What do Russian attack helicopters say about Syrian strategy?

The cargo ship supposedly transporting attack helicopters to Syria has returned to Russia.Russian-made attack helicopter

MV Alaed had no option but to turn back after its insurance was withdrawn by The Standard Club in London.

The withdrawal was made as the ship reached 50 miles off Scotland’s north coast, preventing it from sailing until it could secure new cover.

Foreign Secretary William Hague discouraged anyone from attempting to provide arms to the Syrian government during the civil crisis.

“We’ve had discussions with Russia about that specifically and I’m pleased that the ship that was reported to be carrying arms to Syria has now turned back apparently towards Russia.”

Riad al Assad, commander of the Free Syrian Army, tweeted mockingly that Russia is acting like the Soviet Union during the cold war: “Breaking news #Syria Russian cargo vessel carrying arms and attack helicopters has started its journey back to the USSR”.

The attack helicopters being mentioned could be a variant of the Mil Mi-35, the export version of the Mi-24. The Brazilian air force has recently bought twelve Mi-35’s as part of its modernisation programme.

The Brazilian government uses the Mi-35 for a number of roles; air policing, border security and counter-narcotics operations.

If it is true that the Syrian government are trying to get hold of Attack Helicopters it reveals a lot about how they view the conflict panning out over the coming weeks.

One Mi-35 costs roughly $25 million (£15.9 million). So the procurement of several of these helicopters is no small investment by the Syrian government. It suggests that the current strategy being used is not entirely effective and that the Free Syrian army are using insurgent tactics that have been successful in other conflicts. From this, it could be inferred that the Syrian government is preparing for a protracted war.

However, questions are being asked of whether Assad’s forces can maintain pressure on the rebels when their resources are being restricted by embargo. If the attack helicopters had arrived, it would have significantly increased the Syrian Arab Army’s capacity to conduct successful counter-insurgency operations, enabling it to root out rebels embedded deep within cities and providing aggressive cover to its own authorities on the ground. The psychological edge alone could have been decisive.

The Attack Helicopter

The attack helicopter has demonstrated its suitability to counter-insurgency and urban warfare across the world. In Libya the British use of the Apache provided significantly enhanced aerial precision compared to fighter jets. Its manoeuvrability means it can pursue units trying to intermingle with the civilian population.

The Russians have used the attack helicopter to some effect in their conflict with Chechen insurgents. The Karmov KA50 accompanied by an Mi-24 (the domestic model of the Mi-35) destroyed a warehouse full of ammunition belonging to Chechen insurgents. Additionally, in the forest covered mountain area to the south of the village of Tsentoroj, KA-50s were involved in the discovery and destruction of a fortified camp of insurgents.

The Turkish government has also realised the importance of the attack helicopter and have produced their own, designated the T129 (and could be leveraged in the ongoing tensions with the bordering Kurdish population.)

Although these are different conflicts in different environments there are similarities in the tactics that insurgents use. From the Vietcong, to Brazil (where factions of Hezbollah have been known to operate shoulder to shoulder with FARC insurgents), to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, similarities can be drawn.

One of the key tactical and strategic elements outlined by the Mao Zedong, the forefather of modern guerrilla warfare is that “the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Considering that Assad does have a strong support base despite also having a strong opposition, differentiating friend from foe could prove to be a huge challenge for Syrian commanders, should rebels seek to exploit their ability to merge into the crowd.

Unfortunately for the Syrian government, if it has been unable to secure helicopter support for both combat and urban surveillance, its counter strategy may already be sporting a large hole.

Defence IQ will publish a full report within the next few days on Attack Helicopter assets worldwide, which will be found on the International Close Air Support download centre.

What was in the crate?

The MI-35

  • The helicopter has six suspension weapon units on the wingtips.
  • It is equipped with a YakB four-barrelled, 12.7mm, built-in, flexibly mounted machine gun, which has a firing rate of 4,000-4,500 rounds a minute
  • It can also carry the longer-range Ataka anti-tank missile system with a maximum range of 8km.
  • It can also be armed with rockets and grenade launchers.
  • There is the option of fitting it with countermeasures that include infrared jammer, radar warner and flare dispensers.
  • Maximum payload 2,400KG
  • Air speed, km/h: maximum 320, cruising 280
  • Range, km 450
  • Powerplant 2 x TV3-117VMA turboshafts
  • Crew: 2

Stats and image courtesy of http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ac/row/mi-24.htm.


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