The Hind and the war in Afghanistan

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The Hind and the war in Afghanistan

Berichtdoor Tandorini » 18 jan 2009, 20:23


The most famous conflict in which the Mi-24 participated was undoubtedly the Afghan war. The type was introduced into Afghanistan in April 1979 when the Afghan air force took delivery of its first Mi-24As and Mi-25s. The helicopters were immediately pressed into action against the Mujahideen guerrillas of Burhanuddin Rabbani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, or ‘the irreconcilable opposition’, as they were referred to in the Soviet press. The Afghan pilots had been well trained and put the ‘Hind’ to good use. Still, it was not long before the Mujahideen air defences, weak as they were at the time, claimed their first victim. The first Mi-24 was shot down near Khost on 30 May 1979, crashing into a mountain slope after being hit by ground fire. The Kabul government kept urging the Soviet leaders to supply 20 or 25 more ‘Hinds’, but it was not before the Soviet Union put troops into Afghanistan on 25 December 1979 that a new batch was delivered.

The Kremlin strategists assessing the situation in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan did not seem to realise that the country was, in effect, already in the throes of a civil war. The sporadic character of the war, and the ambush and hit-and-run tactics favoured by the Mujahideen, demanded quick and accurate response to enemy action. Thus, air support was of prime importance all the more so because, in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain, he who had the high ground was in control of the situation. In a nutshell, it looked like this was going to be a ‘helicopter war’, and the Mi-24 was to prove its worth in it.

Afghan tactics.
After the first encounters with the enemy and the first shoot-downs, the helicopters began working in pairs, at the very least, so that if one went down the other could provide cover for the downed crew. Usually, however, the Mi-24s operated in flights of four or in groups of eight; this made for maximum strike effectiveness in areas providing ample natural cover for the enemy. The Mujahideen were well armed and returned fire whenever possible, so having strength in numbers allowed the helicopter crews to utilise many tactics which a pair might have found it impossible to use. These included the ‘wheel of death’ (introduced by Ilyushin Il-2s during World War II) during which the helicopters circled the target, spraying it with fire; the konveyer (’assembly line’, or rather ‘disassembly line’) technique in which the helicopters approached in echelon formation and the wingmen consecutively turned head on to the target; and the innocuous-sounding ‘daisy’, whereby the helicopters fanned out in all directions in a manner reminiscent of the bomb burst aerobatic manoeuvre to intermittently pound the target from all directions at minimum intervals. To avoid AA fire, pairs of helicopters would zigzag or fly in a scissor pattern, alternately climbing and descending to complicate aiming for Mujahideen gunners; the higher-flying pair would provide protection for the attacking one.

Mi-24 crews did everything to maximise the effect of their fire, sometimes to the detriment of flight safety, and there were cases when the flight leader who had just finished a firing pass found his wingman’s rockets whizzing past him on either side before he had time to get out of the way! Flexibility in tactics and mission planning was allimportant, as following a rigid routine immediately led to blows; even following the same avenue of approach twice could lead to an ambush. On the way to and from the target and on combat air patrol (CAP) missions, the helicopters in a pair kept a distance of 1200 to 1500 m (3,937 to 4,921 ft) to avoid being hit by the same burst of ground fire; this gave the crews time to react, either taking evasive action or taking out the enemy right away.

The ‘Hind’ was fast but its high speed had a price - rotor disc loading was 50 per cent greater than the Mi-8’s, which significantly impaired controllability in Afghanistan’s extreme conditions (’hot-and-high’, plus dusty). Worse still, the ingrained piloting techniques for normal conditions were often useless and could even cause accidents. The overly high rotor disc loading meant that sharp stick (cyclic) movements would cause the helicopter to sag; the pilot would then pull collective, trying to keep the helicopter airborne, but engines weakened by the ‘hot-and-high’ conditions could not accelerate quickly enough and the result would be an unceremonious landing.

At low speed or low altitude, where the frequent ground winds came into play, the ‘Hind’ would start acting up. Due to its inadequate directional control, the tail rotor would try to pull the helicopter into an uncommanded left turn and, at worst, could cause it to flip into a spin, with almost certainly disastrous results. The main rotor blades stalled during high-£ manoeuvres at high speed and high Alpha, causing the Mi-24 to pitch up uncontrollably and fall through sharply. This phenomenon, known as podkhvaht (’pick-up’), often resulted in a hard landing on the wing endplates and FFAR pods. A ‘pick-up’ could be avoided by sticking to the book (in other words, taking it nice and slow), but this was hardly possible in combat.

Self-inflicted injuries.
As a result of the ‘pick-up’ phenomenon or during recovery from a high-? dive, the main rotor blades could strike the tailboom. One such incident was recorded in August 1980 when two ‘Hinds’ flown by Squadron Leader Major Kozovoy and his deputy Major Alatortsev came back from a sortie with holes torn in their tailbooms caused by blade strikes. Both helicopters were repaired, but in its post-repair check-out flight Major Kozovoy’s Mi-24 was hit by ground fire. A burst of a 12.7-mm DShK fire took one of the tail rotor blades right off, causing violent vibration; the hastily repaired tailboom broke and the helicopter crashed out of control, killing the crew.

Pulling out of a 20° dive at 250 km/h (155 mph), the Mi-24 could lose up to 200 m (656 ft). At low altitude and during all-out manoeuvring there was no room for error, and manoeuvre speed and co-ordination became allimportant. There was a macabre joke among ‘Hind’ crews that flying in this fashion was ‘just as easy as walking a tightrope’. The unit stationed in Kunduz learned it the hard way, losing six Mi-24Ds in the first year of the war, in accidents. Some of the helicopters collided with mountains due to fog or wind shear, and others were written off in unsuccessful landings on slopes or in cramped landing zones.

In April 1980 General Designer Marat N. Tischchenko visited several Mi-24 units in Afghanistan and the ‘aerial hooligans’, as the pilots were wryly referred to by the army top brass, demonstrated some of the officially banned manoeuvres to him, taking the helicopter to its limits. After watching a session of ‘aerobatics’ featuring ultra-steep climbs, spectacular spins and even the allegedly impossible (for a ‘Hind’ ) barrel roll performed by Major V. Kharitonov, the amazed OKB boss exclaimed, “I thought I knew what my helicopters could do, now I’m not so sure!” The daredevil demonstration created a lasting impression, and the positive after-effect followed very soon when, in the summer of 1980, the Mil OKB began working on an upgrade package for the Mi-24. This included readjustment of the engines’ automatic fuel controls to reduce power loss in ‘hot-and-high’ conditions (made in situ by the manufacturer’s technical teams) and a contingency increase in turbine temperature for the duration of the war, as the crews preferred to risk having a turbine casing burn through than to suffer from lack of power when they needed it most.

The engine air intakes were fitted with vortex-type dust filters which extracted 70 to 75 per cent of the dust and sand ingested by the engines, reducing compressor blade wear 2.5 to 3 times. The Mi-24 received the filters before the Mi-8 - even though the ‘Hip’ operated from unprepared landing zones (LZs) more often than the ‘Hind’ - because its TV3-117 turboshafts had higher idling rpm and mass flow than the Mi-8’s TV2-117As and thus ingested sand more readily, making the engine wear problem more acute. (It has to be said that very few ‘first-generation’ Mi-8s have been retrofitted with these filters; conversely, they are standard on the ’second-generation’ Mi-8MT/Mi-17 ‘Hip-F’ and its versions, both civil and military.)

Mi-24Vs began arriving in Afghanistan in 1981, with TV3-117V engines giving 15 to 20 per cent more power in ‘hot-and-high’ conditions. Earlier Mi-24Ds were retrofitted with the new engines during overhauls.

Hitting the target.
By the end of 1980 the helicopter element of the 40th army had been doubled to 200 aircraft. The combat helicopters made both planned sorties and extra sorties as requested by the ground forces if a pocket of resistance was encountered. Army aviation accounted for 33 per cent of all planned strike missions; by contrast, its share in real CAS missions was 75 per cent. By then there were three levels of ground force operations - army ops, unit ops and the socalled implementation (performed at division, brigade and battalion level, respectively). Each type invariably involved helicopter support, and the ‘Hind’ with its comprehensive weapons range was used as an armoured fist. It has to be said that Mikhail L. Mil’s ‘flying IFV concept, which was the core of the Mi-24’s design philosophy, was seldom put into practice.

If a mix of bombs and rocket pods was carried, the pilot would let loose a salvo of FFARs at 1200 to 1500 m (3,937 to 4,921 ft) range and then hose down the area with machinegun fire, allowing the WSO to aim and drop the bombs accurately. For such pinpoint strikes, which were made at high speed and low altitude, the bomb detonators were set with a delay of up to 32 seconds (as on attack aircraft) so that the aircraft was not hit by the bombs’ fragments. This did not always work, as when, for example, in the summer of 1985 an Mi-24 operating from Ghazni in central Afghanistan came home with 18 fragments of its flight leader’s bombs in its fuselage. Fully loaded, the ‘Hind’ could take up to 10 100-kg (220-lb) bombs on MBD2-67u multiple racks (MBD, mnogozamkovii bomboderzhahtel’ - multiple bomb rack). In a simultaneous drop, accuracy was rather low, but this technique worked well against area targets such as Mujahideen camps.

Bombed-up Mi-24s often spearheaded assault groups, demolishing the thick adobe walls of Afghan houses which became death traps for Mujahideen gunners. Another favourite weapon for these missions was the UPK-23-250 gun pod. The GSh-23L cannon had a high muzzle velocity and proved far more effective against such structures than S-5 FFARs, for the shells pierced the walls to explode inside.

The Mi-24 could also carry large-calibre HE bombs, such as four 250-kg (551-lb) FAB-250s or two 500-kg (1,102-lb) FAB-SOOs (FAB, foogahsnaya aviabomba = high-explosive bomb). These bombs were used against ancient fortresses, which were abundant in Afghanistan and made convenient bases for the rebels, being strategically located on insurmountable cliffs, protecting settlements and road junctions, and had stone or adobe walls 3 m (10 ft) thick which were impervious to S-5s. In June 1980 eight Mi-24Ds toting big bombs played a vital role in the capture of Mt Sanghi-Douzdan, the famous Mountain of Thieves near Faozabad which Alexander the Great had failed to capture in his time. The mountain was riddled with caves and passages and had sheltered local bandits from time immemorial, hence the name, and had become a major Mujahideen base. Truck-mounted BM-21 Grad (’Hail’) multiple-launcher rocket systems pounded the mountain without respite, paving the way for the ground troops. The ‘Hinds’joined in at night, flying sortie after sortie without a WSO, so that the helicopter could take more bombs.

Fuel/air explosives.
August 1980 was probably the first time Mi-24Ds used fuel/air bombs against a Mujahideen ambush in the Faozabad canyon. Knowing that trials had shown lowerthan- average reliability of these munitions, the pilots of two ‘Hinds’ covering the lead pair immediately fired a salvo of rockets into the resulting cloud of fuel mist for good measure. The bombs had been dropped at 300 m (984 ft), which was higher than usual, yet the blast wave caught up with the helicopters. As the pilots themselves put it, “The first thing we knew was our teeth snapping.” Reliability problems with fuel/air bombs persisted throughout the war. Their efficiency was affected by many factors, including drop speed, altitude and ‘hot-and-high’ conditions; some sources claim that only 15 to 20 per cent of these bombs detonated properly. Hence, fuel/air bombs were used sporadically, and then usually in combination with HE or incendiary bombs. When they did work properly they were a terrifying weapon, and not for nothing have been called ‘the poor man’s atomic bomb’. Buildings were flattened completely, and troops arriving on the scene would find charred bodies and a few deaf and blind survivors.

Mi-24 strike groups were sometimes accompanied by an Mi-8 fire director helicopter with a spotter on board. The latter was usually a local from the HAD (the Afghan secret service) who helped tell friend from foe in the vegetation below and identify the right house in a village, i.e., the one in which the enemy had hidden. Intelligence came from prisoners, friendly villagers, undercover agents in Mujahideen gangs or paid informers. The latter source was the least reliable as, all too often, an informer, having sold information on enemy positions, immediately went to the Mujahideen to warn of an impending air raid and get paid by them as well. Another pair of ‘Hips’ always tagged along as SAR helicopters. They also photographed the attack results and, in the case of heavily protected high-priority targets, undertook post-attack reconnaissance which helped assess possible enemy retaliatory action.

In March 1982 a squadron of’Hinds’ was tasked with eliminating a gathering of opposition leaders in Asadabad. A flight of Mi-24s was to keep the Mujahideen air defences busy while another secured the perimeter of the city block to stop anyone getting in or out. The Afghan spotter identified the building where the target was and the entire squadron came in, obliterating it. The spotter fled as soon as the helicopters returned to base, and it transpired that the house he had indicated belonged to a local ‘big shot’ and a long-time enemy of his; he simply saw the opportunity to take his revenge. Another tragi-comical incident which happened in Kandahar was a classic case of crew miscommunication. The spotter pointed to a house below which was promptly attacked; it turned out that the poor devil, who spoke no Russian at all, had merely wanted to show them his own home!

Bombing and shooting accuracy was affected by wind turbulence from the mountains, which could cause the bombs and rockets to drift far off course. Mi-24V pilots had been taught by experience to rely more on their eyes and good judgement than on the ASP-17V automatic gunsight and VSB-24 ballistic shooting and bombing computer (VSB, vychisleeteV strel’bii i bombometahniya). Sniper Pilot (a grade reflecting expertise) Nikolay Malyshev made no secret of his way to success: “It’s all about hitting the target, not about taking aim.” WSO Ivan Manenok operating from Jalalabad became something of a local legend for his ability to lob bombs squarely on top of Mujahideen fortresses and machine-gun emplacements. During operations against villages he could place HE bombs at right angles precisely at the base of a wall. In an attempt to hide from Soviet raids the Mujahideen began setting up shelters and AAA positions behind rocky outcrops. The ‘Hinds’ would get them even there, using the lob-bombing technique.

Some Mi-24s were armed with S-24 heavy unguided rockets with 123-kg (271-lb) warheads which could be launched at a range of up to 2 km (1.24 miles) without taking the helicopter within range of the enemy’s air defences. A ‘Hind’ unit commanded by Colonel Gorshkov made 50 successful launches. The S-24 could be used successfully only by experienced crews and so did not find wide use, the reason being that the heavy missile produced an extensive smoke trail which enveloped the helicopter, causing considerable risk of engine surge.

ATGMs were used successfully not only against vehicles but against bunkers and gun emplacements if their positions were known in advance. At 1.5 to 2 km (0.93 to 1.24 mile) range, a WSO with good aim could place a 35-kg (77-lb) rocket squarely in an embrasure or the mouth of a cave. The 9M114 Shturm-V ATGM was especially effective for this if equipped with a fuel/air warhead which blew the bunkers apart from within. When fired at Mujahideen vehicle convoys, the Shturm-V had a kill rate of 75 to 80 per cent; pilots even complained there were ‘too few suitable targets’ for these weapons.

As noted earlier, the ‘flying IFV concept did not prove feasible in combat. The crews were reluctant to fly a ‘battlebus’ full of ‘passengers’ firing out the windows, as the Mi-24 was decidedly overweight and sluggish with a full payload, so armour plating and troop seats in the cabin were often removed to save weight. For the same reason, the payload was often limited to two FFAR pods or bombs (enough for most missions) and the fuel tanks were rarely filled more than two-thirds. Only 16 per cent of the sorties were flown fully loaded, and then for short distances only.

Day and night hunter teams
‘Hinds’ were often used as ‘hunters’ to patrol areas of interest and destroy targets of opportunity. The missions, known officially as ‘reconnaissance/strike operations’ (i.e., armed reconnaissance), were usually flown by pairs or flights of Mi-24s. The softer-skinned and less heavily armed Mi-8TVs (’Hip-C/Es’) and Mi-8MTV-2s (’Hip-Hs’) were rarely used alone for these dangerous missions but could provide welcome support for the ‘crocodiles’. The normal weapons fit comprised two FFAR pods, two anti-tank missiles and 500 to 700 machine-gun rounds.

The helicopters assumed echelon formation angled at 15 to 20° with intervals of 600 to 800 m (1,968 to 2,624 ft) and patrolled the area at 1500 to 1700 m (4,921 to 5,577 ft), which gave everyone good visibility and freedom ot manoeuvre. Having located a convoy, they would fire warning shots across its path, forcing it to stop and keeping it in check until the inspection group arrived in several Mi-8s. However, increasingly often the convoys included ‘trapmobiles’ with heavy machine-guns hidden under tarpaulins, so soon the hunters began simply shooting suspicious convoys, leaving the inspection group little to do except collect the booty and burn what trucks were left (if any). At night, when the enemy moved about more freely under cover of the darkness, the hunters patrolled roads and mountain paths in pairs, keeping a difference in altitude of 80 to 100 m (262 to 328 ft) for safety’s sake. Having located vehicle headlights or camp fires and received confirmation that there were no friendlies in the area, the group attacked immediately; quick reaction was crucial to prevent the Mujahideen from vanishing into the night. Usually, all lights on the ground were promptly extinguished when the helicopters put in an appearance, but the ‘Hinds’ fired special S-5-O (osvetitel’nii) illumination FFARs to ‘pin dowrn’ the target, then dropped flare bombs and dived below them to attack. This tactic was later refined, so that the helicopters attacked from above the ‘chandeliers’ (as the flare bombs were called in Air Force slang), staying invisible to the enemy.

Night hunter operations required extensive training, but were extremely effective. On one occasion in April 1986, a Soviet tactical reconnaissance group reported a Mujahideen convoy approaching Gharkalay village near Kandahar and a flight of ‘Hinds’ took off to intercept. A single firing pass sent the Mujahideen scattering, abandoning six trucks full of weapons. In December 1986 the Mi-24 tested ‘blinding bombs’ near Bagram. These munitions were modified flare bombs which produced a tremendous flash, putting enemy personnel within a radius of 30 to 50 m (98 to 164 ft) out of action for several hours but not causing permanent blindness.

One of the rotary-wing element’s main roles in the war was vertical envelopment, i.e., insertion of troops in the vicinity of villages, roads and other points of importance held by the rebels. In these operations the Mi-24 acted as a steamroller, crushing enemy resistance with bombs and rockets to clear the way for incoming Mi-8s and Mi-6 ‘Hook-As’. One or two pairs of’Hinds’ escorted the transport helicopters (numbering as many as 60 at a time) all the way to the LZ, flying along the flanks and 200 to 400 m (656 to 1,312 ft) higher. The landing was preceded by artillery fire and strikes by attack aircraft, followed rapidly by one or two flights of Mi-24s. Before the confused enemy had time to collect his wits, the helibornc assault was coming in, covered by several pairs of helicopters which circled over the LZ at 1200 to 1800 m (3,937 to 5,905 ft), taking out any surviving enemy gunners. Another flight of Mi-24s stayed at the base on ready alert, replacing the ones which had expended their ammunition, if required.

Patrolling the roads.
From the summer of 1980, the ‘Hinds’ were tasked with the important mission of escorting supply convoys, which accounted for 15 to 17 per cent of sorties. The 40th Army’s daily needs amounted to hundreds of tons of fuel, ammunition, food, etc., and the convoys delivering them were perpetually ambushed by the rebels. Several pairs of Mi-24s would take turns patrolling above the convoy, zigzagging at 150 to 170 km/h (81 to 92 kt). The crews checked the surroundings 2 to 3 km (1.24 to 1.86 miles) on each side of the road - this was the rebels’ usual attack range - and 5 to 8 km (3 to 5 miles) ahead of the convoy. Having detected a Mujahideen ambush, the helicopters made a flank attack if possible, coming in along the road to avoid blue-on-blue incidents. Ad hoc helipads were built along the roads for refuelling and ‘changing of the guard’, as providing constant escort to convoys crawling along at 15 to 20 km/h (9 to 12 mph) would otherwise have been impossible. The first stretch from Termez on the Soviet side of the border (Uzbekistan) to the infamous Salang pass was protected by ‘Hinds’ based in Kunduz, using helipads in Khairaton, Mazar-i-Sharif, Tashkurgan and Pul-i-Khumri. At the Salang pass, Mi-24s from Bagram took over, later passing on the convoys to crews from Jalalabad, Ghazni and other bases.

Still, losses were heavy; thousands of vehicles were lost each year and an army driver’s profession was one of the most dangerous. In April 1983 a convoy of 180 trucks escorted by a tank battalion was ambushed in the Dori River valley not far from Kandahar. The place was crawling with Mujahideen, who opened fire from hideouts behind fences and in the jungle. When Mi-24s arrived on the scene, 20 fuel trucks and six tanks were ablaze on the road below. The helicopters fired 80-mm S-8 FFARs, marking the first operational use of this weapon; those on the ground mistook them for cannon fire of tremendous density and power. The rest of the convoy broke through, luckily for the Russians, for the fuel dump at Kandahar had only enough fuel for a couple more sorties.

The B-8V20 pods with 20 S-8 rockets apiece earned the highest praise in Afghanistan. The 3.6-kg (7.93-lb) warhead had considerable demolition effect and produced a large number of 3-g (0.1 -oz) fragments with a kill radius of 10 to 12 m (33 to 39 ft). The new rockets began supplanting the S-5, yet the earlier model remained in use until the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan, despite pilots’ complaints that the S-5s were only good for ‘tickling the dookhi’s [Mujahideen] heels’ and fanned out ‘like a tulip’ when fired. To give credit where credit is due, the S-5 was still fairly effective in open spaces, it was simple and reliable, and the UB-32A pods were quickly and easily loaded, which was an undoubted asset during intensive operations with five or six sorties a day. Last but not least, huge stockpiles of S-5s had been built up at ammunition dumps and had to be expended to make room for new weapons.

As ‘Hind’ crews became more experienced and battle hardened, tactics changed. Some 75 per cent of the sorties were flown in the early morning hours to escape the blistering mid-day heat. The first raid was made at dawn to get the Mujahideen in the open, when they were saying their morning prayers. Targets were distributed among crews in a strike group and the helicopters were armed accordingly; some crews would suppress the air defences and take out enemy personnel with FFARs and cluster bombs, while others destroyed buildings and other structures with HE bombs. Some 100-kg (220-lb) bombs were fitted with delayed-action fuses to act as mines, and explosions would continue for the next 24 hours, preventing survivors from getting out of the rubble. (However, there were cases when this method backfired; the Mujahideen would send some of their own men to disarm the bombs as punishment for transgressions and then use the bombs as land mines to mine roads ahead of Soviet convoys.) The last strike sortie of the day was flown late in the afternoon, again with a view to getting the Mujahideen in the open, since their religion required them to bury their dead before sunset.
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