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Bringing 'Black Death': The Ka-29 Helix-B Gunship

By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2021

The Soviet/Russian Navy introduced the unique, Kamov Ka-27PL Helix-A helicopter into operational service in 1982, primarily as an antisubmarine-warfare (ASW) asset that could fit on the deck of most Russian warships. It was short (just 37 feet), fat, and fairly ugly to behold, with no dangerous, tail rotor for shipborne operations, and it was propelled instead by dual, three-blade, counter-rotating, main rotors overhead, totaling six rotor blades. There was also a Ka-27PSHelix-D search-and-rescue variant, fitted with a side-mounted, rescue winch and floodlights. Most recently, the ASW version has been upgraded and modified as the new Ka-27M, which began to enter Russian Navy service in 2016.

But the most-interesting, Ka-27 variant is the camouflaged, Ka-29TB (the TB stands for Transportno Boyevoy, or “Combat Transport”) Helix-B helicopter gunship, which entered service in 1985, with a total of 59 examples constructed by 1991, when production ceased, including 47 for the Russian Navy and 12 for the Ukrainian Navy (of which only one or two remain in active service in Ukraine.) The Ka-29TB features a 20-inch-wider, forward fuselage with a two or three-man crew, 770 pounds of armor plating around the cockpit and engines, airborne radar, FLIR and low-light TV night-vision systems, infrared jammer system, and four external weapon stations under stub wings.

The purpose of the Ka-29TB gunship was to act as a combat assault helicopter, while transporting either Naval Infantry troops, similar to U.S. Marines, or Naval SpetsNaz commandos, similar to U.S. Navy SEALs, to the front lines of battle, particularly during amphibious operations. In this regard, each Helix-B can carry up to 16 fully-armed troops, in addition to its external weapons load, which equates to one Naval Infantry squad, or two Naval SpetsNaz (“Special Purpose”) teams.

The Russian Navy consists of the Northern Fleet at Severomorsk, the Baltic Fleet at Kaliningrad, the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, and the Pacific Fleet at Vladivostok. Each of these fleets is supported by a naval helicopter regiment, flying Ka-27s and Ka-29s, so there were originally as many as 11 to 12 Ka-29s assigned to each fleet, and each fleet possesses a Naval Infantry brigade (the 61st, 336th, 810th, and 155th Naval Infantry Brigades) and a Naval SpetsNaz regiment (the 420th, 561st, 388th [‘Sharks’], and 42nd Naval Reconnaissance Points).

These special troops all wear black berets, and beginning in World War Two, and carrying over to the First and Second Chechen Wars, in Dagestan, and the recent War in Donbass (Eastern Ukraine), they had such a fearsome reputation, even wearing their berets in battle, that their enemies referred to them as the “Black Death.”

The Ka-29 Helix-B gunship is armed with a GShG-7.62 (9A622) four-barrel, 7.62mm Gatling gun firing at 3,500 rounds per minute (58 rounds per second) in the right side of the nose, with 1,800 rounds of ammunition loaded. The two inboard wing stations usually carry B-8V20Arocket pods, each carrying 20 80mm S-8 unguided rockets. The two outer wing stations may carry up to five different types of weapons: either more 80mm rocket pods, or UPK-23-250 gun pods (apparently the favored armament, per photographs), featuring a 23mm, GSh-23L twin-barrel cannon with 250 rounds of ammunition, or two ZAB-500 freefall, incendiary bombs, or up to a total of eight 9M114M1 Shturm-V (“Storm,” or AT-6B/C Spiral, to NATO) command-guided, anti-tank missiles, or up to eight 9M120M Ataka-V (“Attack,” or AT-6 Spiral-2 to NATO) laser/command-guided, anti-tank missiles on upgraded versions.

A limited number of Helix-B gunships are also armed with a single-barrel, 30x165mm, Shipunov 2A42 cannon bolted to the left side of the fuselage, with 250 rounds of ammunition feeding from inside the passenger cabin. This is a high-velocity, anti-tank cannon, which can be fired at a “low” rate of about five rounds per second, or a “high” rate of up to 13 rounds per second, but not all Ka-29s have it.

The helicopter is powered by a pair of overhead, Klimov TV3-117VMA turboshaft engines, each rated 2,230 horsepower, with six counter-rotating, main rotors measuring 52 feet in diameter, an arrangement that makes it easier for pilots to fly, adds to shipboard safety without a spinning, tail rotor, takes up less deck space, significantly reduces vibration, and therefore makes the Ka-29 an exceptionally-stable, weapons platform, with virtually the same ASP-17BK sights, 80mm rockets, and 23mm gun pods as the fearsome, Mi-24V/P Hind-E/F attack helicopter, making unguided weapons nearly twice as accurate in actual testing. In fact, the short, ugly Helix-B is every bit as deadly as the Hind series, and even more successful in the ability to carry twice as many troops into battle, making it a one-of-a-kind weapon system.

Designed specifically to operate either from ships or land bases near the sea, the Ka-29 gunship had a modest, cruise speed of 111 knots, due to induced drag from its chunky, brick-shaped body, with a flight ceiling of 16,000 feet, and a respectable, operational range of 530 nautical miles.

Over the years since it was introduced, however, the lack of amphibious operations in Russia’s many wars (although it fought inland, with the Experimental Combat Group in Chechnya in 1996, and 2000 to 2001) led to a general decline in interest in the small, naval gunship, and its numbers were allowed to dwindle as they were retired and mothballed by 2001, until only 15 examples remained in active service nationwide, and then one crashed into the Baltic Sea in April 2018, killing both pilots and leaving only three or four Ka-29s available to each fleet.

Now, however, that’s changing, since the Russians are currently pulling them out of retirement to be upgraded to Ka-29M (the M is for “Modernized”) configuration. The Russian Navy began receiving these new models in November 2017, shortly after the Ka-27M ASW version was introduced, not only for existing, helicopter regiments, but for use on the new, Ivan Gren-class, amphibious-assault ship (Project 11711), which each hold two Ka-27s or Ka-29s, or four helicopters on improved versions of the ship.

In addition, the sleek, stealthy, ultra-modern, Vasily Bykov patrol ship/corvette (Project 22160) series, of which six are being constructed for the Black Sea Fleet, will be used to protect territorial waters, counter smuggling, combat piracy and terrorism, and provide assistance to ship crews in distress. It requires an assault-transport helicopter, and the Ka-29M has already been selected to fulfill that role.

These naval helicopters will have totally-overhauled engines, gearboxes, and main-rotor assemblies, new camouflage paint, and the avionics systems, computers, new radar, GPS navigation systems, and tactical radios will all be modernized to current standards. Russia plans to restore virtually all of its stored, Helix-B gunships to active duty very soon, as Ka-29Ms. As recently as early June 2020, at least two Ka-29 attack choppers of the Russian Pacific Fleet conducted a joint exercise on the Kamchatka Peninsula, including the live-fire of 15 air-launched, 80mm rockets and AT-9 missiles, and firing their 23mm gun pods at simulated, enemy ships, coastal fortifications, and landing troops, so the aircrews continue to sharpen their combat skills with actual weapons employment. The Northern Fleet, opposite northern Norway, will be the next to be re-equipped with Ka-29Ms.

Since this assault aircraft’s primary duty is to transport 16-man teams of “Black Death” infantrymen or SpetsNaz commandos into battle as foot soldiers, it’s worth examining the capabilities and weapons of these two special groups. They both normally wear the same, standard uniforms, featuring the Tetris, or “Digital Flora,” woodland-camouflage pattern, VKBO black leather boots, and black berets. But the SpetsNaz men have more options available, including alternate camouflage patterns (such as the Survival Pattern [SURPAT] and Spekter-S), and “Cobra” suede combat boots in green, brown, or tan.

The standard rifle and pistol are the Kalashnikov AK-74M assault carbine in 5.45x39mm, and the Yarygin PYa, or MP-443 Grach (“Rook”), pistol in 9x19mm, although the infantry may still use some older Makarov PMs in 9x18mm. The standard, designated-marksman or sniper rifle remains the old-fashioned, Dragunov SVD in 7.62x54Rmm, but many newer models are also available, and are now entering service.

So, the elite, Naval SpetsNaz commandos may look exactly like ordinary, Naval Infantry troops in many cases, intentionally so, and the only way to tell them apart is by the non-standard or suppressed weapons carried by the SpetsNaz men. Particularly popular with the “Black Death” commandos are the shorter, AK-104 (7.62mm) and AK-105 (5.45mm) carbines, the integrally-suppressed, AS Val (“Shaft”) carbine in 9x39mm, and the new, AK-12K (5.45mm) and AK-15K (7.62mm) compact carbines. Most recently, the ultra-compact, Kalashnikov AM-17 (5.45mm) and suppressed AMB-17 (9x39mm) have been introduced, and are being field-tested by various SpetsNaz units.

While the Yarygin PYa pistol is the most-common among commandos, unlicensed, Russian copies of the Glock-17, 19, and 22 have also been used, the new, Kalashnikov/Lebedev PL-15 and PL-15K pistols have seen some recent acceptance, and the brand-new, TochMash SR-2 Udav (“Boa”) in 9x21mm is now apparently slated, since January 2019, to become the next standard, service pistol, and it can be fitted with raised, tactical sights and a high-technology, spiral-pattern, carbon-fiber suppressor for special operations missions.

Naval SpetsNaz light machine guns included the RPK-74M in 5.45mm, soon to be replaced by the new, RPK-16 and compact RPK-16K. Sniper rifles are more varied, including the famous Dragunov SVD in 7.62mm, the suppressed VSS Vintorez, long-range OSV-96 in 12.7x108mm, and bolt-action SV-98M in 7.62x54Ror .338 Lapua Magnum. More-recent, Russian developments are the highly-accurate, Orsis T-5000M “Terminator,” the VSV-338, and the all-new, semiautomatic, Kalashnikov/Chukavin SVCh-7.62 (or SVCh-308) and SVCh-8.6 (or SVCh-338.) The favored, combat knives are the Kizlyar DV-2 Bowie-style, Voron-3 (“Raven-3), and Korshun (“Kite,” the bird), with the all-black, Kizlyar Cerberus dagger being an imposing, new, tactical design.

The Ka-29TB/M Helix-B gunships and Naval SpetsNaz commandos of the greatest concern to NATO are based in the heavily-militarized, Kaliningrad Region, a Russian, exclave territory sandwiched uncomfortably between NATO members Lithuania and Poland. Kaliningrad hosts the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet, with Ka-27s and Ka-29s assigned to the 396th Shipborne ASW Helicopter Squadron at Donskoye Naval Air Base, and the 561st Naval Reconnaissance (SpetsNaz) Point (Regiment) at Parusnoye.

But the special region is, alarmingly, also home for 16,000 Russian naval and ground troops of the 79th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade (with 900 men, 41 T-72BM tanks, and 123 armored personnel carriers) at Gusev, the 7th Motorized Rifle Regiment, the 336th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade at Baltiysk, two jet fighter bases at Chkalovsk and Chernyakhovsk, equipped with highly-advanced, Su-30SMFlanker-Hs, Su-35S Flanker-E+s, and Su-34 Fullbacks.

There is also one air transport base, one artillery brigade, an armament storage base, an Mi-24VP Hind-E Modified attack helicopter squadron at Chkalovsk, the 152nd Missile Brigade (with SS-26 Stone long-range, precision-guided  missiles), an anti-shipping missile unit, a Voronezh-DM ultra-long-range (3,200 nautical miles range), radar station, the Sazhen-S laser/optical, space surveillance system, an SA-15 Gauntlet missile battery at Kaliningrad, five SA-20B Gargoyle antiaircraft missile sites, one SA-23B Giant missile site at Znamensk, two SA-21B Growler long-range missile sites at Baltiysk Air Base and Gvardeysk, an SA-22C Greyhound battery at Baltiysk Air Base, on the coastline, and 10 additional early warning radar sites. All of this aggressive, paranoid, military activity in very close proximity to several NATO nations remains a major point of contention in the troubled region.

Should the belligerent Russians ever undertake offensive operations against the Baltic States or Poland, just as they recently did in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, their Baltic Fleet, with its 60 warships and its 11 Ka-29s and “Black Death” naval troops, will certainly be at the forefront of any sea-based or shore-based, military activity. With the Russian Navy now fully committed upgrading all of their Ka-29 helicopter gunships and returning them to active duty with the next year or two, it’s clear that they’ve finally realized the true potential of this stubby, heavily-armed powerhouse for a variety of roles and missions.

There’s nothing else quite like it in the world, and we’re certain to hear more about it in the very near future.

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.

 
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