Transport and attack helicopters have played an important role in the fights during the crisis taking place in the Eastern Ukraine. The operational activities were highly dynamic, since no clearly defined frontline was present during the most intense periods of the conflict.On the basis of the experience analyses, Kiev defined a new concept of operational use of the helicopters, taking into the account the requirements created by the reality of the contemporary battlefields.Within the scope of that concept, the Ukrainian Mi-8T helicopters are being currently modernized. These rotorcraft are being used by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and by the National Guard of Ukraine.
Fighting against an enemy who is in possession of modern anti-aircraft systems, ranging from MANPADS portable launchers, finishing with self-propelled SAM launchers and combined artillery-missile systems, constituted a serious challenge for the Ukrainian Army. At the beginning of the conflict, using the inaccurate (due to the lack of anti-aircraft activities on the part of the enemy) experience gathered during the UN deployments or the Afghanistan operations, the Ukrainians suffered from significant losses, and they had to significantly limit their operational activities in the conflict area. This was caused both by lack of preparation, as well as by the obsolete equipment of the helicopters, particularly when it came to navigation, self-defence systems and also in the area of the equipment used for night-time flying and flying in adverse weather conditions.
As a result of the ATO operations, nine helicopters were irreversibly lost, another 30 have been successfully restored. 17 examples of those rotor-craft made emergency landings under the enemy fire, however they have been successfully recovered. Another 10 helicopters, despite the severe damage inflicted by the enemy fire, were able to return to base on their own. Five helicopters were hit on the ground, as a result of shelling targeted against military airfields.
ATO operation experience has shown that proper use of the terrain shape, in order to hide the helicopter, shortening the exposure to the enemy fire, and making detection and identification by the enemy air defences altogether are the key factors related to survivability of the rotary-winged aircraft on the contemporary battlefields. Most of the operational flying was done at altitudes between 50 and 300 meters, with the use of the river valleys and riverbeds, and other terrain forms, for the purpose of being protected from the enemy fire. Within that scope, the pilots are being trained, with employment of both modern simulators, manufactured domestically e.g. by the Helitraining company, as well as with the use of the actual helicopters.
The combat experience also became a starting point for modernization of the helicopters which are already being used by the Ukrainians, within the scope of tailoring them to the operational conditions. The Ukrainian aviation industry, here we mean both the state-owned companies, as well as the civil entities, is working on modernization of the helicopters, offering a variety of packages. This concerns mainly the multi-role Mi-8T helicopters, the main rotary-winged aircraft used by the Ukrainian Army.
Ukrainian Mi-8MSB-W Multi-Role Helicopter
In the light of the conflict with Russia, so far acting as the main supplier of the equipment for the Army, Ukraine decided to modernize the Mi-8T fleet with involvement of the domestic industry. Motor Sich facility is the leading entity within that scope. This firm specializes in manufacturing aircraft propulsion systems and rotary-winged aircraft. Secondly, Ardon design bureau and numerous companies forming the state-owned Ukroboronprom consortium (counterpart of the Polish Polish Armament Group) cooperate together, providing new modernization solutions for the Ukrainian programme. The aim of the undertaken works is to tailor the obsolete Mi-8T helicopter to the reality of the contemporary battlefield, allowing the said rotor-craft to operate. This is a temporary solution, the aim of which is to maintain and recover the operational capabilities, for the time being, until the Ukrainian Army introduces modern multi-role helicopters into its inventory.
Mi-8MSB is the base design – this helicopter is a Mi-8T airframe modernized by the Motor Sich company. It has been fitted with the modern TW3-117WMA SBM1W 4E series engines which offer longer period between servicing, in comparison with the older powerplants of this family, used by the Mi-8T helicopters. With the same power output of 1500 HP, and unchanged main gearbox, the helicopters fitted with the Motor Sich engine have a better performance, in comparison with the non-modernized variant.
Average fuel consumption has been decreased, making it possible to add ca. 80 kilometers to the maximum range. Operational altitude has also been increased, from 4.5 up to 8 km and above. At the same time, 30 km/h increase of the cruise speed, at altitude of up to 1000 meters, has been achieved. Due to the fact that the main gearbox remains unchanged, both power, as well as the maximum take-off weight, still remain limited. This means that maximum payload or armament-carrying capacity is unchanged, however a better dynamic profile has been obtained. Further development of the design will be possible if Motor Sich acquires technologies required to design a new main gearbox.
The military variant of the Mi-8MSB helicopters is known as Mi-8MSB-W. The initial examples of this derivative are already being used by the Ukrainian Army. The Armed Forces, along with the National Guard, ordered, in total, several examples. Back In 2014, the first four examples of the Mi-8MSB-W helicopters were received by the Army. Procurement of the remaining six helicopters was finalized until the end of 2015. The National Guard already operates three examples of the above-mentioned helicopter.
Mi-8MSB-W helicopter cockpit is adapted for using the Night-Vision Goggles. Polish PCO PNL-3M Orlik NVG system is used most often, since the PCO company signed an agreement with the Ukrainian Aviakon Konotop Aircraft Repair Plant which deals with implementation of the modernization programmes related to avionics and on-board systems applied in case of the helicopters used by the Ukrainian Army.
The avionics suite may be expanded with a modern GPS system and a coupled multi-function display, placed in between the individual dashboards used by the pilots. Similarly as in case of the Ukrainian Mi-24 gunships, usually the avionics are being composed out of the digital systems provided by the domestic Orizon-Navigation company. They also feature the Garmin GPSMAP-659 navigation systems, along with radar transponders with radar altimeters, modern radios and digital flight parameters processing and recording systems.
The targeting system has also been upgraded, now it includes an Adros FPM-1KB laser range-finder and target designator provided by the Ukrainian Adron company, along with a digital weapons control system, also manufactured by Adron – SK3-8W. At the moment, this fire control system does not feature a modern optoelectronic sensor which would greatly enhance the helicopter’s fire-power.
During the last year’s defence expo in Kiev, PM-LKT optronic system proposed by Ukrobronoprom’s “Fotoprilad” company was presented, along with the Mi-8MSB-W helicopter. This is a stabilized observation-targeting module that has been developed as a replacement for an equivalent system used on the Mi-24 gunships, namely the Russian 9S475 targeting system. PM-LKT module may also be used in case of the Mi-8 helicopter. It is tailored to carry out guidance of the Barrier-V ATGM, manufactured domestically by the Ukrainians, offering a range of 7.5 kilometres.
Offensive Potential – Domestic Rockets, Bombs and Drones
When it comes to the armament of the Mi-8MSB-W helicopters, it is carried on two three-pylons weapon stations, developed by the Motor Sich company. The pylons are universal. They make it possible to use armament of Ukrainian or Russian origin. Here, above all, we mean the 80 mm AR-8 unguided rockets of a variety of variants, carried in the Ukrainian B8W20MSB rocket pods, 20 rockets in each pod. Mi-8MSB-W may also use the Barrier-V and Shturm-V ATGMs, manufactured domestically, as well as the Igla air-to-air missiles.
Moreover, the pylons may be used to mount 30 mm AG-17A grenade launchers, 7.62 mm machine guns (GShG-7.62), 12.7 mm heavy machine guns (YakB-12.7 and KT-12.7) and Gsh-23 cannons. Finally, the helicopter is also capable of carrying bombs (with a weight of up to 600 kilograms) and mine delivery systems. In the future, electronic warfare and electronic reconnaissance pods, or UAV containers are expected to be integrated with the helicopter, including a station/pod for an attack UAV’s, so called loitering weapon.
Additionally, automatic weapons for the gunners on-board the helicopter may also be mounted. 7.62-12.7 mm machine guns or automatic grenade launchers may be mounted on the sides and at the back ramp of the helicopter. Should such solution be applied, loading and unloading the helicopter may become difficult.
Self-defence – Cornerstone of battlefield survivability
High saturation of the ATO operation zone with air defence systems led to installation of self-defence systems on-board the Mi-8MSMB-W helicopters. “Adron” facility provided a wide range of solutions applied within that area. The simplest one comes in a form of the ASh-1W system which lowers the temperature of the exhaust gases. The system consists of a ducting which directs the exhaust gases upwards, dispersing them, lowering the heat signature of the aircraft. The manufacturer claims that it is 50% less significant, in comparison with the stock solution.
The helicopters have also been fitted with active systems, including KT-01 AWE jammers, placed behind the engine, in the top section of the fuselage. Self-defence is realized with the KUW 26-50 dispensers, tailored to launch 26 or 50 mm flares and chaffs. The device may be programmed sequentially, depending on the operational conditions and threat types. These systems are coupled with the SPO-15 Radar Warning Receiver, EW-164 missile launch receiver, or modernized digital equivalent systems provided by the “Adron” company. The whole self-defence suite is complemented by armour-plating of the cockpit. The armour was manufactured by the “Leninskaya Kuznya” company, cooperating with the Lithuanian ASU Baltiya metalworks.
Ukrainian industry and the Army are trying together to optimize the operational capabilities of the Mi-8 helicopters. Modernization of the avionics, weapons systems and the engines significantly raises the helicopter’s combat capabilities, however these airframes will still be lagging behind their new counterparts of similar dimensions and mass.
When it comes to the armament and self-defence suites, Ukraine has a set of relatively modern solutions at its disposal. On the other hand, in case of avionics, navigation, on-board computers, the industry does not hesitate to use the Western solutions. However, these systems do not guarantee any safety and autonomy when it comes to the source codes and data processing. Hence, Kiev is looking for industrial cooperation partners outside the territory of Ukraine. Products provided by the Polish companies may also be used for the purpose of modernization.
Up until now, no solution exists when it comes to the dependence on the Russian manufacturer, with regards to elements such as the main gearboxes or rotor blades for the Mi-8 helicopter. Nonetheless, relevant works are already being carried out. At the moment the Ukrainians procure second-hand components, however search for alternative solutions has already been initiated. Motor Sich company is interested in finding a manufacturer of the rotor blades in Poland. Viacheslav Boguslayev, President of the Motor Sich company claims that if the Polish industry is capable of developing modern rotor blades for the W-3 helicopters, then no problems should exist in a design and production process of a similar element for the Mi-8. Also, within the area of avionics, the Ukrainians think of collaborating e.g. with the Polish Air Force Institute of Technology, which offers modern modular digital avionics, designed and tailored to be used in case of the Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters. In Poland, the above suite is being successfully used in the W-3PL Głuszec helicopter.
Even in case, in which a modern Glass-Cockpit avionics suite is applied, similar to the one used in case of the Głuszec helicopters, replacing the separated digital systems that are being used at the moment within the scope of modifying the previously applied solution, along with installation of a new rotor with the main gearbox, engines and modern armament, the Mi-8 helicopter still cannot be compared to a modern counterpart, with a similar weight. However, this type of upgrade is much cheaper and readily available. Such situation would not be the case, should factory-new airframes be acquired. In-depth modification may prolong the life of the Mi-8 craft for at least a decade, or even more.
The programme, the aim of which is to upgrade the Ukrainian Mi-8T helicopters up to the Mi-8MSB-W standard has a similar assumption. It constitutes a response to burning needs, acting as a bridge solution, before a modern multi-role helicopter is acquired. One cannot rule out a situation in which the Ukrainians purchase the Motor Sich MSB-6 Ataman helicopter, however, implementation of that rotorcraft is still a song of the distant future. At the moment, such solution is not possible to be applied due to the fact that the project is still in the initial phase of its development, and in the light of the difficult political and economic situation in Ukraine.