This photo of two Hokum-As flying over the Russian countryside shows why the Ka-50 has been dubbed Black Shark. Note that ‘24 Yellow’ is fitted with exhaust/air mixers while ‘26 Yellow’ is not; there are other detail differences as well.
‘25 Yellow’, a typical production Ka-50. The black portions of the tail unit and the starboard forward fuselage side are ‘anti-soot’ paint.
Here, ‘25 Yellow’ shows off its undersides during a flying display. Note the tandem antennas of the Doppler speed/drift sensor under the tailboom, the mounts for additional optoelectronic systems ahead of the mainwheels and the missile warning sensors flanking the forward fuselage and tailboom.
By the early 1980s the USA and the other NATO nations had built up a large fleet of specialised attack helicopters tailored for CAS and combating armoured vehicles. The Soviet Mi-24 was not quite in the same league, being larger and heavier and having a secondary assault transport role (unlike the western attack choppers). When Hughes Aircraft brought out the AH-64A Apache, the Mil’ OKB responded by developing the Mi-28 along similar lines. This was the helicopter the Soviet MoD placed its bets on; when a competitor appeared on the scene, initially it enjoyed scant support.
The competitor was OKB-938 – the design bureau named after Nikolay I. Kamov, which until then had specialised in naval (shipboard) and civil utility helicopters utilising the co-axial layout. True to form, the Kamov OKB used the same layout for their army attack helicopter project which bore the designation V-80 or izdeliye 800. Its uniqueness among attack helicopters lay not only in the layout; unlike all other combat helicopters, the V-80 was a single-seater. Kamov OKB engineers believed that automation of many functions would allow a single pilot to cope with the mission. A suite of four digital computers would be responsible for navigation, weapons application, operation of the ECM/ESM/IRCM suite and health & usage monitoring of the helicopter’s systems.
The V-80 had a slender fuselage, the cockpit having optically flat bulletproof glazing and a portside car-type door. The tail unit consisted of a virtually all-movable fin and stabilisers with endplate fins mounted further forward. Like other helicopters in the class, the V-80 had stub wings with external stores pylons and ESM/IRCM pods at the tips. The tricycle landing gear was retractable. The TV3-117VM engines were identical to the Mi-28’s and likewise installed laterally. The armament was the same as on the Mi-28 but the 2A42 cannon was mounted on the starboard side of the fuselage, with very limited traversing/elevation angles, which meant the pilot had to aim it by pointing the whole chopper; on the other hand, the co-axial layout facilitated this, making the helicopter less sensitive to crosswinds. The missile armament consisting of 9M4172 Vikhr’ (Whirlwind; AT-16 Scallion) ATGMs was new; the long-range missiles were to be guided automatically, theoretically enabling the V-80 to engage enemy tanks while staying out of range of the enemy’s AA weapons. The extreme nose housed the Merkooriy (Mercury, the planet) targeting/guidance system.
One more unique feature of the V-80 was its crew rescue system. In the event of a catastrophic failure or shootdown the rotor blades were jettisoned, whereupon the pilot was ejected upwards. The K-37-800 ejection seat was specially developed for the V-80 by the Zvezda (Star) Research & Production Enterprise and featured a squib extracting the seat.
The first prototype made its maiden flight on 17th June 1982, followed by four others in 1983, 1985, 1989 and 1990. Design issues were not the only problem the Kamov OKB had to deal with when developing the V-80; the unconventional helicopter was facing stiff opposition, including a good many generals who held high posts in the Soviet MoD. Critics slammed both the single-seat concept (because of the high pilot workload associated with flying and aiming the weapons at once in an air defence environment) and the co-axial layout which they cited as unsuitable for a battlefield chopper due to the danger of blade collision during sharp manoeuvres (here they had a point, as later events showed). A flyoff between the V-80 and the Mi-28 in September-October 1986 showed that the latter type was superior. Yet the Kamov lobby in the MoD was strong enough to secure a decision ordering the helicopter into production as the Ka-50; low-rate production at AAPO Progress in Arsen’yev commenced in 1991 under the product code izdeliye 805. The Ka-50 received the popular name Chornaya akoola (Black Shark) and the NATO reporting name Hokum. The helicopter also had experimental night-capable versions – the Ka-50Sh and Ka-50N.
The trials, which were held in conditions replicating a battle scenario as closely as possible, showed that the Ka-50 did have its weaknesses. Obviously the adversary would seek to extend the ‘kill’ range and reduce the reaction time of its air defence systems, and the Ka-50 was by no means invulnerable. To reduce combat losses among attack helicopters, the US Army and the Israeli Defence Force/Air Force resorted to using special battlefield surveillance helicopters equipped with a mast-mounted sight. For example, AH-64A attack helicopters operated jointly with Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior combat scout helicopters; as a successor to the OH-58D, Boeing and Sikorsky jointly developed the LHX (later known as the RAH-66 Comanche), but this programme eventually fell victim to defence budget cuts. In the Soviet Union/Russia, the Mi-24K was optimised for target designation in the interests of artillery and multiple launcher rocket system units, not helicopter units. Knowing this, the Kamov OKB started work on the V-60 compact and agile combat scout helicopter, but perestroika and the ensuing turmoil prevented the project from coming to fruition.
The operation of the Ka-50’s automated avionics suite that was to permit single-pilot operations was far from perfect, and the debugging effort dragged on and on. The Russian MoD refused to accept the brand-new Ka-50s built by AAPO Progress and pay for them, putting the plant on the verge of bankruptcy.
Acknowledging that some of the military’s complaints regarding the Ka-50 were justified and being aware that developing a ‘clean sheet of paper’ combat helicopter was out of the question, now that Russia was in the throes of a political and financial crisis, General Designer Sergey V. Mikheyev proposed developing a two-seat version of the Hokum. This would be a combat scout helicopter, the second crewman being a mission equipment operator; when the helicopter popped up over the battlefield he would assess the situation and designate targets for helicopters in a group, acting as commander.
Development of the two-seater, which was designated Ka-52, proceeded under the Avangard-1 (Vanguard-1) R&D programme. A rather provisional mock-up was presented to the State commission in 1994 together with the project documents. When the first information on the project was circulated in the media, some experts wasted no time declaring that ‘the single-seat combat helicopter concept had flopped’. In reality, however, the Ka-52 was meant to complement the Ka-50, not replace it – just like the RAH-66 would have complemented the AH-64, had it been fielded. The Ka-52 was not a rejection but a development of the original Ka-50 concept to suit the changing scenario of a limited war or anti-terrorist operation – one which Russia would face that same year.
The usual tandem seating arrangement was unsuitable for the Ka-52 because it entailed a long armour capsule and hence more weight away from the CG, which would impair manoeuvrability. Therefore the crewmen were seated side by side in a wider cockpit on K-37-800M seats. Another factor in favour of this was that side-by-side seating facilitated crew communication – even a gesture could be enough to convey the message, saving vital time in combat. Importantly, cross-section area was almost unchanged, as the Ka-50’s fuselage was widest aft of the cockpit. The Ka-52’s flattened snout with windshield halves resembling ‘eyes’ gave rise to a new popular name – Alligator.
The designers strove to retain maximum structural and systems commonality with the Ka-50 – even down to flat windshields and car-type doors. Later the cockpit was revised to cut drag and improve ergonomics, featuring a more streamlined windshield and upward-opening canopy doors, as well as liquid-crystal MFDs instead of electromechanical instruments and a cathode-ray tube display. Commonality was thus reduced from 95% to 85%, but most of the shortcomings pointed out by the State commission were rectified.
The main difference from the Ka-50 lay in the mission avionics. The Ka-52 was equipped with a Samshit (Boxwood) optoelectronic surveillance/targeting system featuring TV/LLLTV, IR and laser ranging channels and having an auto-tracking feature. In daytime clear-weather conditions it could detect and identify a tank at 15 km (9.3 miles) range. An RN01 Arbalet-52 millimetre-waveband radar developed by Phazotron-NIIR was fitted; it was capable of detecting a tank at 20 km (12.4 miles) range and had a mapping mode.
The prototype was converted from the second production Ka-50 in 1996. When it was rolled out on 12th November that year, the Ka-52 (then known as izdeliye 806) had the large ‘ball turret’ of the Samshit system mounted dorsally aft of the cockpit; the radar’s main antenna occupied the parabolic nose radome, and there was also a secondary antenna in a small pill-shaped radome on top of the radar mast for detecting aerial targets – even incoming missiles. The beginning of flight tests was delayed by the decision to demonstrate the helicopter at the Aero India-96 airshow in Bangalore; after that, the Ka-52 received the reporting name Hokum-B, the Ka-50 becoming the Hokum-A. The Alligator finally made its first flight on 25th June 1997 at the hands of Aleksandr Smirnov and Dmitriy Titov.
Being heavier than the Ka-50, the Ka-52 held an uncomfortable first place among coaxial-rotor helicopters as regards rotor disc loading, which impaired its flight performance as compared to the precursor. Luckily the VR-80 gearbox was designed with sufficient strength reserves to permit installation of more powerful engines. Accordingly the Russian NPP Klimov engine design bureau and the Ukrainian Motor Sich engine factory teamed up to create a new version of the engine designated TV3-117VMA-F (forseerovannyy – uprated); its take-off power was increased from 2,225 to 2,500 shp, with a contingency rating of 2,800 shp. The engine had a new electrohy-draulic control system giving better acceleration and higher surge resistance during rocket launches, and there was an automatic relight function in the event of flame-out. An alternative engine, the VK-2500 (alias TV3-117VMA-SB3), offered slightly less power (2,400 shp and 2,700 shp respectively) but had a lower fuel consumption and more than twice the designated service life (7,500 hours versus 3,000 hours).
A whole bunch of problems was associated with the surveillance/targeting suite. Quite apart from the fact that the dorsal position of the Samshit system did not afford it a sufficient downward field of view, the system itself had failed to meet its specifications (the ‘some s**t’ sound of the name turned out to be true, after all). First, two secondary optoelectronic ‘ball turrets’ were added under the nose but apparently this was not good enough. Next, the nose radome was cut away to accommodate a drum-shaped turret with a Rotor optoelectronic system, but this left no room for the radar antenna; the mast-mounted secondary antenna was not working properly, and eliminating the radar altogether would severely limit the Ka-52’s all-weather capability.
Defining and debugging the Ka-52’s mission avionics took several years. The end result was the Argument-2000 flight/navigation/attack suite which included the GOES-451 optoelectronic surveillance/targeting system and the Arbalet-52 radar. The GOES-451 can work round the clock and in fog; its large ‘ball turret’ is located ventrally immediately ahead of the nose gear unit, not encroaching on the radome. The flight/navigation/attack suite, ECM/ESM/IRCM suite and the BKS-50 communications suite are integrated via the Baghet-53 computer. The latter allows new systems to be integrated easily by updating the software.
The 9A4172 Vikhr’ ATGM inherited from the Ka-50 was regarded as the Ka-52’s principal weapon. The missile has automated laser guidance and a tandem shaped-charge armour-piercing/HE/fragmentation warhead capable of penetrating armour equivalent to 900-mm (35 in) homogeneous steel armour at 8 km (5 miles) range; explosive reactive armour (ERA) is no problem for it. The missile is superior to the US AGM-114A Hellfire. Later the Tula Instrument Design Bureau responsible for the missile brought out the Vikhr’-M version with 9M4172 missiles in various versions. At a range of 400 m to 10 km (0.25-6.2 miles) the Ka-52 armed with Vikhr’-M missiles can score a ‘kill’ against a tank with 1,000-mm (39 in) armour and ERA with 80% probability and engage four different targets within 30 seconds.
Yet, the Vikhr’ missile system turned out to be extremely complex and expensive, while its debugging was hampered by chronic funding shortages and general turmoil in the 1990s. Therefore, as an alternative the Ka-52 can use the less sophisticated but relatively cheap and trouble-free 9M120 Ataka (AT-9 Spiral) ATGM in its laser-guided version; the missile can destroy a tank with 800-mm (31½ in) armour and ERA with at least 65% probability. Improved versions – the 9M120M capable of penetrating 950-mm (37 in) armour, the 9M120F with a HE warhead for use against fortifications and the 9M220 AAM – were also developed. On the other hand, the Ataka missiles are no good against current NATO air defence systems which can destroy the helicopter at up to 4 km (2.5 miles) range in 4-10 seconds with 100% probability before the chopper has a chance to neutralise them; only the Vikhr’ missile system allows the Ka-52 to attack from beyond the range of Roland, Stinger, Mistral and Guepard AA systems. Additionally, the Hokum-B is able to use Kh-25ML (AS-10 Karen) laser-guided air-to-surface missiles normally carried by fixed-wing strike aircraft.
Other weapons used by the Ka-52 include 20-tube B-8V20 pods with 80-mm S-8 FFARs (available in 15 versions with different warheads), B-13L1 pods with five 122mm S-13 FFARs each, S-24 heavy unguided rockets, and free-fall bombs. The latter are traditionally part of the Soviet/Russian combat helicopters’ arsenal and are often the most cost-effective solution. By comparison, the AH-64 does not carry bombs and uses FFARs of smaller calibre (68 mm).
The 2A42 cannon was likewise inherited from the Ka-50. Western experts have often criticised this weapon for its weight – the 2A42, complete with the NPPU-80 mount, weighs 115 kg (253.5 lb) versus 54.4 kg (120 lb) for the Hughes M230 30-mm cannon fitted to the AH-64. However, the Soviet cannon has much greater range −4 km (2.5 miles) versus 1.5 km (0.93 miles) – and uses more lethal rounds; at 1.5 km range they penetrate 15-mm (0 in) steel armour when impacting at 60°. Also, the 2A42 uses the same ammunition as Soviet/Russian IFVs, which facilitates logistics when a mechanised or airborne forces group is supported by choppers; in contrast, the M230 requires aviation ammunition (M789 and M799 rounds, with ammo for the British ADEN and French DEFA cannons as a substitute). The Ka-52’s ammunition supply is 470 rounds; the AH-64 has a maximum of 1,200 rounds but normally carries only 320.
As mentioned earlier, the cannon is mounted on the starboard side and is, to all intents and purposes, fixed – the Ka-52 pilot must point the whole chopper at the target in order to fire. However, this disadvantage is offset by the co-axial layout (which is less sensitive to crosswinds, allowing the Ka-52 to fly sideways at high speed) and the placement of the cannon close to the CG, which minimises the effect of the recoil. Also, pilots find it easier to look ahead, not sideways, when taking aim. In addition to the built-in cannon, two UPK-23-250 cannon pods may be carried – a potent weapon against lightly armoured vehicles and AA assets at close range.
For self-defence against enemy aircraft the Ka-52 may carry four 9M39 Igla-V IR-homing AAMs – an air-launched version of the Igla MANPADS. The pilot is provided with an ILS-28K head-up display which may be used for attacking both ground and aerial targets.
The Kamov Company cites several advantages of the Ka-52’s co-axial layout, including higher efficiency (no engine power is lost for driving the anti-torque tail rotor); this gives the advantage of 6-10% better acceleration from the hover as compared to conventional helicopters when attacking from an ambush. Inertia forces are lower because on a compact co-axial layout helicopter the heavy items are closer to the CG. In a helicopter duel the Ka-52 pilot finds it easier to bring his weapons to bear on the target by making a flat pedal turn; a conventional helicopter requires more time to get into position for an attack. When attacking a ground target the Ka-52 can execute the ‘funnel’ manoeuvre, orbiting the target while keeping the nose pointing at it all the while. It can also manoeuvre vigorously over hilly terrain, dodging the obstacles or ‘jumping’ over them, which makes it easier to neutralise enemy AA installations (giving them less time to react) – even at night, using a special mode of the radar.
While the co-axial layout may be seen as a liability from a survivability standpoint (there are more rotor blades to hit), it also helps survivability, as directional control is retained even if the rudder is shot away. Speaking of which, the rotor blade spars are designed to survive hits by 12.7-mm heavy machine-gun bullets and 20-mm shell fragments. Armour plating is provided to protect the crew and vital items against 12.7-mm HMG fire and high-energy missile/AA shell fragments. Vital piping, wiring and control runs are duplicated for reliability. Exhaust/air mixers can be fitted to reduce the IR signature and protect against heat-seeking missiles. As noted earlier, the Ka-52 has a crew ejection system. Unlike the Ka-50, where the cockpit roof is jettisoned before the seat fires, on the two-seater ejection takes place through the canopy, which – for the first time on a Russian helicopter – incorporates micro detonating cords. In the event of a crash landing the undercarriage and the crashworthy seats will help cushion the impact, preventing crew injury.
An important advantage of the Ka-52 is that the side-by-side layout obviates the need for a specialised trainer version. The helicopter has dual controls and one of the pilots can act as instructor, monitoring the trainee’s actions.
AAPO Progress had started gearing up for Ka-52 production back in 1997, but the programme suffered delays due to lack of funding and other reasons. Not until 2008 did the plant manufacture the second and third prototypes; the former of these took to the air on 27th June. By then the helicopter’s product code had changed to izdeliye 826 – apparently to reflect the design changes that had been made. The second and third prototypes had the ventral GOES-451 ‘turret’ and provisions for two small optoelectronic system ‘turrets’ near the main gear units, but as yet no radar. They took part in the State acceptance trials; Stage A of these was completed in late 2008 and the go-ahead was given to build an initial production batch that would be used for Stage B.
Production picked up pace slowly. In 2009 the 344th Combat Training & Aircrew Conversion Centre in Torzhok took delivery of three pre-production Ka-52s – the only ones completed that year; these and subsequent Hokum-Bs differed in having enhanced armour protection for the crew. At the end of the year the Russian MoD placed an initial order for 36 Ka-52s. In 2010 the Russian Air Force began receiving production Ka-52s powered by VK-2500 engines. The first four of these likewise went to Torzhok.
The State acceptance trials of the Ka-52 – now fully equipped – were completed in 2011. On 19th May that year it was the turn of the first operational unit – the 575th Army Aviation Base (formerly 319th Independent Helicopter Regiment) at Chernigovka in the Russian Far East – to get its first four Hokum-B; three more followed in short order, and the unit was expected to re-equip completely from the Mi-24 before long. That year AAPO Progress delivered nine Ka-52s, the last four of which were fully equipped; the missing radar would be retrofitted to the ones already built in due course. In August 2011 the Russian MoD’s acquisition agency Oboronprom and the Russian Helicopters holding company (of which Kamov is part) signed a long-term contract for the delivery of 140 Ka-52s to the Russian Armed Forces.
As noted earlier, the Ka-52 is now regarded as a helicopter for the Special Forces; it will be used in anti-terrorist operations – notably in the North Caucasus where guerrilla gangs with al-Qaeda affiliations are active even as of this writing. Its fielding comes as a major boost, enabling joint-service operations in any weather round the clock, especially if the targets are carefully concealed; automated data exchange with ground command posts and other aircraft will make sure that upcoming threats are neutralised quicker.
Attempts were also made to market the Ka-52 internationally. First, in late 1997 Kamov joined the Turkish Air Force’s new attack helicopter contest, offering the Ka-50-2 Erdoğan (‘warrior’ in Turkish) – a two-seat derivative of the Ka-50 with tandem cockpits to meet the customer’s requirement. After much wrangling the project got no further than a full-size mock-up.
The second try was when the Hokum-B was entered into the South Korean Air Force’s new attack helicopter contest announced on 19th April 2000, competing against the Bell AH-1Z Viper, Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow, Sikorsky AUH-60 Black Hawk, Eurocopter EC 665 Tiger, Agusta A129INT Mangusta – and the Mi-28NE. The version for the Korean tender was known as the Ka-52K (the first thus designated); the K denoted either koreyskiy (Korean) or kommercheskiy (‘commercial’, i.e., export). The export version was to feature French, Belgian and Israeli avionics as specified by the customer. The Koreans were given a tour of the AAPO Progress plant, and the Korean pilots were given a ride in the Ka-52 that included live firing, but no order ensued. China also sized up the Ka-52, but the Chinese wanted to buy a manufacturing licence, not ready-made helicopters.
In 2011 the Ka-52 unexpectedly ‘returned to its naval origins’. A year earlier Russia had ordered two Mistral class amphibious assault ships from France for delivery in 2014-15 and bought a licence to build two more – a highly controversial deal in more than one aspect. Thankfully at least the helicopters making up the ships’ carrier wing are indigenous; the first two Russian Navy Mistrals (provisionally christened RNS Vladivostok and RNS Sevastopol’) are to be equipped with Ka-27 Helix-A anti-submarine warfare helicopters, Ka-29 Helix-B transport/assault helicopters – and Ka-52s. The designation Ka-52K was reused for the navalised version, the K denoting korabel’nyy (shipboard) in this case; the helicopter differs from the baseline army model in having folding rotor blades (similar to those of the Ka-27/Ka-29) and folding stub wings for on-deck/below-deck stowage, a reinforced landing gear with tie-down shackles, and enhanced corrosion protection for operations in a maritime environment. The avionics will feature a special broadband communications suite that will be responsible both for data exchange with the ship and for navigation/carrier approach.
The shipboard version was first revealed by Anatoliy Isaykin, head of the Rosoboronexport arms export agency, at the 49th Paris Air Show on 20th June 2011; on 26th July that year the Kamov Company’s General Designer Sergey V. Mikheyev announced plans to build the first batch of Ka-52Ks by 2014. Back in November 2009, when FNS Mistral had paid a visit to St.-Petersburg, a standard Ka-52 had made deck landings on the ship in an improvised carrier compatibility test; now in August-September 2011 the original Ka-52 prototype passed initial sea trials, making several flights from the helipad of the North Fleet ASW cruiser RNS Vice-Admiral Kulakov with good results. On 7th August 2012 a Russian Helicopters spokesman stated that construction of the Ka-52K prototypes had begun. Until the amphibious assault ships are commissioned with the Pacific Fleet, with eight Helix-A/Bs and eight Hokum-Bs each, the first Ka-52Ks will operate from the Russian Navy’s sole aircraft carrier RNS Fleet Admiral Kuznetsov. The naval version’s reporting name is Hokum-B Mod.
In November 2012 the Russian MoD announced its intention to test the Ka-52 in actual combat against Somalian pirates. To this end a number of Ka-52s are to be redeployed to the French base in Djibouti (by sea or by air if the runway at Djibouti-Ambouli AB can handle Antonov An-124 Ruslan transports). According to a source in the Russian MoD, the decision to use the Alligator for these operations was prompted by the fact that the Ka-52K is to equip the carrier wing of the Russian Navy’s future Mistral class amphibious assault ships; also, tropical seas are the best proving ground (oops) for shipboard helicopter forces.
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