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Soviet helicopter crews in Afghanistan
Like the US Army in Vietnam, the Soviet army discovered in Afghanistan that helicopters are exceptionally weII-suited for use in counterinsurgency warfare owing to their range, mobility, armament, and multiple capabilities. Given the decentralization of operations and vast territory to be covered, the Soviets could not have maintained pressure on the mujaheddin without the helicopter.
As explained by Scott R. McMichael in Defense Technical Information Center’s document The Soviet Army, Counterinsurgency, and the Afghan War, helicopter employment was the most dynamic feature of Soviet tactical operations during the war. Helicopters provided a mobility of combat power that the rebels in no way could match, enhanced surprise, reduced rebel reaction time, enabled Soviet units to respond to guerrilla threats rapidly, and provided Soviet forces their best means of exercising initiative.
Moreover, the low air-defense threat enabled the Soviet command to test its pilots and helicopters thoroughly and aIIowed them to engage in relatively danger-free tactical trial and error. The experience in helicopter employment obtained in Afghanistan was probably the most important military benefit achieved there by the Soviets.
But this was not a wholly one-sided conflict.
As told by Mark Galeotti in his book Afghanistan 1979–88 Soviet air power against the mujahideen, even before the Afghan rebels began to acquire man-portable surface-to-air missiles such as the controversial US ‘Stinger,’ they aggressively and imaginatively adapted. They learnt new techniques of camouflage and deception, launched daring raids on airbases to destroy aircraft on the ground, and even set up ambushes against low-level attacks.
An almost medieval armor for Soviet helicopter crews in Afghanistan
While every effort was made to protect the aircraft, from the armor plating on the Mi-24 and Su-25, to the countermeasures deployed to decoy missiles, it was inevitable that there would be casualties in flight and crashes.
There was inevitably a trade-off between protection and convenience, something as true of the experiments with thick bulletproof glass in portholes to the body armor proposed for helicopter crews in 1980. This almost medieval kit comprised a steel breastplate, greaves for the legs and vambraces on the arms.
Unsurprisingly, it was immediately rejected as too hot, heavy and cumbersome, although some would use the later BZh-1 set with titanium breastplate and shoulder guards.
Instead, helicopter crews and some ground-attack pilots would occasionally wear the 6B2 vest – which was still an ungainly 5kg – not least in winter when it doubled as cold-weather gear, and the ZSh-3B armored flight helmet. Even their coveralls were changed, first to replace a synthetic that would melt when exposed to fire, and from 1984 they wore camouflage instead of their distinctive light blue.
This last was specifically in case they were shot down and needed concealment. Just as with medical evacuations, Afghanistan saw the Soviets take search and rescue (SAR) much more seriously than in the past. There were SAR helicopter teams on permanent stand-by at Kabul, Bagram, Shindand and Kandahar, and fixed-wing and rotor assets alike would regularly be diverted to try and locate, protect and extract downed airmen.
Just in case, flight crews were issued not only survival kits but also PM pistols. These were poorly regarded for their lack of range and authority, though. Many flight crews would replace them with TT Tokarev or APS Stechkin pistols or with Western pistols bought on the black market or looted from dead rebels, with 9mm Beretta 92 and .45 Colt M1911s being especially favoured. Increasingly, they would also acquire the AKS-74U assault carbine version of the standard AK-74 rifle, appreciating its shorter length. Many would also replace one of the water flasks in their survival kit with four RGD-5 hand grenades – it was a common pledge, even if only rarely executed, that the last one would be saved to ensure the airman was not captured by the rebels.
Afghanistan 1979–88 Soviet air power against the mujahideen is published by Osprey and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Igor Dvurekov Russian Planes via Wikipedia and Unknown