In the wars of the 21st century, a successful special-forces operation usually starts out with precise intelligence gathered by satellites, surveillance planes or drones. It continues under cover of precision strikes from high altitudes by cruise missiles or bombs dropped from warplanes, and ends with a ground force cleansing the field ready for infantry or tank forces to go in.
The high command in Moscow decided that, at this juncture of the Syrian war, its most advanced helicopter, the multi-purpose Mi-35M (NATO-designated Hind-E), was just what was needed for moving small teams of elite troops at speed into battle against Syrian rebels or Islamic State fighters, while covering their landing with a massive blast of fire, and later for lifting them out.
This will be the Mi-35M’s debut on a real battlefield and the first time non-Russian eyes have seen it in action.
The helicopter, the product of the Russian Rostvertol manufacturers, was developed as an upgraded version of the Mi-24 in terms of maneuverability, weapons, ammunition, troop capacity, avionics and intelligence-gathering. Manufacture began in 2005 after years of research.
The final product’s versatility is eminently suited to action in the Syrian arena, For example, it can deliver an 8-man commando team with equipment and ammunition, carry out medication evacuation (MEDEVAC) missions, and conduct surveillance sorties with payloads attached to the helicopter’s belly and under its stub wings, for capturing images or picking up electromagnetic signals.
Designed as an attack helicopter, the Mi-35M is fitted with two rotating cannons that fire 23mm shells and antitank missiles. When so configured, it can carry 16 missiles, eight under each of its small wings.
The pilots sit in a stepped “tandem” cockpit behind wide-vision glass. Night vision technology enables them to view the scene just as well by night as by day in all weather conditions. The rotor is resistant to gunfire and the fuselage fortified by titanium plates,
Moscow had four motives for bringing its newest helicopter to Syria:
1. Sales promotion. The most effective sales strategy for weapons system is to showcase their performance in real battle conditions. Russia is hard up and needs to push its munitions exports for extra foreign currency revenue. Sales of the Mi-35M have been anemic. So far, only Brazil, Venezuela, Iraq and Azerbaijan have placed orders based on plans on paper. Russia needs high-prestige clients to boost sales and hopes they will be impressed when they see the “flying tank” in action for the first time.
2. A show of muscle. To gain respect as a leading world power, Moscow has poured into Syria a glittering array of muscular warplanes, missiles and its most impressive advanced hardware in the sight of rivals and allies alike.
3. Field experience. The new helicopter has not yet proven itself, certainly not in operations or in Middle Eastern weather conditions and topography. Its maneuverability, night flights, firing accuracy, resistance to electronic warfare and many other tests in real combat conditions will make it more effective and thus more marketable.
4. In light of its warplanes’ multiple missions in Syria, and especially following the recent downing of a Su-24 by the Turkish air force, Russia felt the need of a fast, effective and nimble helicopter, which is also capable of locating and rescuing downed pilots in enemy territory and carrying a medical team for urgent treatment of injured combatants.