The helicopter war in Ukraine

A speculative discussion

Dr Ron Smith joined the British helicopter company Westland in 1975, working in Research Aerodynamics, remotely piloted helicopters, before becoming Head of Future Projects. He had a strong influence on the design of the NH90, and was involved in the assessment of the Apache for Britain. He also explored a variety of exotic future technologies for Westland. Here Ron looks at the role of helicopters in the attempted invasion of Ukraine.

1) General list of helicopter roles in the land battle

  • Reconnaissance (enemy locations and apparent intent, location of air defences, command & control centres, logistics)
  • Insertion of ground troops, including special forces
  • Anti-armour operations, destruction of point and hardened targets
  • Suppression of dispersed and soft-skinned targets (typically by rocket or cannon fire)
  • Suppression of enemy air defence systems
  • Attack of enemy command and control centres
  • Electronic intelligence and jamming
  • Casualty evacuation

2) Conjectural approach of attacking forces (Russian)

Assumptions – significant superiority of numbers, but faced with general resistance of both trained forces and population in general. The key objectives are to gain control of key cities, particularly Kiev, as the centre of political power.

Currently large bodies of Russian ground forces appear to be largely operating on roads. The expectation is that the defending forces will be preparing defensive positions and (potentially) destroying bridges to further restrict freedom of movement (e.g. across River Dnieper). It is not known whether defensive forces will deploy mines and or IEDs on major routes – not least because of the risk to refugee civil population.

Russia has the capability to deploy helicopters in all of the roles listed in Section 1, above. These reflect a generic approach to combined arms operations in relatively open country. There will, however, be additional challenges as the fight moves into urban environments.

During the approach, bombardment using long range artillery will be used to destroy key administrative buildings, infrastructure and any military installations, as well as to damage the morale of opposition forces and the population, in general. Cruise missiles (and/or special forces – potentially helicopter-inserted)  will be deployed against specific command centres and operating bases / airfields.

With Ukrainian forces being largely on the defensive, I’d anticipate that use of UAVs (armed or not) would be favoured by the Russians for reconnaissance, with helicopters providing a stand-off attack capability against any hardened defensive positions identified. Attack could be by laser-guided missile (potentially with UAVs or special forces providing laser designation) allowing the targets to be engaged from 3 – 5 km range (or more).

Rockets and/or cannon would be used against dispersed or less well-protected targets, particularly if air defence systems have already been suppressed. This mix, with ground infantry moving house to house, would probably be more effective than the use of heavy armour in an urban environment. Routes approaching (and within) cities are ‘canalised’, heavily constraining freedom of movement. In these areas, the destruction of lead units hampers the mobility of the rest of a heavy armour force.

Transport helicopters can be used to increase tempo and mobility, by dispersing troops to encircle locations, although the transports would need to maintain a certain distance and/or have had local air defence systems suppressed first. Also, any Western MANPADS of NLAW type systems (in direct attack mode) could represent a considerable threat, if available. Once on the ground, the troops would still need IFVs to support infantry operations and to suppress resistance.

3) Conjectural approach of defending forces (Ukranian)

The critical concern here will depend on the degree to which an operational helicopter fleet remains available by the time that the Russian net starts to close around the cities. A Russian objective would surely be to achieve significant attrition of Ukranian air assets (including helicopters) before beginning urban operations.

It may well be that helicopter operations would be more effective in the earlier approach phase when there are significant masses of enemy armour and logistic vehicles occupying main routes and suffering from restricted movement. Both armed UAVs and helicopter-launched ATGWs would be effective, subject to the considerable constraints of the large number of enemy vehicles, and the (likely) limited resources of the defensive forces.

Constraining enemy mobility by destroying river crossings and laying explosive charges under approach roads might be attempted with a view to attacking armoured columns at predetermined locations on the city approaches. Any NLAW equipped units might be used in these ambush efforts.

Transport helicopters might be deployed to insert special forces into the enemy rear areas to attack (for example) command and control centres and logistic support formations.

Similarly, NLAW or MANPADS squads could be moved around between locations allowing hit-and-run tactics to be used, with the helicopters acting as a ‘force multiplier’. The fact that both attackers and defenders operate the same types of helicopters may be advantageous in this instance.

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