Best attack helicopter in the world? America built the first dedicated attack helicopter, the AH-1, and variants of it are still flying. So maybe that one? Or perhaps the MH-47s from Vietnam, highly modified cargo helicopters loaded with guns? Or America’s premiere, the AH-64 Apache, which can be equipped with air-to-air missiles? They’re all great, but there’s a surprisingly strong case for Russia’s Ka-52.
The navalized Ka-52K has folding rotor blades and can carry an anti-ship missile capable of taking out tanker ships.
(Anna Zvereva, CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Ka-52, in a nutshell, is an attack helicopter with a top speed of 196 mph, an 18,000-foot ceiling, and a 683-mile range. It can carry a few kinds of anti-tank missiles, an anti-aircraft missile, 80mm unguided rockets, and a 30mm main gun. It can also carry a dedicated anti-ship missile, the Kh-35 in its Uran configuration.
And a few of those stats make the Ka-52 seem way better than the Apache or other attack helicopters on paper. For one, the Ka-52’s anti-tank missiles can penetrate slightly deeper than the Apache’s Hellfire missile. Missiles are generally measured these days by how much armor they can pierce after getting past the explosive armor on an enemy tank.
The Hellfire can pierce a reported 800mm of armor by that measurement. But the Ka-52’s ATAKA can tear through 950mm, and the Vikhr can pierce 1,000mm of armor. But the Ka-52’s engines and wing mounts are limited, and so it can carry only 12 missiles against the Apache’s 16.
But the Hellfire’s penetration is still enough to pierce most any tank the Army is going to fly against, and its almost 5-mile range is much better than the ATAKA can do, but admittedly a little shorter than Vikhr which can fly almost 7.5 miles, reportedly.
An armament diagram shows the weapons the Ka-52 can carry. Those last two diagrams under the center hardpoints of each wing are the missile racks. The helicopter can carry up to six anti-tank missiles from each of the two center hardpoints for a total of 12.
(KPoJluK2008, CC BY-SA 3.0)
So the anti-tank situation is basically a wash. Ka-52 has the edge if you need to penetrate some seriously hardened structures like good bunkers or kill stuff from further away, but the Apache can kill 33 percent more stuff with its missile armament than the Ka-52 can.
The Ka-52 does have one clear missile advantage in that it can carry a dedicated anti-ship missile, the KH-35. The Hellfire and its 16-pound warhead can be pressed into anti-ship service, but the Kh-35 has a much larger warhead at 320 pounds and an obscenely longer range at 80 miles. Basically, the Hellfire can take out small craft at short ranges, but a Kh-35 launched from Richmond, Virginia, can take out a tanker floating in Norfolk’s harbor.
Another small point in the Ka-52’s favor is that its rockets are a bit larger at 80mm instead of 70mm.
So you can give an armament edge to the Ka-52, and it is slightly faster at 186 mph instead of 173. But the Apache can fly 1,180 miles in straight and level flight against a mere 683 for the Ka-52. And it can fly higher, reaching 21,000 feet while the Ka-52 runs out of air at just over 18,000 feet.
And that 3,000-foot change can make a big difference in places like Afghanistan, but it also means that Apaches could protect American soldiers on Russia’s Mount Elbrus while the Ka-52 flitted uselessly well below.
So, yeah, the Ka-52 is a great helicopter. It can carry a wide range of weapons, it’s fast, and it has a decent range and flight ceiling. And if you ever have to fly against it or fight under it, watch out. Especially if you’re on a boat within 80 miles. It’s easy to see why the Ka-52 takes the top spot in a lot of lists.
But in most missions most of the time, the Apache is better. Oh, and the newest Apaches can bring drone sidekicks to the fight, something Russia’s bird can’t do. So expect it to climb to most people’s top spots over the next few years.
And that’s without addressing the potential for an armed version of the SB-1 Defiant or V-280 Valor emerging from the Army’s Future Vertical Lift Program. If either of those gets armed in the coming decades, expect them to carry more weight, fly at higher altitudes, and faster speeds than any other attack helicopter in the world, with a flight range that’s equal to or better than what’s out there now.