David Axe


Aug 17, 2023


When Ukrainian brigades rolled out across the south and east on the night of June 4, kicking off Kyiv’s long-anticipated 2023 counteroffensive, Russian air force helicopters were waiting for them.

Ukraine had concentrated its best air-defenses around Kyiv and other major cities, leaving the front-line brigades exposed to attack from above—a flaw in Ukrainian planning the Russians exploited.

Ten weeks later, the Ukrainians seem to have extended their air-defenses over the leading brigades. On Thursday, Ukrainian troops shot down two Russian attack helicopters.

The shoot-downs were especially sweet for the Ukrainian army’s 47th Mechanized Brigade. Russian aircraft wreaked havoc on the 47th Brigade during the first night of its assault south of Mala Tokmachka, in southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Oblast, on June 8.

Struck by mines, pelted with artillery and harried from the air, the 47th and its partner brigade, the 33rd Mechanized, lost at least two dozen of their best vehicles that night, including Leopard 2A6 tanks, Leopard 2R mineclearers and M-2 fighting vehicles.

The Ukrainians eventually found a way around the Mala Tokmachka minefield, allowing them to recover—and presumably repair—many of the vehicles they abandoned on June 8. The 47th-33rd battlegroup advanced several miles south, ultimately reaching Robotyne, a key Russian strongpoint on the road to Melitopol, 45 miles farther south.

It was here, just north of Russian positions in Robotyne, that the 47th Brigade got revenge on the Ka-52s, many of which operate from Russian-occupied Berdyansk on the Black Sea coast.

Firing a Swedish-made Saab RBS-70 laser-guided missile, 47th Brigade troopers shot down a Ka-52, reportedly killing one of the two crew. The same day, Ukrainian forces also shot down another Ka-52 around Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

The twin shoot-downs bring to at least 41 the number of Ka-52s Russia has lost in its 18-month wider war on Ukraine. That’s roughly a third of all the Ka-52s Kamov has built for the Russian air force.

The Ka-52 fleet has had a hard war. To use their best Vikhr anti-tank missiles, Ka-52 crews must hover a few hundred feet off the ground for seconds at a time, potentially exposing them to ground-based air defenses. During those vulnerable seconds, a gunship crew depends on the helicopter’s onboard jammers to protect it.

A Ka-52 has countermeasures against laser- and infrared-guided missiles but not against radar-guided missiles. So Ka-52s frequently fly in mixed formations with heavier Mil Mi-28s, which do have radar-jammers.

But the overlapping countermeasures don’t always work—especially against an RBS-70. The 190-pound, two-person air-defense system fires a supersonic missile as far as 5.5 miles. Nearly as far as a Vikhr ranges.

While its primary guidance is a laser, the RBS-70 works even when the laser gets spoofed. The operator on the ground can use manual control at any time after launch and thus change the target point.

Even after losing 41 Ka-52s plus at least 60 other helicopters and no fewer than 74 fixed-wing aircraft, the Russians still mostly control the air over the front line in Ukraine.

To make any contribution to Kyiv’s counteroffensive and survive, Ukrainian helicopters must fly ridiculously low. Ukrainian fighter jets meanwhile have been launching their own attacks from long range, firing a variety of Western-made precision missiles and glide bombs.

Only the Russian air force can deploy attack helicopters and fighter-bombers at will directly over the heaviest ground fighting.

For now. If every Ukrainian brigade can push its missile crews forward the way the 47th Brigade clearly has done, the Russians eventually could lose control of the air over the front line.