As with any attack helicopter, armament is the true heart of the design. Available munitions include the latest in Russian anti-tank air-to-surface missiles and anti-aircraft air-to-air missiles mounted on four external hardpoints on port and starboard wingstubs. The main weapon of the Ka-50 in the anti-tank hunting role is the tube-launched AT-16 Vikhr-M laser-guided air-to-surface anti-tank missile system. The missile has an operational range of up nearly five miles, offers armor penetration and can reach speeds of Mach 1.8. The Ka-50, and its two-seat variant, the Ka-52, as well as the Su-25T "Frogfoot" are all cleared for using the missile system. Additionally, the Ka-50 is slated to carry traditional gunship weaponry including munition-dispensing rocket pods featuring various warhead types. The Black Shark can also carry external fuel pods for increased range, gun pods and drop bombs as required.
The base armament of the Ka-50 series is a single 30mm Shipunov 2A42 cannon cleared for firing Armor-Piercing (AP) or High-Explosive Fragmentation (HE-FRAG) ammunition. Though conventional attack helicopters field their cannon in a stand-alone, fully-traversable powered mounting under the fuselage chin, the Black Shark fits the cannon along the starboard side of the fuselage just aft and below the cockpit. This offers some benefits to the design in that the weapon system is placed closer to the helicopters center of gravity for optimal balance. The semi-rigid installation produces less recoil and makes for a more accurate weapons delivery. An obvious drawback to the layout is that the entire helicopter must then be turned towards the direction of the target but integration with the helicopter's weapon system reportedly allows for response times to be as quick as those found on the Hughes Apache 30mm chin-mounted chain gun system.
After evaluation, the Ka-50 was selected for service in the Russian Air Force while the Mil Mi-28 was selected years later - both facing limited production totals initially. The system combined a great amount of armor protection, survivability, firepower and performance capabilities when compared to its competitors and was destined to become a major player in the Cold War world. With the fall of the Soviet Empire, the future of the Ka-50 was put into jeopardy until a resurgence in military funding kicked the Ka-50 production lines back into full service. Though only some 30 or so total examples were known to have been produced up to this point, it is understood that the Ka-50 will still make up the backbone of the Russian attack helicopter arm for the foreseeable future (now since paired with the Mi-28 product).
The Ka-50 has appeared in a growing collection of variants and developmental offshoots attempting to shore up limitations in the original design. The V-80 represented the original's prototype designation and this was then followed by two V-80Sh-1 "Shturmovik-1" pre-production models. A night-capable Ka-50 appeared in the form of the Ka-50N and Ka-50Sh types fitted with FLIR and electro-optic sights attached to either Russian- or French-originated avionics. The Ka-50-2 was to represent three proposed export products based on the Ka-52 "Alligator". The Ka-50-2 "Erdogan" was in competition for Turkish sale and represented a joint Kamov/Israeli attempt to fit Israel avionics and "glass" cockpit into a tandem twin-seat cockpit. The Erdogan eventually lost out to the Bell Helicopter-Textron AH-1Z "King Cobra". The Ka-52K is an in-development navalized form of the Ka-52 complete with a folding main rotor head, anti-corrosion coating and various other naval-friendly additions to help the helicopter operate over unforgiving ocean. These will be presumably based on the upcoming French Mistral-class vessel procured by the Russian Navy, expected to become available from 2014 inwards.
The Ka-52 Alligator
The Ka-52 "Alligator" was a revised Ka-50 design with twin-seating in a side-by-side cockpit arrangement and is classified as an all-weather, day/night capable attack system. Developed in 1994, the Ka-52 sports a redesigned forward fuselage to accommodate space for the wider two-seat cockpit and a radome fitted under the new nose cone though it retains up to 85% of the Ka-50 airframe. This new addition helps the Ka-52 in being able to track and allocate targets to supporting Ka-50 units. Other external defining features of the type include a pair of turreted day/night FLIR and TV sighting systems - one fitted under the nose and the other above the cockpit - Thales-based avionics, helmet-mounted sights, IR sensor, laser rangefinder and a mast-mounted radar antenna. Despite the addition of radar, the addition of the second crewmember and an all-new designation, the Ka-52 still retains all of the weapons capabilities and explosive lethality of the base Ka-50. First flight of the Alligator came on June 25th, 1997.
Fool Me Once...
It should be noted that originally - in an attempt to fool Western observers - the Ka-50 had a second cockpit "painted" onto the fuselage. This worked well as the Ka-50 was reported by the West to be of a two-seat tandem cockpit design, with a pilot seated in the rear in a raised position over the gunner in front. Though a two-seat version of the Ka-50 ultimately was revealed, this featured side-by-side seating instead.
The Ka-50 saw limited operational combat for the first time in December 2000, engaging ground forces in Chechnya and proved a capable attack system over the rugged and forested mountain terrain.
The Future of the Ka-50
At one time, India was considering quantitative purchase of the Kamov Ka-50 platform while also entertaining proposals including the Mil Mi-28 and the Eurocopter Tiger. However, the nation formally settled on the American Boeing AH-64 Apache attack series. Kamov is still hopeful to sell the Ka-50 to India in the future as the system becomes a more evolved Russian military performer. The Russian Air Force operates several dozen Ka-50/Ka-52s jointly alongside the Mi-28 Havoc. It is expected that any further "new-build" Ka-50s will be of the more-capable Ka-52 model.