China Looks to Ukraine War for Guidance on Attack Helicopters

commentary

Feb 26, 2024

A Russian Ka-52 “Alligator” attack helicopter flies near a church in Donetsk, Ukraine, February 27, 2023, photo by Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

A Russian Ka-52 “Alligator” attack helicopter flies near a church in Donetsk, Ukraine, February 27, 2023

Photo by Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

By Lyle Goldstein and Nathan Waechter

This commentary originally appeared on The Diplomat on February 26, 2024.

As the stalemate in the Ukraine War seemed to harden during late 2023, military strategists wondered if 2024 could see breakthroughs driven by enhanced airpower. Many are focused, for instance, on the apparently imminent deployment of the first Ukrainian F-16 fighters to the battlefield. Likewise, Kyiv has celebrated its first apparent shootdown of a large Russian air battle management Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS)-type A-50 aircraft.

With respect to Russian airpower, Chinese strategists continue to be quite fixated on Russian attack helicopter operations in Ukraine. Helicopters appear to be at the very heart of any Chinese strategy to conquer Taiwan, since they can provide both extensive air cover and firepower for amphibious forces coming ashore in a hypothetical Taiwan scenario. Just as crucial, People's Liberation Army (PLA) rotary-wing aircraft would provide transport capabilities to deliver “air cavalry” and special forces deep into the island's interior. This would be done in order to disorient Taiwan's defenders and prevent reinforcements from developing counterattacks against the PLA's initial lodgments.

One Russian helicopter, in particular, has garnered extra Chinese attention: the Ka-52 Alligator. Not only is this Russia's most advanced attack helicopter, incorporating some important design innovations, but there were strong rumors in fall 2021 that the PLA was acquiring the Ka-52 for use aboard its new large amphibious attack ships (type 075). That would not be strange given that the PLA Navy and the other Chinese armed forces have relied extensively on Russian helicopters for decades.

Thus, there are many reasons to pay attention to a late 2023 Chinese language analysis of Ka-52 operations in the Russian war in Ukraine. The overall theme of this article is that the Russian helicopter's combat record has achieved an improbable comeback.

Helicopters appear to be at the very heart of any Chinese strategy to conquer Taiwan, since they can provide both extensive air cover and firepower for amphibious forces coming ashore.

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The article recapped the struggles of Russian helicopter aviation during the first phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. UK Ministry of Defense data was cited to suggest that as many as 39 Ka-52s might have been lost in the early part of the Russian invasion—amounting to a quarter of the Russian fleet of Alligators. According to this Chinese analysis, these significant losses caused a “sense of astonishment,” at least among Western commentators. Likewise, it is said that the helicopter had performed below expectations and that Russia would have trouble replacing such high losses.

However, the article noted that assessments of the Ka-52 significantly altered after its strong performance during Ukraine's summer counteroffensive. The Alligator attack helicopters were credited with destroying high numbers of Ukrainian armored vehicles, including the most advanced Western types, such as Leopard tanks and Bradley AFVs. The report noted that the UK minister of defense had been disturbed by these battlefield developments and the Chinese assessment suggested that that defense analysts have rebranded the Russian Alligator attack helicopter as “Putin's Vulture” or the “NATO Tank Killer.”

The Chinese analysis posited that the new effectiveness of these Russian attack helicopters can be attributed to the development of “appropriate tactics.” Initially, the Alligators were simply “too exposed to fire from the Ukrainian armed forces' battlefield air defense network…”

Of course, the new tactics were partly enabled by Ukraine's combat vehicles revealing themselves as they went on the offensive, the article explains. Instead of attempting to penetrate dense air defenses, the helicopters are instead called in “on demand” to destroy targets of opportunity, while then rapidly exiting the battlefield. Apparently, such “hit and run” tactics do not allow the Ukrainian side to target the Russian attack helicopters effectively.

A British military aviation expert was quoted at length in this Chinese rendering. It was explained that these tactics found a weakness in Ukraine's air defenses, since they had just seconds to react to these strikes. In addition, that expert noted the effective terrain masking employed by the Russian Alligators. They “fly very close to the ground” and will suddenly appear over a hill or out of a forest to make their missile attacks. Thus, for the defenders on the ground, “it's very difficult to lock on to these helicopters.”

The Chinese assessment also noted that the Russian Ka-52s have shown great effectiveness in night operations. The analysis explained that Russian attack helicopters have been assisted by other Russian tactics on the battlefield, including especially dense belts of land mines, which repeatedly stalled Ukrainian armored thrusts and made their tanks and AFVs vulnerable targets for the Alligators. The article cited an American observer of military affairs as commenting that the lethality of Russian helicopters during the summer of 2023 is a reminder of the success of the U.S. Apache helicopters operating in the Persian Gulf War.

The report also said that of approximately 125 Ukrainian armored vehicles disabled in June 2023, more than 50 were disabled by Russian helicopter operations. It quoted a Ukrainian soldier as having told the British press that the Alligator attacks are “dauntless and relentless,” occurring three to four times per day.

Moreover, the Russians have apparently improved both the sensors and their laser-guided munitions fired by the Ka-52, so that it can destroy targets at greater distances. The Chinese analysis explained that when the helicopter is delivering strikes from 8–10 kilometers away, the Ukrainian target “really cannot either see or hear the Russian attack helicopter.” It quoted a Ukrainian soldier from a German paper observing that at this distance, “We fundamentally have no means to counter” the Russian helicopter threat.

The article reported that the Russian military is now upgrading the sensors and weapons to track multiple targets at ranges exceeding 30–50 km. Undoubtedly, Chinese strategists will be interested to see how such longer-range helicopter attack systems can be combined with improved drone surveillance, a technological coordination issue we previously addressed, to enhance PLA air-to-ground attack doctrine for a Taiwan scenario.

Taiwan's air defense system and its ability to blunt a PLA heliborne or airborne attack constitutes an unknown for the Taiwan scenario going forward.

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The Chinese article, which focused on the summer 2023 exploits of the Ka-52, also claimed that Russian attack helicopters have improved their battlefield survivability through improved use of electronic warfare (EW). The article discussed a case in June when an Alligator was reportedly attacked by no fewer than 18 Ukrainian missiles but still managed to successfully escape due to its Vitebsk 25 EW system—a result that the article claimed had been verified by other relatively recent tests.

A 2023 article in The Economist noted that the Russian armed forces “has for many years placed a 'huge focus' on using its military-industrial complex to produce and develop an impressive range of EW capabilities…” That same article also warned that insights from the EW struggle in Ukraine are likely “to be passed on to the Chinese” by the Russian military.

Taiwan's air defense system and its ability to blunt a PLA heliborne or airborne attack constitutes an unknown for the Taiwan scenario going forward. Recently, Taipei got some good news on that front in the form of the delivery of a major batch of U.S.-made man-portable air defense system Stingers to the island. The Chinese article summarized above, however, shows that Chinese strategists are extremely keen to find ways to foil such defenses to bring China's airpower, both fixed wing and rotary wing, to bear on a prospective cross-strait military scenario.


Lyle Goldstein is director of Asia Engagement for the Washington think tank Defense Priorities. He is also visiting professor at the Watson Institute for Public and International Affairs at Brown University. Nathan Waechter is a policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he lived in China for close to a decade, working in the quantitative market research industry.

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