The Mi-28, like the United States’ Apache gunship, was designed in the waning years of the Cold War. Similar to the Apache, it boasts a 30mm forward-mounted cannon and a slew of underwing armaments, including guided and unguided missiles and rockets. The manufacturer’s website, Russian Helicopters, indicates that the Mi-28’s cockpit is reinforced with armor and shock absorbers to protect its crew members and is equipped with advanced sensors for day, night and inclement weather conditions. The Mi-28 can fly faster than 150 mph and is used by a Russian air acrobatics team.
The crash and the gunship’s continued deployment in Syria are indicative of Russia’s shift in battlefield operations after February’s promised cessation of hostilities, according to Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist in the Strategic Studies division of CNA and an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
“Rather than conducting large scale airstrikes, the goal now is to provide close air support for the Syrian military as it seeks to gain more territory in ISIS controlled areas,” Gorenburg said in an email. Before the cease-fire was announced, Russian jets carried out numerous sorties a day, some of which targeted the Islamic State, though the majority struck Syrian opposition groups fighting in northern Syria.
Russian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues despite the announcement of Russia’s withdrawal from Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his country’s departure last month after deeming his campaign to prop up the fledgling Syrian military a success. Russia’s initial intervention, however, was under the auspices of fighting the Islamic State.
While some Russian fixed-wing aircraft, including a contingent of Su-25 Frogfoots, have departed Syria, a large number of jets and helicopters remain, including the Mi-28. In addition, Russia has distributed a number of its helicopters to airbases closer to where the Syrian military is currently conducting offensive operations — namely, around the city of Palmyra.
Satellite imagery released in late March indicates that Russia has roughly a dozen ground-attack helicopters, including multiple Mi-28s, stationed at Al-Shayrat Air Base southeast of the Syrian city of Homs. According to IHS Jane’s, Russia is also operating helicopters from Tiyas Airbase, roughly 60 miles to the northeast. Stationing helicopters closer to ground operations gives the aircraft more time over their targets, as they burn less fuel in transit. Russian helicopters have also been working closely with Russian special forces soldiers who are helping direct close air support from the ground.