The fighting in Ukraine shows a growing vulnerability of helicopters

  • Drones and light portable missiles used in Ukraine have put a strain on troops and material.
  • The spread of such weapons raises doubts about the future role of heavy-duty hardware, including helicopters.
  • Those weapons are here to stay, but the military can do more to help pilots and planes survive.

Instead of the swift Russian victory that Moscow and much of the world expected, the war in Ukraine dragged on for nearly four months, with both sides losing thousands of soldiers and hundreds of aircraft and vehicles.

The chaos caused by drones and other small and light weapons has spurred a renewed debate on the vulnerability of heavy military hardware on modern battlefields, including helicopters, which are an integral part of many military personnel’s maneuvering and combat plans.

The end of an era?

Wreck of a Ukrainian military helicopter

A destroyed Ukrainian military helicopter is transported to Kharkiv on May 21, 2022.

John Moore / Getty Images

In a recent article on Aviation Week, defense and aerospace analyst Sash Tusa said that technological advances in sensors and anti-aircraft weapons on display in Ukraine are proof that air strike and helicopter combat missions in general are becoming less viable.

In the opening hours of the invasion, elite Russian VDV airborne troops attempted to capture Hostomel airbase near Kiev with an air assault. Dozens of Mi-8 transport helicopters, guarded by Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters, ferried a paratrooper strike force to the Ukrainian airport.

The Russian air assault was ultimately a failure, as the Russian army failed to strengthen its aerial head with subsequent forces and the Ukrainians counterattacked in force.

Russian paratroopers at Hostomel airport in Ukraine

Russian paratroopers at Hostomel airport in Ukraine, March 12, 2022.

Russian Ministry of Defense /

The failure of that mission – which resembled how the United States and other major armies would conduct airstrike operations – “should have come as a shock to many observers,” writes Tusa, adding that Ukrainian use of artillery and shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles thwarted Russian efforts to strengthen Hostomel and discouraged Russian helicopter operations for much of the war.

The US airstrike doctrine, which the Pentagon sought to instill in partner forces, including the Afghan and Ukrainian armies, is based on technological and numerical superiority in advanced weapon systems, which is not representative of the capabilities of allies and US partners.

US conventional and special operations units are used to operating with US air superiority, but this is not the case with most other air forces. Indeed, that may not be the case with the United States at war with China or Russia, which can both deploy a variety of anti-aircraft weapons.

Helicopter Wars

Ukrainian military helicopter

A Ukrainian military helicopter hovers during an exhibition near Kiev on November 8, 2021.

Pavlo Bagmut / Ukrinform / Future Publishing via Getty Images

The airspace over Ukraine is filled with threats from fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

Long- and medium-range anti-aircraft weapons systems, such as the S-200, -300 and -400, are making high-altitude flights dangerous for both sides. At the same time, portable air defense systems are making life below 10,000 feet difficult for crews. Ukrainian forces even used anti-tank missiles to shoot down low-flying Russian helicopters.

Russia reportedly lost nearly 200 helicopters. Losses of Ukrainian aircraft are uncertain but likely high. There are several factors behind the heavy rotary-wing asset losses for both sides.

To begin with, most of the rotary wing operations in Ukraine took place during the day. Neither party has the night flight capabilities of the US military, so they have to take the risk of flying during the day. Furthermore, neither side has powerful countermeasures that would help their planes repel incoming threats.

“They don’t have up-to-date aircraft survival equipment or electronic warfare technology and countermeasures,” retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Greg Coker told Insider.

Russian special forces soldier falls into lake from Mi-17 helicopter during International Military Technical Forum Army-2018 in Alabino, outside Moscow, Russia on Saturday 29 June 2019

A Russian soldier leaps from a Mi-17 helicopter during a training exercise near Moscow, June 29, 2019

Photo by AP / Pavel Golovkin

Coker, an AH-6 Little Bird gunship pilot and author of “Death Waits in the Dark”, spent 30 years in the US military, completing 11 combat deployments with the vaunted 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, nicknamed “Night Stalkers” .

US military helicopters have special equipment, including active and passive technologies, designed to defeat infrared missiles, such as the Soviet-origin SA-7 and SA-14 anti-aircraft missiles that are shooting down helicopters in Ukraine today.

But as the old military adage goes, technology will fail and pilots must be prepared to evade anti-aircraft fire using speed and terrain.

“They’re not using the ground to protect themselves. You have to fly low and fast, constantly changing direction,” said Coker, who appeared in a recent Smithsonian documentary about the AH-6 Little Bird.

Finally, portable shoulder firing systems used in Ukraine, including the US-made FIM-92 Stinger, made famous for inflicting devastating Soviet casualties on Afghanistan in the 1980s, are particularly effective.

In the absence of competent night flight capabilities, Ukrainian and Russian pilots could adopt a variety of tactics, techniques and procedures to increase their survival.

Wreck of a Russian helicopter in Ukraine

A destroyed Russian helicopter in a field east of Kharkiv, Ukraine, May 16, 2022.

John Moore / Getty Images

“They should use the available land or reach an altitude that allows the helicopter to be out of range of the systems that are shooting them down – perhaps 5,000 feet,” Coker said, adding that “better coordination of fire support with the force of land, if there is one “would help, as well as refrain from using helicopters” until needed. “

Indeed, the war in Ukraine is providing important lessons for all military, including the United States. In an almost equal conflict with China or Russia, US helicopters should operate effectively in disputed environments where the opponent has powerful air defense capabilities.

U.S. military commanders should expect greater helicopter losses in such conflicts, but U.S. airmen say sticking to the basics that made U.S. aviation so effective could help reduce, if not overcome, future threats.

“We fight at night and there is no one better. We have the best countermeasures in the world for our helicopters,” said Coker. “The best helicopter pilots in the world. We fight at night!”

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army Headquarters) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.