 20 kilometers. Modern avionics, electro-optical systems, radar, and thermal imagers will ensure all-weather day and night operation.”

Why does Russia love these big all-in-one helicopters? The U.S. and other Western militaries specialized machines: the American AH-64 Apache is an attack helicopter that doesn’t haul troops, and the UH-60 Blackhawk is a transport chopper that doesn’t hunt tanks.

But to the Russians, it makes more sense to have the same helicopter capable of performing both missions. For lightly armed Spetznaz commandos, a helicopter that can drop them behind enemy lines and then stay in the area to provide massive fire support is invaluable.

“A multirole helicopter combining a wide range of combat and assault landing capabilities is vital for special operations and Spetsnaz subunits,” said Colonel Valeriy Yuryev, deputy chairman of the Russian Union of Paratroopers. “In Afghanistan, Mi-8s would deliver troops to their destination and depart. Cover would usually be provided by a pair of Mi-24 helicopters flying a race-track pattern. The modern helicopter should have sufficient firepower, plenty of ammunition, and good transportation performance. Desirably, it would land a team and then, while the commandos are approaching their assigned location, start engaging targets. What we need is a kind of flying tank. That is more effective than having infantry fighting vehicles or tanks supporting the commandos. You see the situation better from the air.”

To accomplish all this, the Mi-8 will have to be heavily modified. “With an increased payload, it will be noticeably heavier,” Izvestia noted. “Consequently, it will have a more powerful version of the engine currently on the Mi-8AMTSh.”

Which helps explain why other nations don’t combine such disparate functions in one helicopter. A jack-of-all-trades machine can perform many functions, but less capably at a specific function than a specialized machine. Nothing is free in the marketplace of aerodynamics: combining armor, lots of weapons and troop-carrying capacity means a bigger, heavier – and clumsier – helicopter. Compare the bulky shape of the Mi-24 to lithe attack helicopters like the AH-64 Apache or Russia’s Apache-lookalike the Mi-28 Havoc.

Which approach is better? High-tech Western attack helicopters like the Apache are more like race cars: sleek, highly efficient at a narrow range of tasks, and usually a little more fragile and expensive. Russian helicopters are built to inflict damage and take damage, perhaps not surprising given Russia’s history of massive and bloody battles with everyone from Napoleon to Hitler.

Both types of helicopters reflect the values and expectations of those who design them.

— Michael Peck

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