Russians hit Mi-24 or UH-60 before it carried out airborne assault

On March 17, reports surfaced from Ukrainian and Russian sources about the downing of a helicopter affiliated with the Armed Forces of Ukraine. According to these reports, the helicopter was transporting 20 soldiers and was preparing for an airborne assault on the town of Kuzinki, Russia. It was purportedly shot down over the Ukrainian region of Lukashovka. 

However, there’s conflicting information concerning the type of the helicopter. Some sources suggest it was a Soviet Mi-24, while others point towards a UH-60 Black Hawk. A video recorded by a reconnaissance drone above the crash site shows immense smoke emanating from the wreckage, making it difficult to discern the type of helicopter even when the drone camera zooms in. 

Some observant individuals noticed the helicopter’s “white belly” igniting into flames. Based on their observations, no UH-60 helicopter possesses a “white belly”. As such, they believe that it is more likely that the downed aircraft was a Mi-24. In fact, one of the Russian sources who closely follows the war in Ukraine, Rybar, says that it is not a UH-60, but a Soviet Mi-24, part of the 183rd Motorized Rifle Brigade

Russians hit Mi-24 or UH-60 before it carried out airborne assault
Photo credit: Telegram

NOE and high-altitude

The altitude at which the downed helicopter was flying at the time of impact remains unknown. BulgarianMilitary.com reminds us that the optimal altitude for a troop-carrying helicopter during an imminent airborne assault can vary greatly depending on several factors. These factors include the type of helicopter, the terrain, the weather, and the enemy’s anti-aircraft capabilities. 

Generally, helicopters can operate at two main altitudes during an assault: Nap-of-the-earth [NOE] and high altitude. NOE flying involves staying as close to the ground as possible, often just a few feet above the terrain. This technique is used to evade radar detection and to use the terrain as a natural shield against enemy fire. High-altitude flying, on the other hand, is typically above 15,000 feet. At this altitude, helicopters are often out of range of small arms fire and certain types of anti-aircraft weapons. However, they may still be vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles and radar detection. 

soviet helicopter mil mi-24
Photo by Cezary Piwowarski

The choice between NOE and high-altitude flying is often a trade-off between stealth and safety. If the enemy possesses sophisticated radar and anti-aircraft systems, it may be safer to fly at NOE. However, if the enemy’s anti-aircraft capabilities are limited, high-altitude flying may be a more viable option.

Landing from various helicopters

In this regard, when talking about the American UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, air strikes are often conducted at low altitudes to minimize visibility and exposure to enemy fire. This is usually about 500 to 1,000 feet above ground level [AGL]. At this altitude, the helicopter stays low enough to avoid radar detection while concurrently providing a safe altitude for the paratroopers to leap from. 

Croatia bolsters helicopter fleet adding 8 UH-60 Black Hawks
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

If the grounded helicopter happens to be a Mi-24, there is a variance in the presumed landing height. Conventionally, the Mi-24 operates at altitudes between 1,000 and 2,000 meters [approximately 3,280 to 6,560 feet] in combat situations. This range achieves equilibrium between maintaining a safe distance from ground threats and ensuring effective utilization of the helicopter’s armament. 

However, “nap-of-the-earth” [NOE] flight, which signifies flying at extremely low altitudes, often just a few meters above the ground, can also be employed in certain scenarios. This tactic can be exceedingly effective in avoiding detection and achieving surprise, but it also brings an increased risk due to its proximity to ground obstacles.

SAM, MANPADS, or fighter

The type of weapon best suited to shoot down a helicopter flying at Nap-of-the-Earth [NOE] or high altitude largely depends on the specific circumstances. For instance, the range, the type of helicopter, and the available technology all play a crucial role. 

Surface-to-air missiles [SAMs] are commonly used for high-altitude targets. For helicopters flying at NOE, anti-aircraft guns or similar ground-based defense systems may be more effective. These systems are designed to engage low-flying aircraft, using high-explosive rounds to damage or destroy the target. 

Man-portable air-defense systems [MANPADS] could also be used against both NOE and high-altitude helicopters. These are shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles that can be operated by a single individual. They are portable, relatively easy to use, and capable of engaging targets at low to medium altitudes. 

Finally, other aircraft, particularly fighter jets equipped with air-to-air missiles, can be effective against helicopters at both NOE and high altitudes. These missiles are designed to track and destroy other aircraft, making them a viable option.

2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine

On February 21, 2022, Russia stated that its border facility was attacked by Ukrainian forces, resulting in the deaths of five Ukrainian fighters. However, Ukraine quickly dismissed these allegations, labeling them as ‘false flags’.

Mi-8s hit deep in Ukrainian territory: 50 km behind front lines
Video screenshot

In a notable move on the same day, Russia announced it officially recognized the self-proclaimed areas of DPR and LPR. Interestingly, according to Russian President Putin, this recognition covered all the Ukrainian regions. Following this declaration, Putin sent a battalion of Russia’s military forces, tanks included, into these areas.

Fast forward to February 24, 2022, global headlines were dominated by a significant incident. Putin commanded a forceful military assault on Ukraine. Led by Russia’s impressive Armed Forces positioned at the Ukrainian border, this assault wasn’t spontaneous but a premeditated action. Despite the circumstances resembling a war, the Russian government refrains from using this term. They’d rather refer to it as a “special military operation”.

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