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Mi-8 - In Afghanistan

The combat capabilities of the Mi-8 in Soviet Air Force service were subjected to a crucial test during the Afghan War. In the mountainous inaccessible areas of Afghanistan these undemanding and incredibly tough rotary-wing machines earned a reputation as the main 'workhorses'. They arguably bore the brunt of this war, soldiering on from the first day to the last. Not infre­quently, the Mi-8s turned out to be the only means of supporting the multifarious combat activities of the Soviet 40th Army committed to action there. The chop­pers created by the Mil' company saved the lives of thousands of Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan.

Mi-8s were first used for combating the insurgents in Afghanistan long before the Soviet invasion. These helicopters were operated by the Government troops. The first Soviet Mi-8T squadron was deployed in Afghanistan in the summer of 1979. At first it did not take part in the hostilities and was used only for com­munications and VIP transportation. However, on 25th December of that year Soviet helicopter units started a massed airlifting of troops and delivery of assault groups tasked with capturing airfields and key posi­tions. By the beginning of 1980 the 34th Mixed Air Corps attached to the Soviet troops in Afghanistan already had 110 helicopters on strength; 85% of these were Mi-8s. Besides, Mi-8Ts belonging to the Soviet Border Guard Troops operated in the areas adjoining the Soviet-Afghan border.

The peculiarities of Afghanistan's terrain and the course of the hostilities dictated a steady build-up of the helicopter component of the Soviet troops. By 15th May 1988, when the withdrawal of the Soviet troops was started, the Air Force component of the 40th Army had 331 helicopters on strength - mostly Mi-8s. They were in service with the helicopter regiments based in Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Kunduz (the 50th Independent Composite Air Regiment, 292nd, 280th and 181st Air Regiments and 335th Combat Air Regiment). The Mi-8s were also in service with a grow­ing number of independent helicopter squadrons dis­persed all over the country. To ensure closer co-oper­ation, helicopter squadrons were attached to mecha­nized infantry and airborne assault divisions; smaller helicopter units were attached to mechanized infantry brigades.

During the first winter of the war the main task of the Mi-8 helicopters consisted in supplying the troops stationed in the country, but in the spring of 1980 the Mujahideen sharply stepped up their activities, and from then on the Soviet helicopter crews were flung into combat against the enemy. The fighting was get­ting fiercer and more intensive with every passing day. Already from March 1980 onwards Mi-8Ts and Mi-8MTs were used for providing direct fire support to the assault groups they delivered. During the Afghan War the Soviet Army Aviation which operated the helicopters got its first Heroes of the Soviet Union. The first helicopter pilots to receive this high title were V. K. Gainutdinov and V. V. Schcherbakov from the 181th Air Regiment. Gainutdinov was hon­oured for rescuing a reconnais­sance detachment which had been surrounded by the Mujahideen in a village. Having located it during a sandstorm, he landed his Mi-8T in the middle of the insurgent village; while the group was retreating to board the helicopter, he provided fire cover for it, rotating the machine tucked to the ground on one wheel and using his machine-gun.

With every passing year the enemy became more and more experienced and well-equipped. Accordingly, the tasks shouldered by helicopters of the 40th Army became more and more demanding. The crews of the 'eights' flew five to six missions daily, log­ging up to 8 hours per day. In 1985 the average num­ber of sorties for each Mi-8 amounted to 426, the max­imum number reaching 906 sorties totaling 963 hours. In the course of the hostilities the range of duties per­formed by the helicopters became wider. In many operations the Mi-8 was used instead of other types of military hardware, including both ground vehicles and aircraft. Very quickly the 'workhorse from Mil's stable' came to be perceived by the Soviet military personnel in Afghanistan not merely as an auxiliary transport, a sort of 'aerial taxicab', but as an effective and indispensable multipurpose weapon, a means of fulfilling all sorts of combat tasks that could not be tackled by other means.

The combat strength of the aviation complement came to include more than twice as many hel­icopters compared to the number of attack aircraft and fighter-bombers. Conducting combat operations with­out helicopters became inconceivable. Helicopters turned into a natural, integral part of the main arm of the Armed Forces - the Ground Forces - and were recognized as one of their main components. The Mi-8s were the first to enter Afghanistan; they were also the last among the Soviet military hardware to leave it. On 1 5th February 1989, at 9:45 AM, having waited till the armored personnel carrier with the 40th Army's commander Gen. Boris Gromov on board had crossed the bridge over the Pyandzh River along which the Soviet-Afghan border ran, the crews of Mi-8 helicop­ters evacuated the last fire support groups covering the pullout from Afghanistan.

The tasks fulfilled by Mi-8 helicopters in Afghanistan were extremely varied. Their main missions consisted in airlifting troops and delivering assault groups, accounting for 1 8% and 12% respectively of the sorties undertaken by the Army Aviation; this percentage rose to 40-45% during active combat operations which simply cannot be effected in Afghanistan without the use of helicopter landing parties and vertical replenishment (VERTREP). For example, during a large-scale 'comb­ing' operation undertaken in January 1982 in the Foriab province bordering on the USSR, 52 of the 72 helicopters involved were Mi-8s. They delivered assault groups totaling 1,200 men. In the course of the second Panjshir operation aimed at capturing and 'combing' the Panjshir valley, a decisive role was played by air­borne tactical assault groups totaling 4,200 troops; they were landed by more than one hundred helicopters, mainly Mi-8s. The main task of the assault groups consisted in capturing the high ground with a view to breaking up, surrounding and destroying the enemy forces. During this operation the helicopters had to fly missions at an altitude of 3,500 m.

Operation Poostynia (Desert) conducted in July 1985 made it necessary to land as many as 7,000 troops in the mountains, and Operation Plotina (Dam) held in the autumn of that year involved 1 2,000 troops! During the latter operation the heliborne assault troops blocked the Kunar gorge at a stretch of 170 km. The last massed landings of assault troops were per­formed by the Mi-8s during Operation Magistrahl' (Main line) in November 1987, when a road to the besieged town of Khost had to be unblocked. Each assault party landing operation was conducted under direct opposition from the enemy. Helicopters catered for the replenishment and supply of the assault groups landed by them, evacuated casualties and Mujahideen prisoners and, in the event of an unsuccessful operation, evacuated the troops from encirclement under enemy fire.

One of the most important tasks for the Mi-8 was the delivery of supplies to encircled or remote garrisons and settlements. The most complicated sorties, from the airmen's point of view, were associated with the delivery of supplies to detachments and reconnais­sance outposts high up in the mountains deployed there for controlling the roads and passes. They were often located at altitudes close to the Mi-8's service ceiling and had no landing pads. The pilot had to balance the helicopter in the hover, touching a cliff with one or two wheels and waiting till the flight engineer had thrown the cargo out of the cabin and had taken passen­gers on board. The Mi-8 crews not only airlifted troops and cargoes but also provided CAS to the assault groups they had disembarked. Their role as attack helicopters was especially significant during the first year of the war when there was a shortage of Mi-24 combat helicopters. Subsequently, the airmen operating in Afghanistan evolved and brought to perfection a system of interaction of these two Mil' types which com­plemented each other. Multi-mission combat groups comprising a flight of two Mi-8s and two Mi-24s gained wide use.

When it came to fulfilling combat missions, especially when pinpoint bombing was required, the 'eights' could successfully supplant not only combat helicopters but also tactical bombers. On many occa­sions the Mi-8s were sent to bomb small-size targets or targets which could not be destroyed by fast aircraft. In the spring of 1980 the ground forces knocked the insurgents out of their strongholds on Mt. Sanghi-Douzdan - the famous Mountain of Thieves near Farizbad which Alexander the Great had failed to cap­ture in his time. The mountain was riddled with caves and passages like a rotten log and had sheltered local bandits from time immemorial, hence the name; now it was a major Mujahideen base. The assault lasted a week, with heavy casualties among the Soviet infantry­men. A few months later the rebels again 'took up res­idence' on the mountain. The new storming of Mt. Sanghi-Douzdan which took place on 23rd August 1980 was preceded by a strike delivered by a dozen Mi-8s and involving the use of bombs and rockets. The 500-kg high-explosive bombs, 100-kg incendiary bombs and S-5 unguided rockets did their job. This second time the mountain was swept clear of the enemy in just one day; among the attack­ers only one person was killed and several were wounded.

In June 1981, in response to the growing number of sallies undertaken by the insurgents in the region of Gulkhana, six Mi-8 helicopters dropped 500-kg HE bombs on mountain passes governing the routes to Pakistan; they destroyed the paths clinging to verti­cal cliffs and caused landslides, and then scattered anti-personnel mines along the paths that still remained intact. Mining the mountain paths and the vicinities of the insurgents' bases was an effective preventive measure against the enemy's sallies. The Mi-8 could disperse up to 8,500 anti-personnel mines in just one minute, covering a strip 15 to 25 m wide and 2 km long.

The Mi-8 proved highly effective in 'search-cmd-attack' (i.e. armed reconnaissance) operations in sup­port of the commando {Spetsnaz) troops. An independent helicopter squadron was attached to each of the two Spetsnaz brigades commit­ted to action in Afghanistan. Having received an intelligence report stating that an enemy detachment or a suspicious-looking vehicle convoy had been spotted, the Spetsnaz troops airlifted by heli­copters undertook a sudden and concealed landing at a point on their route. The Mi-8s provided air cover for assault troops, conducted reconnaissance and surveillance and cut off the enemy's routes of retreat. A pair of Mi-8s with inspec­tion teams on board could control an area with a radius of 100 to 120 km from base. Many a time during such operations, Mijahideen commanders and foreign instructors were captured on their way from abroad, as well as some of the latest types of armament, including the famous General Dynamics FIM-92A Stinger man-portable air defense system (MANPADS) which was captured in 1987.

Surveillance of the borders and large area objects remained an important task for the Mi-8s throughout the war. Helicopters perpetually circling overhead deterred the terrorists from launching sudden shelling attacks on airfields, garrisons and built-up areas. During night sorties in Afghanistan the Mi-8 crews made trial use of night-vision devices - the PNV-57E night-vision goggles for the first time - with good results.

Together with the Mi-24 combat helicopters the multipurpose Mi-8s were used with success for escorting motor vehicle convoys; they could render support to the escorted convoys not only by fire but also by delivering an assault group right to the place where an ambush had been discovered. Patrolling escort of motor vehicle convoys made up some 15 to 17% of all Army Aviation sorties. Such escort missions often turned into veritable battles. For example, on 11th March 1981 a flight of Mi-8s repelling an enemy attack on a convoy spent 806 S-5 rockets, 300 rounds for the AGS-17 automatic grenade launch­er and 14,200 rounds of machine-gun ammunition.

In Afghanistan the Mi-8s confirmed that saving human lives is the main task for a rotary-wing machine. Search-and-rescue mis­sions made up on average 10 per cent of the total number of the army aviation sorties. For many a soldier the helicopter remained the last hope. The history of the Mi-8's employment in the 40th Army contains countless examples when airmen who had ejected after being shot down, wounded or sick soldiers and personnel cut off from their units were sought out and evacuated. In most cases such opera­tions were conducted under fierce fire and were per­formed by the crews of the Mil' 'workhorses' at the immediate risk of their own lives. It is the Mi-8 that allowed the Soviet forces in Afghanistan to fulfill the order stipulating that not a single wounded, shell-shocked or dead soldier should be left behind on the battlefield. On 17th May 1982, when the village of Rookha turned into a Mujahideen stronghold was 'combed' during the abovementioned second Panjshir operation, a crew captained by A. V. Surtsukov was assigned to an SAR helicopter group. To evacuate the wounded and the dead, the courageous airmen broke their way into the Panjshir gorge which was turned into a pocket of fire four times (!) within a few hours, consecutively changing three badly shot-up Mi-8s at a rear airfield. The employment of the Mi-8 in Afghanistan enabled the Soviet/CIS helicopter airmen to evolve a versatile and highly efficient system of rescue under both simple and difficult natural and climatic condi­tions, and the helicopter constructors to develop appropriate equipment.

Mi-8s not only saved people, they also salvaged military hardware in Afghanistan. In October of 1982 50th Composite Independent Air Regiment CO V. Ye. Pavlov flying a Mi-8 evacuated a downed sister aircraft on a sling right from under the enemy's nose.

The Mi-8 was also widely used in Afghanistan for reconnaissance (up to 9% of the sorties), for artillery spotting and target designation to bomber aircraft, as airborne command posts for the control of troops, and as communications relay machines. The unique high-altitude performance of the latest Mi-8 modifications allowed these helicopters to climb to the utmost limit of their ceiling and remain on station at these altitudes for four and a half hours. An important task for the work­horses, especially during the concluding stage of the war, was the transportation of refugees and of insur­gents who had given up hostile actions to the places of their permanent residence, as well as supplying various humanitarian aid to the local population.

Afghanistan served as a reliable test ground for checking the Mi-8's qualities; it revealed all its advan­tages and latent reserves, helped discover and rectify faults. The machine was operated under extremely harsh conditions of mountains and desert areas char­acterized by a wide range of daily and yearly temperature fluctuations, considerable solar radiation and ample dew formation. The ambient temperature in summer was normally in excess of 40° C. Coupled with the rarefied air, constant winds and turbulent airflow high up in the mountains, this created extremely unfavourable operating conditions and especially affected the powerplant. High temperatures cause the acid in the DC batteries to boil. Hurricane-force winds twisted the rotor blades out of their hinges. The dust permanently hanging in the air found its way to every nook and most adversely affected the service life of assemblies and joints, causing intensive wear of parts; it caused the weapons to jam, clogged fuel sys­tem piping and filters, eroded the engine compressor blades. Afghanistan speeded up the process of phas­ing out the Mi-8T in the Soviet Air Force in favour of the new baseline model - the M-8MT with TV3-117MT engines and dust filters fitted as standard, facilitating development of a further upgrade, the Mi-8MTV pos­sessing unique high-altitude performance. The power output-to-weight ratio having been increased half as much again, the flight performance and the survivability of the helicopter were greatly enhanced and its combat capabilities were extended.

In the battles of Afghanistan the Mi-8 demonstrated its exceptional survivability. Small arms fire posed no danger to it. The helicopter could also withstand numerous hits by heavy-caliber machine-gun bul­lets. The Mi-8 came home safely with three out of five main rotor blades damaged (the blades hav­ing up to five or six holes), with fuels tanks and transmission shafts dam­aged by bullets, with broken fuse­lage mainframes and spars, with fuel and oil piping and control linkages severed. On one occa­sion, having inspected a Mi-8 after a combat mission, technicians counted 82 holes caused by the shells of the M61A1 Vulcan 20-mm rapid-firing can­non. The MANPADS were the only effective means of combating the Mi-8, but even the formidable Stingers were not always capable of dealing a mortal blow to the survivable machine. A case is on record when a Stinger passed close to a Mi-8's fuselage right through the main rotor disc, smashing one of the engine dust fil­ters with a direct hit, and exploded above the rotor head, the splinters damaging the main gearbox, the rotor blades and the lubrication system piping. The hel­icopter successfully made a forced landing; only twenty-four hours were needed to get it back into service.

Afghanistan experience confirmed the unique simplicity of repair and restoration of this machine. Once two Mi-8s collided with their rotors while flying a com­bat mission. Fortunately, both helicopters remained controllable; after force-landing successfully their crews roughly trimmed the damaged parts of the blades with a chisel and returned to base safely. On another occasion a Mi-8 crew was disembarking a landing party during a dust storm and collided with a tank which they had failed to notice in the whirling dust (!). The lower part of the nose literally caved in. Undeterred by this, the pilot straightened the bent con­trol rods with his foot and flew the damaged Mi-8 to base. Any damaged assembly or system of the heli­copter could be easily replaced in field conditions with­out summoning a repair team from the manufacturer. Most of the combat and operational damage could be repaired in the course of one working day, the labour expenditure not exceeding 50 man-hours.

Legends were current in Afghanistan about how endurable, reliable and undemanding was the Mi-8. This workhorse coped with inconceivable operational conditions. Operations were so intensive that the heli­copters were sent on a mission with part of the equip­ment out of function, some systems inoperative and bullet holes still to be patched. The helicopters flew with their fuselages literally riddled with bullets and even with rotor blades not checked for proper balancing. Combat sorties took place every day, which made it impossible to adhere strictly to the rules of servicing and maintenance; special days for pre-flight checking had to be dispensed with and this work was done 'in passing', the servicing being reduced to the barest minimum.

The very intensive operations confirmed the outstanding han­dling qualities of the Mi-8. It is one of the few machines on which pilots experience no difficulties in regain­ing their piloting skills. Young air­men quickly became aces of pilot­ing in Afghanistan. Combat experi­ence made helicopter crews forget the numerous instructions and man­uals with their prescriptions on piloting. The enemy's fire 'taught' them to fly the Mi-8 in modes which its designers had not even dreamed of. Experienced pilots took this excellent machine to the absolute limit of its capabilities. High-G manoeuvres came to be widely practiced, including turns with up to 90° bank, fighter-style yo-yos, steep climbs with negative G loads theo­retically inadmissible for helicopters, and almost verti­cal dives. In Afghanistan the helicopter crews mastered 'spirals', 'funnels', 'swings' and other manoeuvres peculiar to helicopter aerobatics which subsequently became a routine.

To avoid being hit when landing an assault party, a special manoeuvre called 'maple leaf was developed - the helicopter veered to the sides during descent changing its bank angle at the same time. To counteract the portable anti-aircraft missiles, the airmen perfected their technique of piloting the Mi-8 at extremely low altitudes. In the course of hostilities the helicopter crews evolved and perfected the tactics of operational employment of the Mi-8 in a group, practicing an attack with helicopters circling (the 'wheel of death') and opening fire in a dive or in level flight; an attack in echelon formation fhaircomb') or in line astern formation with minimum intervals, etc.

'The school of Afghanistan' gave a lot of knowledge not only to airmen but to the designers of rotary-wing machines as well. Probably no other helicopter design company can rival Mil' in the practical experience of combat operation of choppers. The designers and workers of the Mil' Plant regularly went to Afghanistan to obtain firsthand information on the qualities of their progeny in combat conditions. The specialists of the Mil' Moscow Helicopter Plant did much to extend the Mi-8's flight envelope; together with the L.I.I. (Flight Research Institute) they worked at increasing the maximum take-off weight by means of altering the piloting technique and per­forming a rolling take-off and a landing with a short run. The 'take-off on one wheel' technique was developed: the pilot performed a rolling take-off with only the nose-wheels touching the airstrip. Yet another take-off method was evolved at that time for helipads high up in the mountains: the helicopter slipped down from the edge of a cliff, gained sufficient speed while falling and then per­formed a transition to horizontal flight.

The normal armament of the Mi-8T proved to be effective enough. Experienced pilots managed to place unguided rockets squarely into narrow embrasures or small ventilation windows of the houses. Launching a rocket salvo to suppress the opposition, they finally destroyed the target by dropping 100- and 250-kg fragmentation/high-explosive bombs. However, the course of combat dictated the need to enhance the offensive and defensive armament of the Mi-8 and expand the range of armament options. Mi-8T crews began to take on board troopers armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and machine-guns. One of the troopers usually took up position near a hatch in one of the rear clamshell doors to protect the very vul­nerable rear hemisphere. The on-board armament fit of the Mi-8T was also supplemented by some other types of weapons used by ground forces. Firearms that could be installed in the sliding side door or in the floor hatch for the external sling system included the AGS-17 Plamya (Flame) 30-mm heavy automatic grenade launcher, the Kalashnikov RPK machine-gun and the 12.7-mm DShK heavy machine-gun. Attempts were made to fit the 23-mm GSh-23 double-barrelled aircraft cannon and even a 73-mm gun from the BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle to the Mi-8.

Mil' OKB specialists started work on further improvement of the Mi-8, enhancing its armament and improving survivability. The flight deck was protected by external armour shields and internal armor plating behind the pilots' seats, on the sides and underneath ahead of the instrument panels. Aircrews received new bulletproof vests and titanium protective helmets. Kalashnikov PKT machine-guns taken from tanks were installed on flexible mounts in the nose of the crew cabin instead of a front glazing panel and in a hatch of one of the rear clamshell doors. Two more PKTs were mounted above the pylons on the external store outriggers. The Mil' engineers also developed armament options for the Mi-8 which envisaged the fitting of the NSV-12.7 Ootyos (Cliff) flexible heavy machine-guns and AGS-17 automatic grenade launchers. Flexible mounts were additionally fitted to the side windows to be used by troopers for their assault rifles. New weapons that gained widespread use on the Mi-8 included the UPK-23-250 cannon pods with one GSh-23 23-mm cannon and GUV multipurpose helicopter pods which could be configured with either one Yakooshev/Borzov YakB-12.7 four-barrel 12.7-mm machine gun and two GShG-7.62 (TKB-621) 7,62-mm rapid-firing machine-guns or one AGS-17 grenade launcher; they all were to be carried on the external racks.

The introduction of the new Mi-8MT baseline model with a greater payload and six external stores pylons instead of four made it pos­sible to replace the UB-16-57 rocket pods with 16 unguided rockets apiece with UB-32-57 pods with 32 rounds. The 57-mm S-5 unguided rockets which proved to possess insufficient destructive power were replaced by the S-8 rockets of 80-mm. Each B-8V20 pod contained 20 such rockets. A wider range of bomb armament became available for the Mi-8. The Mi-8MT could carry 500 kg bombs. For mine-laying, the VSM-1 modular heliborne mine-laying system was introduced; each module was fitted with 29 KSF-1 cassettes holding 72 anti-personnel mines apiece.

To ensure protection against MANPADS, Mil' engineers developed, tested and installed infra-red countermeasures (IRCM) equip­ment: three types of exhaust sup­pressors designed to cool the efflux of the engines; ASO-2V IRCM flare dispensers; and the SOEP-V1A Lipa (Linden) optoelectronic IR jam­mer. The exhaust suppressors mix­ing the hot exhaust gases with the ambient air reduced the IR signa­ture of the engines 2 to 3 times. The Lipa jammer mounted on top of the fuselage proved extremely effective. The combined effect of all three systems reached 70-85% (the ratio of decoyed missiles to the total number of launches). Mounting rear view mirrors on the Mi-8 also proved to be a sufficiently effective means of protection. Fuel tanks were self-sealing and were filled with polyurethane foam; this completely ruled out the possi­bility of a fire or explosion in the event of the tank being hit. The tail rotor control cables were moved apart, hydraulic and lubrication system piping was shielded, etc. At the same time many improvements were intro­duced to enhance the machine's serviceability: rubber hoses were provided with protective wire mesh braid­ing, the rotor blades were strengthened by adding pro­tective metal sheaths on the leading edges, blade hinges were sealed to protect them from dust, etc.

Thus, thanks to the experience gained in Afghanistan the Mil' OKB evolved the Mi-8 into a versatile transport and combat aircraft unrivalled in the world in terms of power, combat efficiency, reliability and survivability. Being simple and undemanding in operation, and cheap to build, the Mi-8 has become unbeatable for all existing and future competing machines. Effective use of the 'Mil' workhorses' in Afghanistan had a decisive influence on the formation in 1989 of a new arm in the Ground Forces - the Army Aviation.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:18:57 ZULU