"Frontal and Army Aviation in the Chechen Conflict"

By Dr N.Novichkov
Date: Jun 1995



An air group was formed for operations in Chechnya, based on units of the 4th Air Army with reinforcements of reconnaissance, ground attack bomber and long range assets. Operations were carried out from a number of aerodromes in the North Caucasus region. Further fields were prepared for operations by transport aircraft, such as Beslan and later after Grozny had been taken - Grozny North. Finance affected all aspects of operations. When military operations commenced, fuel, ammunition, spare parts and food available amounted to 50% of the laid down norms. During the course of operations a significant proportion of replenishment of material was obtained by raiding other units' holdings and not from industry sources. Because of an already existing lack of material resources many aircrew had already lost their capability to operate in adverse weather conditions and to use their weapons effectively. Shortage of spare parts and assemblies caused problems in maintaining the airworthiness of aircraft.

Chechens lacked an effective air defence system, in particular they had no radar, which significantly aided the operations of Russia's air force. Combat aircraft employed were (TN: NATO designations in brackets): SU-17 (FITTER), SU-24 (FENCER), SU-25 (FROGFOOT), SU-27 (FLANKER), MIG-31 (FOXHOUND) and TU-22M3 (BACKFIRE). In the opening phase of the conflict the air force neutralized Chechen air resources (mostly trainers, some combat training aircraft) and by using concrete-piercing HE bombs against the Presidential Palace forced its defenders to evacuate. During the period November-December 1994 all of the several hundred training aircraft based in Chechnya were destroyed, and no usable airfields remained in Chechen hands, with the bases at Khankala, Kalinovskaya and Grozny being taken by federal forces. The aircraft were destroyed to prevent them from launching long-range missiles from air space beyond the borders of Chechnya proper. During the approach march to Grozny, which took place over three routes, weather conditions were appalling and the use of precision weaponry was impossible. Thus according to Col General Deynekin, the air force commander, it was decided to use SU-24 aircraft singly to attack specific enemy targets and formations. Targets included bridges over the Argun river, strongpoints and certain points within the boundaries of Groznyy such as Dudayev's underground command post, the television station and its antennae as well as the tank repair facility in the "Red Hammer" factory and military accommodation. TU-22M3 (BACKFIRE) bombers of the long range air force were employed but not on carpet bombing as claimed by Dudayev. Targets were routes and approaches in the direction of Gudermes, Shali and Argun (as well as troop concentration in these areas).

In the area of Grozny only illuminating bombs were used. According to Deynekin from 24 December for several days up to the President's first ban there had been no bombing of Grozny in any case. According to Deynekin the bombing pause lasted from 24 December to 3 January. After that, ground attack aircraft, operating on call, were employed with precision strikes only against centres of resistance in the city, often at the extreme limits of accuracy of the guidance system.

Cluster bombs were sparingly employed, with 16 canister bombs dropped on the southern units of Grozny before being stopped on Deynekin's personal command. However this contradicts the evidence of witnesses who described significant use of cluster and flechette bombs.

It appears that federal troops suffered as many casualties from their own air attacks as from enemy mortar fire. On occasions, the Chechens broke into Russian radio transmissions and directed Russian aircraft against their own troops. Because of the thick fog over the city most of the time, bombing took place from 6-700 metres (TN: 1500-2000 feet). In cloudy conditions Russian SU-25 (FROGFOOT) were using free flight missiles and free fall bombs. These fell widely dispersed, and there was an almost 1 00% probability of hitting own troops as well as the civilian population. December and January weather in this part of the Caucasus brings dense cloud and intense cold, with temperatures dropping to minus 20xC, followed sometimes by a sudden thaw. For the first time ever, SU-24 (FENCER) aircraft were used in action on precision bombing missions. Because of the weather, they were employed, using their on-board target indication systems, when troops of both sides were in close proximity.

But since bombing accuracy was still only plus or minus 150 metres, many unnecessary casualties and corollary damage were caused. As former Vice-President Alexander Rutskoy (himself a SU-25 unit commander in Afghanistan) stated, "There are no such things as precision strikes, even using guided missiles. The X-29, X-25 and S-25 bombs used in Chechnya have a radius of destruction of 280-400 metres. There were even heavier bombs used, whose blast wave reaches out to 300 metres, with fragments reaching out to 1200 metres". All in all, the air force caused considerable damage and casualties to the local population, evoking a wave of public protest, both in Russia and abroad, at the mass killing of peaceful citizens by the bombing attacks, and bombing of other towns and villages where Chechen bands were presumed to be concentrated. During the first ten weeks of operations, one SU-25 (FROGFOOT) was shot down and a further fourteen aircraft damaged, all of which were later returned to flying condition by engineering personnel.

A further SU-25 was shot down on 5 May. Deynekin has continued to deny that there were bombing attacks on peaceful citizens, villages, bazaars, hospitals or similar civilian targets. He claims that he is supported in this by the photographic records of each flight. However since the Chechens deployed their tanks and guns close to schools, kindergartens and in the courtyards of blocks of flats, one should not be surprised that during attacks on military targets, buildings nearby suffered hits. He has further stated that the measures undertaken both by the Ministry of Defence and the Air Force High Command in response to financial restraints had enabled the service to maintain its fighting capability. The conflict had further shown the necessity for centralised command of aviation, and much required to be done to improve military-transport aviation. The general stated that in crisis situations one needed to bring into the operation the transport aircraft belonging to the (civil) air transport department, and there was a requirement for a government decision to this effect. (Note: the editors comment that for movement of troops in the course of "Desert Storm", large numbers of American civilian passenger aircraft were used to transport both men and stores to the Persian Gulf).

The aircraft used in this operation were, in the main, 1L-76 (CANDID), AN-12 (CUB), AN-22 (COCK) and the MI-26 (HALO) heavy lift helicopter. In one 24 hour period AN-124-100 "RUSLAN" aircraft, operating from the Ul'yanovsk East field, transported from sub-units of the 104 Airborne Division more than 1000 paratroops and their armoured vehicles.

From 30 November 1994 to the end of February 1995, military transport crews flew 492 trips into the conflict zone, clocking up a total of 4020 hours. By 28 February they had moved 22,000 troops, 3057 tons of stores and 1140 pieces of technical and combat equipment from Mozdok and Beslan aerodromes. A further 64 flights were allocated to the repair of Grozny North airfield, with 1151 tons of non-military cargo and 41 specialist vehicles being carried. Air Defence (PVO) fleet aircraft also participated in operations in Chechnya, with from two to six MIG-31 (FOXHOUND) and SU-27 (FLANKER) aircraft patrolling above Chechnya to prevent food, weapons and reinforcements entering the republic.

The Operations of Army Aviation

According to the commander of army aviation, Colonel-General V Pavlov, in an interview with the "Red Star" newspaper: 59% of the Army Aviation pilots operating in Chechnya were Afghanistan veterans. All held the qualification of first class pilot, which meant they were all capable of flying under conditions where visibility is down to one kilometre and cloud cover as low as 100 metres. Air crews came from three different regiments based in the North Caucasus Military District, with the exception of those flying the MI-26 (HALO) heavy transport helicopter and a special command communications flight in MI-9. In the early stages of the operation transport and other specialist tasks took precedence over combat tests. Under normal operational circumstances, planned usage of helicopters would be: for combat tasks 65-70%; transport tasks 15%; special tasks 5-10% .

During December/January in Chechnya combat tasks amounted to 17% of the total. Most tasks involved escorting vehicle columns and providing general support to troops. Once federal troops had entered the area of Grozny, combat tasks reduced considerably and no helicopters were used to support military operations in the city. No bombs were carried on army helicopters. Basic armaments were free flight missiles and the "Shturm" guided missile. The former were used against area targets and the latter, as a rule, against previously laid-down and specific targets such as ammunition dumps and armoured vehicles.

There were incidents when the helicopters were fired upon from schools and houses where Russians lived. Chechen fighters would immediately vacate these areas after firing so that return fire hit peaceful citizens and children. Two squadrons of MI-24 (HIND) combat helicopters and two squadrons of MI-8 (HIP) supported by some heavy MI-26 (HALO) were called up for operations. In one sortie MI-26 (HALO) transport could transport 15-20 tons of water to troops unable to obtain it locally. Throughout the whole operation, main cargoes were personnel and their replacements, ammunition, the wounded and sick as well as refugees.

The State of Ground Forces' Helicopters

Almost 100% of the army's combat helicopters are worn out. In particular, their weapons and on-board systems are obsolete and they cannot fight at night. Since during 1994 only two of the most up to date Ka-50 helicopters were delivered to the air force, they were not employed in Chechnya. These aircraft need their own command and control system, but there is no money for it because of the catastrophic l ack of funds for army aviation in general. The same applies to the Bowman vehicle (the specialist vehicle for FAC). This has built in communications command and target indication systems, and it was thought that there would be one in every battalion, b ut once again lack of money prevents it.

There were limitations on the use of helicopters in Chechnya because imperfections in the on-board navigation systems and radar hampered operations in adverse weather conditions. Thus as in World War II, air support was provided mostly in daytime and in good weather. MI-24 (HIND) helicopters operated only where visibility exceed 1.5 km and pilots had their targets in clear sight. These aircraft were used extensively on operations in the south of Chechnya.

However in spite of the massive employment o f helicopters and the obvious losses caused to the Chechen forces, the aircrew referred to themselves as "kamikaze", since most HIND deployed to Chechnya had seen fifteen years service or more and were without protection against the enemy's heat-seeking missiles. They never carried more than half of their weapon load because of a shortage of ammunition. During the intense fighting in Southern Chechnya each crew was carrying out 5-6 sorties per day, each lasting 40-45 minutes. Expert opinion considers that unless particular efforts are made now to beef up helicopter holdings, by 2005 some classes of aircraft will have withered away. Other than the two Ka-50 mentioned earlier, army aviation received only one combat helicopter, 4 x MI-26 (HALO), 4 x MI-8 (HIP) during the whole of 1994.

No regard was paid to the under-provision of the two previous years. Even though money was allocated to purchase helicopters in 1995, at the beginning of February there was no indication of it s distribution.

Up to the beginning of March 2 x MI-8 (HIP) and 2 x MI-24 (HIND) were lost. On 24 May a third HIND was shot down over the village of Chechen Aul; all three crewmen were killed. Earlier on 30 April another combat helicopter was brought down by heavy machine gun fire over the village of Gilyana; it managed to make a forced landing in Dagestan. A further HIND was shot down on 4 June over the village of Nozhay-Yurt some 70 kms southeast of Groznyy; both crewmen were killed.

On 12 June near Shatoy a HIP was brought down, presumably by an anti aircraft gun as it was delivering ammunition and food to the location of an earlier heliborne assault. The machine caught fire in the air, and began to disintegrate but the pilot managed to set it down and the crew survived. Thus in the six months of military operations ground forces aviation lost 4 x HIND and 3 x HIP. During 1994 army aviation pilots were flying on average 40-50 hours a year, even though it is considered that 100-150 is the absolute minimum for training purposes. At this rate units will be able to maintain their operational capability for a couple of years at most. The Organization of Ground and Air Force Cooperation

The ground forces in Chechnya were allocated forty forward air controllers from the Air Force and Army Aviation. The system was, on the whole, better organised than in Afghanistan, but problems remained with out of date communications and navigation equipment.

The system for controlling aircraft was particularly complicated and dangerous for those working in the front line. The complications arose not only in determining targets "worthy" of the air force's efforts, but also because of the requirement not to reveal the locations of units in whose interests the FAC were working. As an example, during the battles for Argun, 324 Regiment noticed that as soon as the FAC came up on the air, his position was immediately taken under fire by Dudayev's forces, since apparently they had DF equipment capable of providing the location of t he transmission. As a consequence, FAC could no longer transmit in clear.

There were similar cases elsewhere. Reports from FAC were passed to a cell at the airfield in Khankal, thence upwards to Mozdok where priorities and allocation of aircraft were decided. Some FAC described the war in Chechnya as "somewhat strange".

In Mozdok, when details of troop concentrations, weapons or strongpoints were transmitted, some aircraft sorties were cancelled. It seems that the insurgents had some way of hearing about this because they would immediately bring down intensive fire on federal troops' forward positions. It was the opinion of FAC, that where own troops were fired on, the fault lay entirely with the aircrews. There are three reasons for this. First, during the time of peace and when combat training had been reduced, pilots squandered their skills in employing their weapons and in part were not psychologically prepared for operations at the front.

According to FAC, when pilots knew that Dudayev's forces, in the area they were due to engage had SAM, they launched their own weapons in haste and turned away. Secondly there were defects in aircraft weapons. There were cases where rockets launched from helicopters instead of flying 5-7 kms to their target, literally fell straight to earth on to own troops. And finally, the third reason. Infantry commanders were at times unwilling to indicate their forward locations, since they feared the enemy might take advantage of this information. In addition to all of this, the beginning of military operations coincided with the worst weather conditions in the North Caucasus region.

Figures for the period December-February show that 95% of days are not suitable for flying. Thus both the air force and army aviation found themselves working in extremely adverse weather conditions which markedly reduced their capabilities.

Excerpt from "The Russian Armed Forces in the Chechnya Conflict -
Analysis, Results, Conclusions"

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