The Kamov Ka-50 Chernaya Akula (or "Black Shark" and Codenamed "Hokum" by NATO) series of attack helicopter was developed in the latter years of the Cold War and did not enter operational service with Russian military forces until 1995. It features many interesting and unique design elements for a weapon of this classification and - at least on paper - would seem to give all other modern attack helicopters and ground armor units a run for their money thanks to the inherent capabilities in the distinct design. The need for a new Russian attack helicopter was developed after hard-earned lessons in the Soviet-Afghanistan Conflict
Development of the Ka-50 began in 1977, producing the V-80 prototype. The V-80 went airborne on July 27th, 1982 and evolved to become the V-80Sh-1 pre-production model. The Ka-50 squared off against the Mil Mi-28 "Havoc" - a conventional two-seat attack helicopter in competitive trials and was selected ahead of the Mil product in 1986. Funding delayed production for a time and renewed trials in 1994 did the Ka-50 project no better - 2000 saw the Mi-28 also selected for service. The Ka-50 became operational in 1995 and was produced through approximately 32 examples. Comparatively, the Mi-28 was introduced into service in 1996 and initially saw limited production for the Russian Air Force while Kenya entered the fray as an export customer (the Iraqi Air Force may become its next foreign operator of note).
Since both attack types have been formally selected for quantitative procurement, Russian doctrine has evolved to include both platforms in future plans. The Ka-50/Ka-52, therefore, will be focused more on policing frontier territories of the vast Russian front while the Mi-28 will be utilized in the territories west of the Ural mountain range.
Black Shark Walk-Around
From a design standpoint, the Ka-50 is very unconventional. The cockpit is situated forward in the fuselage with the engines just aft and t either side of the cockpit. Wings are fitted just under these powerplants and sport four hardpoints for a variety of ordnance options. Wingtip bulges are visible and field the aircraft's defensive anti-missile suite in the form of chaff and flare dispensers. Armor is such that all major components, systems and pilot are protected from weapon calibers ranging up to 20mm and 23mm. IR-suppressed exhausts and self-sealing fuel tanks assist the Black Shark in surviving the modern battlefield, important to consider when this type of aircraft is required to operate at low altitudes in hot zones. Engines are fitted high against the fuselage in an effort to keep the helicopter's critical powerplant system as far away from enemy ground fire as possible. The undercarriage - consisting of a tricycle-wheeled landing gear system - is fully retractable and promotes a "low to the ground" appearance when the helicopter is at rest. Construction of the Ka-50 involves more than 35% composite materials.
The most distinct feature of the Kamov Ka-50 is something of a Kamov-brand identifier - the twin contra-rotating co-axial main rotors. In this type of arrangement, the Ka-50 negates the need to balance the inherent power of the main rotor with a tail rotor unit common on most any other helicopter. In the Black Shark's case, the pair of counter-rotating main rotors (that is, each main rotor spins in the opposite direction of one another) balance the torque affect of one another out making for a stable and relatively responsive platform. It is a much noted fact that the loss of a tail rotor assembly to any modern helicopter more often than not spells certain doom for the system and crew alike. The Ka-50 makes use its main rotor assemblies to negate the possibility that the Black Shark can be lost through a direct hit on its tail section. As a result, combat survivability is greatly increased though at the expense of a more complicated set up.
In addition to combat factors, the deletion of the tail rotor assembly has a direct increase to the overall top speed, making it one of the fastest - if not THE fastest - attack helicopters in service. With power derived from the twin Klimov TV3-117VK turboshaft engines of 2,226 horsepower each, none of this output needs to be diverted to a tail rotor assembly and can instead be optimized to the centrally-located twin main rotors instead. Performance specifications include a top speed of 242 miles per hour (168 cruise speed), a range of 720 miles, a service ceiling of up to 18,000 feet and a rate-of-climb nearing 1,870 feet per minute.
Another noticeable design element present in the Ka-50 is the use of a single crewmember to command all of the available systems of the Black Shark. Though most contemporary attack helicopters utilize a dedicated pilot and gunner to split the tasks as related to combat, the Ka-50 provides the pilot a full suite of automated systems to keep the bird aloft and actively hunting. With attention given to this unique facet of the Black Shark's design, it remains to be seen whether the arrangement is actually a viable one considering the amount of instruments and systems the pilot must monitor and react to on any given sortie - particularly under intense combat conditions. In any case, the limitation of a single crewmember means the design also saves on weight that can be allocated to more vital components of the Ka-50 including armor and weapons.
Battlefield survivability of the Ka-50 is given another major boost in the way of an ejection system in the K-37 ejection seat. Though quite uncommon in attack helicopters of today, the Black Shark features a complicated but life-saving process that can potentially save the pilots life. The system ejection process begins by having the twin main rotors ejected via controlled explosives followed by the ejection of the pilot a short moment later. This in itself sets the Black Shark apart from any other attack helicopter in this category and adds another thoughtful element to the survival design philosophy.
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.
(OPERATORS list includes past, present, and future operators when applicable)
✓Ground Attack (Bombing, Strafing)
Ability to conduct aerial bombing of ground targets by way of (but not limited to) guns, bombs, missiles, rockets, and the like.
✓Close-Air Support (CAS)
Developed to operate in close proximity to active ground elements by way of a broad array of air-to-ground ordnance and munitions options.
47.6 ft (14.50 m)
16.2 ft (4.93 m)
23,810 lb (10,800 kg)
(Showcased structural values pertain to the Kamov Ka-50 production variant)
2 x Klimov TV3-117VK turboshaft engines developing 2,226 horsepower and driving 2 x three-blade counter-rotating co-axial main rotors.
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