A sea change in Egypt's naval air power
Egypt's naval air power is about to undergo a step-change with the purchase of 46 Kamov attack helicopters, to be carried on new, French-built Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. Alan Dron asks why such equipment is needed?
The Egyptian Navy will enjoy a potent increase in capability when it embarks its new Kamov Ka-52K Katran – a species of shark – on board the two new vessels over the next couple of years.
At 21,300 tonnes full load, the two vessels, to be named Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar El Sadat after two of Egypt’s most respected former presidents, are a huge jump for the navy, whose largest vessels to date have been a small number of guided-missile frigates.
However, the purchase of the assault ships should be seen in the context of an on-going major build-up of the Egyptian Navy, including French-built guided-missile frigates and corvettes, plus German submarines.
The Nasser and Sadat were originally built by France for Russia but that deal fell through following the imposition of sanctions by the west on Moscow following the seizure of Crimea and the rumbling quasi-war with Ukraine.
Ironically, according to Kamov’s general designer, Sergei Mikheyev, it was the now-dead deal for the Mistrals that prompted Russia to develop the Ka-52K navalised version of the Ka-52 attack helicopter.
The Ka-52 is unusual in that the two crew members sit side-by-side, rather than in the tandem arrangement usually found in attack helicopters.
Nasser was handed over to Egypt in June, with Sadat expected to follow as African Aerospace was going to press. But what plans do Egypt have for its new helicopter-vessel combination, especially as the country could theoretically operate its existing fleet of US-built AH-64 Apache attack helicopters from them?
Even the experts are puzzled. “We’re all scratching our heads a bit, thinking ‘What is this all for?’” admitted Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
There are two obvious areas where the helicopters could be of use: the Arabian Gulf and along the Maghreb coast. The Suez Canal would allow the vessels to move rapidly between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
The ability to project power ashore in those areas would be quite useful, said Barrie. The two assault ships can put ashore several hundred troops and the organic firepower of the Ka-52s could be used to support ground forces or escort transport helicopters up to 200km inland.
The Ka-52Ks are potentially formidable assets. They carry a 30mm cannon plus 80mm rocket pods and anti-tank weapons. Additionally, according to Russia’s Tass news agency, the navalised Ka-52K can carry Kh-31 supersonic anti-ship missiles with a range slightly over 100km or the Kh-35 subsonic anti-ship missile. The latter, depending on variant, has a range of 130km or 260km. The first Ka-52Ks are expected to arrive in 2017.
“If you look at the Russians, they have traditionally built fairly rugged helicopters,” said Barrie. Where they’ve fallen down in the past is on avionics. But is there any reason to doubt the Ka-52K’s combat capability? No.
“Well-operated, it will be a fairly formidable platform, but it’s got to be well operated and maintained.”
One important point to note, he added, was that the Egyptians faced a steep learning curve, both in operating the assault ships and in developing operating procedures for the Ka-52Ks on board them. “From a standing start, you’re looking at 24 to 36 months work-up, at least.”
But why did Egypt decide not simply to operate some of its existing AH-64s off the flat-top? The Egyptian Air Force operates more than 40 of the US-built attack helicopters.
“The Apache, per se, is not marinised,” explained Barrie. “Some countries have operated it at sea, but it was not fully navalised, unlike the US Marine Corps’ Bell AH-1W Whiskey Cobras, so you’ve got to take much greater care of them when it comes to salt exposure. “The Ka-52k – at least theoretically – has been marinised.”
According to Russian sources, changes to the naval machine include folding rotor blades and folding stub wings, so the aircraft takes up less space on board ship.
According to Tass, the Ka-52K can take off and land even in storm conditions at sea, although no indication was given as to the maximum sea state that could be handled. The aircraft has reinforced landing gear to cope with pitching decks.