Soon after Moscow began its air campaign in Syria, both supporters and opponents of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began posting videos of attacks by Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters, a hybrid transport aircraft and gunship unique to the Russian military. And it is the low-flying Mi-24, not warplanes flattening the Syrian landscape from thousands of feet up, that has the potential to hand Assad’s beleaguered military some much-needed battlefield wins.
The videos show the Mi-24s, also known as Hind helicopters, flying close to the ground — sometimes just above the treetops — and often in pairs, firing off barrages of rockets at nearby rebel positions.
Syrian pilots have long flown Russian helicopters, so there’s no way to conclusively tell who’s in the cockpit. But close observers of the conflict say it’s likely that Russians are piloting the aircraft because of the technical skill of the pilots and the fact that the specific models being flown are newer versions of the Mi-24s known to be in the Syrian arsenal. The helicopters shown in the recent videos, for instance, have two 30 mm guns instead of the single, smaller gun found on older models, according to Nick de Larrinaga, the Europe editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly.
Christopher Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, said a video of a pair of Mi-24s flying low to the ground and firing rockets showed a “top shelf, highly trained, very courageous, and highly aggressive Russian helicopter crew.”
“When you see higher quality airmanship and precision fires coming from helicopters, that’s 100 percent Russian pilots,” he said.
The skill of the Mi-24 pilots may be doubly important to Russia if the aircraft also happens to be carrying Russian troops. The Russian helicopter combines the attack capabilities of an American Apache helicopter with the troop-carrying capabilities of a U.S. Huey helicopter; Harmer said Washington has no exact parallel of the Mi-24 in its arsenal.
Since the Mi-24s combine heavy weaponry with a transport hull, they can ferry teams from Russia’s special operations divisions to the front line. That, in turn, could allow the Russian forces to focus on “directing airstrikes, calling in helicopter gunship support, and directing long-range air-to-surface and surface-to-surface missile fire,” Harmer said.
The entrance of Russian helicopter pilots into the Syrian theater of war could also help address what Harmer says is one of the Assad regime’s most worrisome problems: a steady loss of foot soldiers. The recent videos, said both Harmer and de Larrinaga, indicate a shift in helicopter tactics, whereby pilots are getting much closer to the ground than before and more precisely hitting targets in support of the allied troops doing the heavy fighting. The finesse of the Russian pilots is “a qualitative technical advantage that the Syrian military just doesn’t have; it’s going to significantly reduce Assad’s casualties,” Harmer said.
The rebels’ best defense against Russia’s favorite tool to mow them down? Man-portable air-defense systems, otherwise known as MANPADS, a weapon that Saudi Arabia has offered to rebels despite U.S. objections. They have proven “highly effective against helicopters” like the Mi-24, de Larrinaga said.
Mi-24 pilots are trying to close off that vulnerability by flying at incredibly low altitudes, which can fool the targeting systems of the MANPADS with what Harmer calls “ground clutter.” It’s not a fail-safe tactic; the MANPADS remain, at least for the moment, the rebels’ best hope for making Russia bleed for its actions in Syria. Insurgents are already claiming to have downed one of the attack helicopters. Whether the pilot inside was Russian or Syrian is unclear.
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