This decision did not make much sense because all Russia's cash-strapped armed services were unable to acquire modern military equipment at the turn of the century. The Air Force, for example, which only got the first new Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback tactical bombers in late 2006, managed to upgrade just a few aircraft per year, starting with 1992. Consequently, Air Force generals cared little about helicopter units.
The Ka-50 faced additional problems after the re-subordination because Army General Vladimir Mikhailov, commander of the Russian Air Force, preferred the Mil Mi-28 Havoc attack helicopter that had lost out to the Ka-50 in 1984.
This choice was justified because the Mi-28's maneuverability had improved greatly by 1999. The helicopter also received thicker armor, more powerful weaponry and was renamed the Mi-28N Night Hunter, meaning it could operate round the clock.
The Mi-28 was fitted with 16 long-range anti-tank guided missiles, developed at the famous Kolomna-based Machine-Building Design Bureau, which could pierce thick armor. For comparison, the Ka-50 had only 12 such missiles, contributed by the Tula Instrument Engineering Design Bureau.
General Mikhailov's decision to adopt the Mi-28N can probably be explained by the fact that before being transferred to Moscow, he had commanded an air army in Rostov-on-Don, the city where the Rostvertol helicopter plant manufacturing Mi-8 Hip, Mi-17 Hip, Mi-24 Hind, Mi-26 Halo and Mi-28-N Havoc models, is located.
Though, this is mere conjecture because any new weapons systems are adopted through a collective decision-making process involving different experts.
However, the Mi-28N unexpectedly became more popular than the Ka-50. In December 2003, General Mikhailov said the Mi-28N will become Russia's main attack helicopter, and will be supplied to all helicopter units. Commenting on the future of Kamov helicopters, Mikhailov said Ka-50 models will only serve with special weapons and tactics (SWAT) units.
Fifteen years ago, when the two helicopters were fighting for their place under the Sun, I asked the late Mark Vainberg, general designer in charge of the Mi-28 project, which of the two models he preferred.
Vainberg replied it was like choosing between the left and the right eye, because one has to keep both eyes open in combat. In his opinion, success in battle depends on the generals' ability to prudently use their units and on the inherent advantages of each weapon and weapons-control system, rather than on weaponry, even the most advanced.
Unlike the Mi-28, which is mostly intended to attack ground targets, the Ka-50 can destroy enemy helicopters and aircraft more effectively. No universal weapon exists because all weapons systems supplement each other. But two or three flights of these helicopters can effectively cover the entire forward edge of the battle area (FEBA).
Rostvertol officials confirmed this opinion, saying at the latest aerospace show in Zhukovsky that it would be incorrect to compare the Mi-28 and the Ka-50.
The Ka-50 was adopted because the Mi-28 had initially faced numerous technical problems. But the situation has now changed; the world-class Mi-28N seems to be the best attack helicopter for close-support missions. However, both the Black Shark and the Alligator are ideally suited for special operations and reconnaissance missions.
Moreover, the Mi-28N is the only helicopter that can operate at the range from five meters above the ground (its fuselage can withstand direct hits from the U.S. M-61 Vulcan Gatling-style gun, and its cockpit's windshield is reliably protected against 12.7-mm machine-gun ammunition) to 3500 meters.
The inexpensive Mi-28N features interchangeable Russian-made equipment, such as a target-acquisition and sighting station with optical, television and laser imaging systems. This station is coupled with the onboard computer and other avionics.
Vainberg was probably right when he compared the two helicopters with two eyes. Only top generals can choose which is the right helicopter today and tomorrow, but they should be guided by state interests and long-term defense and security interests, rather than time-serving considerations.
There is enough space for the Ka-50 and the Mi-28N Night Hunter in the skies above. However, the cost of implementing both projects today would be too high for Russia.
Barring engines and some types of weapons and electronics, these helicopters lack interchangeable equipment. This is a leftover from the Soviet era, when rival companies developed their own top-secret weapons systems.
Members of Russia's military establishment are supposed to chart short-term, mid-term and long-term defense and security strategies. They should know all about their potential enemies, including terrorists, drug barons and regular armies. The Ka-50 and its modified versions can effectively deal with the first two. The Mi-28's designers claim that their helicopter effectively destroys enemy armor, as well as intermediate-range and shorter-range missile launchers.
The press has said nothing about budgetary allocations for the classified Mi-28N and Ka-50 projects. Judging by leaks from competent sources, the Mi-28N has much better chances today than the Ka-50. It has also been decided to complete three Ka-50s, whose production was launched at the Arsenyev-based Progress Central Specialized Design Bureau in the 1990s.
Yury Denisenko, general director of Progress enterprise, told journalists that his company had to finance 30% of the final price, which would make it possible to set up a strike helicopter unit for fighting terrorists in the mountains.
Russia's Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Ka-50 helicopters have been included in the state defense order, and the Defense Ministry will buy another 12 Ka-50s by 2015, which instills certain optimism.
The twelve Ka-50s are certainly just a drop in the bucket, but hopefully they will enable the Kamov Design Bureau and the Progress plant in Arsenyev to preserve their unique technologies and production processes. This is very important because weapons production can in some cases be impossible to resume after interruption.
Germany and Japan, which were forbidden to develop advanced weaponry after World War II, have only now started making up-to-date multi-purpose fighters, though the cars produced by these countries have long been among the best in the world.
Helicopter-designing countries can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Fortunately, Russia is among them so far, and much credit for this goes to the Black Shark.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board
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