By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.”
— William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 1599.
The Mil Mi-28N Havoc-B advanced, helicopter gunship, known as the Nochnoy Okhotnik or “Night Hunter” in the Russian language, is one of the Russian Federation’s premier, attack aircraft, a direct counterpart to the American AH-64DApache Longbow anti-tank helicopter, although it is 31-percent heavier, and less maneuverable than the Apache. The Havoc, however, costs less than half as much (only $16 million), is more reliable, better-armed, and simpler to maintain and operate, which are distinct advantages.
The first, two-seat, Mi-28 Havoc-A version was flown in November 1982 as a daytime, attack helicopter, but the complexities of modern warfare, especially after the end of the Cold War, demanded a specialized, all-weather, night-attack variant, so the early Mi-28 was discontinued in 1993, and was replaced by the current, Mi-28N (“N” for “Night”) Havoc-B variant, in the planning stages since September 1995.
Due to funding problems, though, development was delayed for nine years, and a second prototype was not unveiled until 2004. The first production Mi-28N aircraft was delivered two years later, and officially introduced into active service on October 15, 2009. Currently, 126 Havoc-Bs have been delivered to the Russian Air Force (98) and Army Aviation (28) units at more than six different bases.
One Russian unit of particular concern to NATO is the 15thArmy Aviation Brigade, only recently created in 2013, at Ostrov Air Base in the Pskov Region, situated just 21 miles from the Latvian border, and 45 miles from the Estonian border, in case of any potential, Russian aggression against the Baltic States, which are now all NATO members. Ostrov hosts Mi-28N Havoc-B night-attack helicopters, as well as Mi-24P Hind-F attack aircraft, advanced Mi-35M1 Hind-Es, and Ka-52 Alligator gunships.
The basic, Mi-28Nairframe, or fuselage, is slightly larger (56 feet long) than the Apache’s, yet similar in overall configuration, with tandem cockpits for the pilot (rear seat) and gunner (front seat), sitting on energy-absorbing (up to 40 feet per second of impact velocity, or slightly more than twice the landing impact of a round, military parachute, reduced to 12g’s of impact force), Zvezda Pamir-K seats in case of a crash-landing, with armored-glass panels, which can withstand direct hits from 7.62mm rounds, a titanium, armored “bathtub” housing around the cockpit and engine areas, and composite or steel armor in other places. Titanium is 45-percent lighter than steel, and has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any metal.
This overall, armor configuration withstands 12.7mm armor-piercing bullets and 20mm shell fragments, and provides nearly triple the weight of armor used in the Apache. The pilot has flight controls in his raised cockpit, but the gunner does not, and the aircraft uses non-retracting, tricycle-type, wheeled landing gear.
It’s powered, since 2016, by new, twin, overhead Klimov VK-2500 turboshaft engines, each rated at 2,194 horsepower, with downturned exhaust outlets and infrared suppressors that reduce the helicopter’s thermal signature 2.2 times, to counter heat-seeking missiles. The main rotor assembly has five all-plastic blades (resistant to even 30mm cannon fire) with swept tips, and the tail rotor assembly has four plastic blades in a very quiet, X-shaped configuration. There are self-sealing fuel tanks for safety in combat, and a small, windowless, emergency compartment accessed through the left side of the center fuselage, with just enough room to hold two men (likely a downed, Russian aircrew) in a critical, combat situation.
The Havoc-B also has an unusual, bailout system, which jettisons the cockpit doors and main rotor blades, blasts away the stub wings, and inflates a “bounce bladder” under each door sill. At altitudes above 330 feet (100 meters), the crew must then bail out, wearing standard parachutes. Below 330 feet, the system automatically performs a controlled, crash-landing.
The aircraft holds 502 gallons of aviation fuel, permitting a flight endurance of two hours, which equates to a combat radius of 120 nautical miles, or a maximum, one-way range of 235 nautical miles, at a cruising speed of 150 knots, and with a top speed of 170 knots. The airframe itself will withstand three positive g’s of maneuvering force.
The Mi-28N has been photographed in a variety of green, brown, and tan camouflage patterns, however, the latest, standard paint scheme appears to be overall Medium Gunship Gray, the same color currently utilized by all U.S. Air Force bombers, tankers, F-15E Strike Eagle fighters, HH-60G/W Pave Hawk rescue helicopters, and most special operations aircraft, but especially by the AC-130J Ghostrider aerial gunship. The six Havoc-Bs regularly deployed to Syria continue to wear desert-camouflage colors.
The heart of the aggressive Night Hunter is its extensive, all-digital, BREO-28 avionics suite, consisting of a GOES-520 forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensor with a 20-power, low-light TV (LLTV) system in the nose turret, which rotates up to 110 degrees to either side, incorporating an OPS-28 Tor-N (“Top”) electro-optical targeting system, with a moving, LD-294 laser rangefinder/target designator. A mast-mounted, Phazotron N-025 Arbalet (“Crossbow”) millimeter-wave radar system with 360-degree scan capability is included, but full integration of this system has been delayed several times due to vibration problems, and production versions currently do not carry it.
The pilot and gunner both wear advanced, olive-green, ZSh-10 helmet-mounted sighting systems, have a total of six large, flat-panel, LCD, digital, multi-function, cockpit displays and pilot’s head-up display (HUD), a SPO-32 Pastel (L150) digital, radar-warning receiver, L138 Mak missile-warning receiver, L140 Otklik (“Response”) laser-warning receiver, Doppler radar navigation, a Platan (“Plane”) active-radar jammer, and six 36-round, UV-26 16mm chaff-and-flare dispensers housed in the wingtip pods for self-protection. New, GEO-ONV1 night-vision goggles (NVGs) are utilized for night flights.
The sophisticated, PKV-28 flight-control computer makes the Mi-28N the only helicopter in the world capable of automatic, terrain-following flight to and from its target area at a nap-of-the-earth, combat altitude of only 16 feet (five meters.) This enables it to avoid enemy radar detection, and minimize exposure to enemy ground fire.
The Mi-28N Havoc-B’s gun system is the very powerful, Shipunov 2A42 cannon in 30x165mm, mounted in a rotating, dual-axis-stabilized, NPPU-28 chin turret with 250 rounds of ammunition supplied from a selective, dual-feed system, with half of those rounds being armor-piercing, discarding-sabot (APDS), and half being high-explosive incendiary (HEI.) Its rate of fire may be adjusted from a “low” rate of 200-300 rounds per minute (three-to-five rounds per second), to a “high” rate of 550-800 rounds per minute (nine to 13 rounds per second), with an effective range of 2,200 yards (1.25 miles), and a maximum range of 4,400 yards (2.5 miles.)
It’s a long (7.9-foot barrel), heavy weapon, almost twice as heavy as the Apache’s M230 30mm Chain Gun cannon with 30x113mm ammunition, but much more powerful and hard-hitting, with 17-percent higher velocity, and very reliable under severe conditions. This same cannon, or a variant of it, is used on infantry fighting vehicles such as the BMP-2, BMP-3, BMD-2 and -3, BTR-80A, BTR-82A, BTR-90, and the fearsome BMPT “Terminator,” as well as many other vehicles. It’s also employed on other attack helicopters, including the Ka-29TB Helix-B, the Ka-50 Hokum-A (or “Werewolf”), and the Ka-52 Hokum-B (or “Alligator.”)
Aside from the distinctive cannon, the Night Hunter has four weapon stations beneath its stub wings, and its standard, combat armament consists of two B-8V20 20-shot pods loaded with S-8 80mm unguided rockets on the inboard stations. Each of the two outboard stations normally carries four tube-launched, Tula 9M120M Ataka (“Attack,” NATO codename AT-9 Spiral-2) supersonic (Mach 1.2) anti-tank missiles, with semi-automatic to line-of-sight (SACLOS), radio-command guidance out to a maximum range of five miles, and tandem warheads for penetrating explosive-reactive armor (ERA), for a total of eight missiles.
In addition, other weapons may be substituted for the standard items. UPK-23-250 23mm cannon pods may be carried on the inboard stations instead of unguided rockets, for example. Five-round, B-13L pods of S-13 130mm unguided rockets, or single S-24 240mm rockets are also an option, and the Russian Air Force is currently converting its older S-8 and S-13 rockets into laser-guided missiles, using the Ugroza (“Menace”) system, with the new designations of S-8Kor or S-13Kor, respectively, where Kor is the Russian abbreviation for “Correctable.”
The Mi-28N may also carry the 9M39 Igla-V (“Needle”), or SA-18 Grouse, heat-seeking, air-to-air missile, or the 9K338 Igla-S (SA-24 Grinch) in the Strelets (“Shooter”) configuration, with either two-shot pods of the SA-18, or six-shot pods of the SA-24 missile. It’s also hardwired to accept the larger, R-73 (AA-11 Archer) heat-seeking missile carried by Russian jet fighters as an available option.
There is an Mi-28NE (or Mi-28NEh, “Night, Export”) version for export customers, with only minor changes to the basic, Mi-28N configuration. Since 2013, 30 export variants have been delivered to the Iraqi Army Aviation service, with six more still on order. These saw their first combat action during the Battle of Ramadi in November 2015.
The Algerian Air Force has taken delivery of 42 Mi-28NE gunships since 2016, having desperately sought a nighttime, attack capability for many years, and having been extensively supported militarily by the Soviet Union since 1954, with 90 percent of their arms inventory of Soviet origin, and by the Russian Federation since 1991. This cozy relationship went sour for a while in the early 2000s, until Russia forgave Algeria’s $5.7-billion debt in 2006, and gave the Algerians a $7.5-billon arms deal to restore their sphere of influence in North Africa.
In June 2002, the Algerian Air Force actively sought to upgrade four of their C-130K Hercules four-engine transports into aerial gunships, each equipped with a FLIR sensor, low-light TV sensor, aiming HUD, fire-control computer, self-protection systems, a GAU-12/U “Equalizer” 25mm Gatling gun, and a GAU-19/A .50-calber Gatling gun. This radical but totally-unclassified proposal came across my desk at the U.S. State Department during my very brief (2.5 months) employment there, before I obtained other employment much closer to my home.
Needless to say, after extensive, telephone coordination with various U.S. agencies, I strongly recommended official, State Department disapprovalof this Algerian request, on the grounds of U.S. policy regarding “no offensive weapons” for that nation, the high potential for misuse against pro-democracy, ethnic-Berber insurgents, and disruption of the regional balance of power should Algeria acquire the type of sophisticated, AC-130 aerial gunships that only the United States currently possesses.
So, 14 years later, Algeria finally acquired a night-attack, gunship capability, although their Mi-28Ns have considerably shorter range than a much-larger, C-130 gunship option, but there are literally 10 times as many of them.
Mi-28N Combat Experience:
There is some evidence that Mi-28NHavoc-B gunships were forward-deployed and standing by for operations during the 2014 Crimea Crisis, and the 2014 War in Donbass (Eastern Ukraine), but there is no indication that they saw actual, combat action in either case. In wartime scenarios, they typically operate at very low latitude, in flight formations of either two or four aircraft, for mutual support.
Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War began on September 30, 2015, at the specific invitation of the Bashar al-Assad regime, which permits the Russian Federation to utilize Khmeimim Air Base, just 10 miles southeast of the Mediterranean port city of Latakia, free of charge and with no time limit. This has included the semi-permanent deployment of 22 Russian helicopter gunships, including six Mi-28Ns, which experienced their combat debut during the 2016 Battle of Palmyra, supporting the Syrian Arab Army on the ground, as the Havoc-Bs fired their 80mm rockets and Ataka missiles at insurgent positions.
On April 12, 2016, a Night Hunter crashed near Homs, killing its two-man crew, and on October 6, 2017, another Mi-28N made an emergency landing near Sheikh Helal in Hama Province. These were both apparently due to mechanical problems or weather conditions, despite initial reports of a possible shootdown, with enemy ground fire eventually ruled out as the cause of the two losses. Russia has lost a total of 23 aircraft in the Syrian Civil War, as of the beginning of 2021.
In fact, as U.S. journalist Dylan Malyasov pointed out in a Defense Blog article on December 1, 2017, “Syrian war has revealed a number of technical flaws of Russian Mi-28 helicopter: New, Russian helicopters have problems with engine installation, avionics, control and navigation systems...(and) debris ejected on the launching of rockets could cause catastrophic damage...Russian defense industry has fixed a number of technical and design flaws of the helicopter, but still have problems with onboard electronics and night-vision systems...‘Electronics is a failure.’
“The night-vision goggles used on the Mi-28s got the pilots’ nickname ‘death to pilots.’ The crash of an Mi-28 helicopter in the Homs region...pilots...operated the flight in dark conditions...the military said the cause of the crash was the problems with the night-vision glasses of the pilot.”
This should come as no surprise for most of us, since this author was an Air Force intelligence specialist in West Germany during the Cold War, studying Soviet military weapons very closely. It’s a well-known, demonstrated fact that communist and ex-communist nations have very sloppy safety standards compared to U.S. industry. Today, we need look no further than the infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology in communist China, which, in 2015, received a $3.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), part of the U.S. government under the Obama/Biden administration, to “study” something called “Coronavirus.”
Any credible intelligence analyst in the world knows that Wuhan is the epicenter of China’s greatest, military-industrial complex, and that any laboratory in Wuhan studying viruses is certainly not doing so for peaceful, humanitarian purposes. Consequently, as a notoriously sloppy (just look at their air quality and pollution levels as a basic indicator), communist country, their safety standards are certainly not up to par. At least we all know who funded COVID-19 now, and left it in seriously-incapable, Chinese hands to safeguard. And, while Russia may no longer be officially communist, rest assured that the ex-communist mentality under Vladimir Putin still exists, and literally one-fourth of the world population is still communist Chinese.
Bitter, combat experience since the bloody, Soviet-Afghan War of 1979 to 1989 demonstrated that Soviet/Russian helicopter aircrews unlucky enough to be shot down by Islamic insurgents found that the enemy was not only brutal, but barbaric, horribly torturing their captives, and even skinning several unfortunate, Russian aviators alive. The tiny, standard-issue, Makarov PM service pistol in 9x18mm was wholly inadequate against mujaheddin adversaries armed with AK-47s or similar weapons, so the Soviet crews began carrying the short, ultra-compact, AKS-74U carbine, as well, favored by tank crews and SpetsNaz commandos, as a personal-defense/survival weapon.
The AKS-74U, in service since 1979, was a six-pound weapon, with an 8.1-inch barrel, measuring only 19.7 inches long with the side-folding stock folded, and using 30-round magazines of 5.45x39mm ammunition. The weapon was often shoved down beside the cockpit seats. Even today, Russian helicopter crews flying from bases in Syria still use the very-compact, no-longer-produced, AKS-74U weapon, for the same compelling reasons as in the past.
Kalashnikov has recently produced (since 2018) the ultra-compact, AM-17 carbine (with 9.1-inch barrel) in 5.45mm to eventually replace the handy AKS-74U, but they have not yet been fielded in significant numbers, so the older design continues to soldier on, even 28 years after production officially ended.
Russian Mi-28N Havoc-B aircrews photographed and interviewed at Khmeimim Air Base, Syria, were observed wearing 1998 “Flora”-pattern, camouflaged flight suits, with newer, camouflaged survival vests, and olive-green flight helmets, in front of their desert-camouflaged (tan and green) aircraft. Pistols carried inside the survival vests include the standard-issue, PYa Yarygin (MP-443 Gratch) service handgun in 9x19mm, or the outdated but still-effective, Stechkin APS machine pistol in 9x18mm. These pistols will likely be replaced by the all-new, TochMash SR-2 Udav (“Boa”) service handgun in 9x21mm in the near future.
Related, Combat Aviation Incidents of the Syrian War:
On Christmas Eve 2014, a Jordanian Air Force F-16AM Fighting Falcon jet fighter attacking Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants near Ar-Raqqah, Syria, crashed due to mechanical failure. The pilot, First Lieutenant Muath al-Kasasbeh, ejected safely, but was quickly captured by insurgent terrorists. Only 10 days later, in early January 2015, he was viciously burned alive while trapped inside a steel cage.
As a direct result of this horrific incident, the Royal Netherlands Air Force began issuing small, Swiss-manufactured, Brügger and Thomet MP9-N (“N” for “Netherlands”) 9mm submachine guns in 2015 to all of their F-16AM pilots serving in the Middle Eastern theater of operations, in Jordan, and Russian fighter pilots stationed in Syria were issued Stechkin APS 9x18mm machine pistols, with compact, handy, folding-stock, AKS-74U carbines (favored by elite, SpetsNaz commandos, the late Osama bin Laden, and the late Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) inside their seat survival kits. Russian helicopter pilots carry the AKS-74U weapon beside their cockpit seats.
On November 24, 2015, a Russian Su-24M Fencer-D strike fighter inadvertently strayed across the Turkish border, and was shot down by a Turkish Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon, firing a heat-seeking, AIM-9X Super Sidewinder missile. The two-man aircrew ejected, and the pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov, was killed on the ground by the Turkish-backed, “Grey Wolves” rebel group. His weapon systems officer (WSO), Captain Konstantin Murakhtin, survived, and was rescued in a complex and costly effort, during which the Russians lost an Mi-8AMTSh “Terminator” search-and-rescue helicopter on the ground to an enemy, BGM-71F TOW anti-tank missile. Peshkov was posthumously awarded the exalted, Hero of the Russian Federation medal, their ultimate decoration for valor in action.
On August 1, 2016, a Russian Mi-8AMTSh transport helicopter on a humanitarian mission to Aleppo from Russia’s Reconciliation Center in Syria was shot down by rebels over Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Idlib Province while returning to its base, killing three crew members and two officers from the Reconciliation Center. Their dead bodies were desecrated by Islamic insurgents arriving upon the scene.
Then, on Saturday, February 3, 2018, the Russians suffered a major blow when one of their Su-25SM3 Frogfoot-A Mod. 3 ground-attack fighters was shot down south of Saraqib, in western Syria, at 13,000 feet, by a shoulder-fired, SA-24 Grinch heat-seeking missile launched by the al-Qa’ida-linked, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) extremist, rebel group. The pilot, Major Roman Filipov, ejected safely and parachuted to the ground while his wingman continued to bomb and strafe a nearby, HTS convoy, destroying two of their vehicles as they closed in upon Filipov’s location near the village of Tell Debes.
The Russian major came down beside a large boulder in an area of scrubby vegetation, and a dozen HTS militant insurgents quickly surrounded him, opening fire. Filipov valiantly defended himself with his Stechkin APS machine pistol, killing two of the terrorists as he emptied a full, 20-round magazine at them, and he then reloaded. At that point, he was hit in the right side by enemy fire, and the HTS troops moved in closer, with a video camera recording the entire incident.
Filipov fired one final, half-second burst, and then dropped down behind the boulder, severely wounded, pulling the pin on an RGO hand grenade at the last possible moment to avoid capture and torture by the fanatical extremists. He loudly shouted “This is for our guys!” and then the grenade detonated with a puff of gray smoke, killing him instantly.
The Russian Defense Ministry noted that, “Major Roman Filipov fought an unequal battle with his service weapon until the last minute of his life. When surrounded by the terrorists and heavily wounded, the Russian officer blew himself up with a grenade when the militants got within several dozen meters of him. The pilot died heroically. We are proud of our heroes.” Once again, this exemplary courage under desperate circumstances merited another prestigious, Hero of the Russian Federation award.
For these and other reasons, Russian aviators flying over Syria are heavily armed for their own defense in case of being shot down or having to crash-land in enemy territory. Likewise, most U.S. fighter and bomber pilots now carry the all-new, GAU-5A Aircrew Self-Defense Weapon (ASDW) in their ejection-seat, survival kits, and wear either the Beretta M9 or new, SIG M18 pistol on their survival vests. U.S. special operations helicopter crews are normally armed with Glock-19 pistols and various carbines, including the Colt M4A1, the HK416, and the SIG MCX “Black Mamba,” especially in combat situations.
Since 2016, Russia has been developing an upgraded version of the deadly gunship, designated the Mi-28NM(“Night, Modernized”) Night Superhunter, and a prototype was briefly deployed to Syria in March 2019 for combat testing. The Russian government originally ordered 98 examples, all to be delivered between 2021 and 2027. Among its significant improvements are upgraded, VK-2500P engines, new, main rotor blades that allow a 10-percent increase in maximum speed and a 13-percent increase in cruising speed, dual flight controls for both the pilot and gunner, upgraded, carbon-fiber, NSTsIV-V helmet-mounted sighting systems, new KSS-28M communications system, an N-025M Arbalet mast-mounted radar system (finally) with a range of 23 miles, KRET Ohotnik (“Hunter”) low-light TV system, and a modified, OPS-28M Tor-M electro-optical turret, with the LSN-296 laser beam-riding system with a range of 11.5 miles.
The Mi-28NM is armed with either 9M120-1 Ataka-VM laser-guided missiles, or the all-new, 9M123M Khrizantema-VM (“Chrysanthemum”) laser-guided missile, designated the AT-15 Springer by NATO. This is an evolution of the 9M120 Ataka, with essentially the same range, but a larger, improved warhead. The NM-model may also carry the new Light, Multi-role, Unified Missile (LMUR, in Russian) guided weapon with an extended range out as far as 16 miles.
In a surprising turn of events, however, the Interfax news agency announced in late February 2019 that the Russian Ministry of Defense had cancelled their Mi-28NM order, apparently due to the very high price of each new gunship. Interfax stated that, “Despite repeated attempts by the military to lower the price of a production aircraft, the Russian Helicopters company refused to accept the conditions of the Ministry of Defense.”
However, when Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the Army 2019 technical forum on June 27th of that same year, just four months later, there was still a standing order on the books for 98 Mi-28NMs, and as of September 2020, serial production of the upgraded gunship had begun, with two aircraft already delivered for testing, so this program is now clearly back on track.
The Russian Air Force’s Berkuti (“Golden Eagles”) aerobatic demonstration team, founded in 1992, from Torzhok Aviation Center, 128 miles northwest of
Moscow, began flying six Mi-28N Havocs in 2015. The aircraft is agile enough, and impressive enough, to be used in aerial displays at Russian airshows around the nation.
In conclusion, the Mi-28NHavoc-B remains a formidable, attack helicopter, not quite as sophisticated at the U.S. Apache gunship, but definitely cheaper and simpler to operate. The deadly Havocs stationed at Ostrov, so very close to the Baltic States, could become a major cause for concern in the event of any possible, Russian aggression in that vulnerable region. The Mi-28N is certainly a very modern and highly-capable, combat aircraft, which should never be underestimated.
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.