KA52K Katran for the Russian Navy
The Ka-52K dubbed “Katran” is the latest addition to the rotorcraft inventory of the Russian Naval Aviation (RNA). Alex Mladenov looks at the a marinized derivative of the baseline Ka-52 attack helicopter, with a plethora of features for shipborne operations.
Story by Alex Mladenov
The shipborne Ka-52K is intended primarily for operations from amphibious assault landing ships. Its main roles include armed patrolling over land and sea, fire support of naval infantry units during assault landing operations and anti-landing defense. The Ka-52K was initially slated to be commissioned with the RNA in the mid-2010s, but the program hit delays and cancellations; now it is expected that the first production-standard Ka-52Ks will be handed over in 2021 at the earliest.
As Kamov designer general Sergey Mikheev recalls, the firm Russian MoD requirement for a dedicated landing deck-capable derivative of the Ka-52 Alligator in the late 2000s proved to be an unexpected but otherwise much welcomed turn for the program; in fact, it happened only thanks to the interest in procuring the Mistral-class ships. The in-depth analysis on the suitability of the helicopter for operations from rolling and pitching ship desks, where the undercarriage strength would be the limiting factor, derived a positive result. The designers, who were responsible for the undercarriage in the past, had considered such extreme loads. There were no issues at all with the integration of anti-ship missiles as the Kh-35 had already been tested from the Ka-27; so, its integration onboard the Ka-52 was deemed to be a straightforward undertaking provided that funding was made available.
The interest in a shipbornederivative in Russia appeared in 2008, as the Russian MoD proceeded at the time forward with an ambitious plan to purchase four large amphibious assault, command and power projection ships from France. The aviation group of each ship was to include up to 16 helicopters; a mixture of attack Ka-52Ks, assault transport Ka-29s and transport/SAR Ka-27PS’; the ratio between the three types would depend on the specific mission requirements.
Mistral desk trials
The first Ka-52 prototype carried out the impromptu evaluation of the desk suitability and undercarriage design, operating for one day off the flight desk of French Navy amphibious assault ship Mistral during her visit in St Petersburg, Russia in December 2008. It was the pinnacle of the large-scale promotional campaign sponsored by the French government. This was, in fact, a personal undertaking by then French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, who had energetically promoted the Mistral sale to Russia. His Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, had eventually agreed to purchase the ships. This act has been portrayed as an appreciation of the much-needed French political support that Russia received soon after the war with Georgia over the territory of South Ossetia in August 2008.
The ship sale was also a significant support that the French government was keen to provide to national shipbuilder DCNS which had struggled with an unimpressive order book at the time. In November 2009, even before the completion of the tender that had to select the preferred contractor to build the Russian Navy new power projection ships, the French government had sponsored a visit of Mistral in St Petersburg in Russia, with the main intent to showcase that the ship could meet the helicopter suitability and other requirements raised by the Russian Navy. A Kamov team, led by Mikheev, was also invited to visit Mistral and bring its helicopters for some limited compatibility demonstration.
Three helicopter types were slated to be tested; a Ka-52 owned by the Kamov plus a Ka-27PL and Ka-29, both belonging to the RNA, operated by the Northern Fleet’s 380th Independent Helicopter Regiment stationed at Severomorsk-1 airfield near Murmansk. During the testing, the Ka-52 was restricted to use the ship’s rearmost landing spot only. The reason for this was related to the concern of jettisoning the rotor blades in the event of crew ejection due to bad landing approach or failure of an essential system. According to Mikheev, who observed the Ka-52’s landing on Mistral, sailing at a full speed in the Gulf of Finland, the helicopter had arrived and touched down the desk ‘just like as it was at home’. Then the desk servicing crew of Mistral promptly approached the Ka-52 with a fuel hose, demonstrating the ability to perform ‘hot’ refueling with rotors turning. After filling the tanks with gas, the helicopter lifted off under applauds by the guests and hosts from the Mistral’s crew. The landing and refueling cycle was repeated three times and then the helicopter departed for Levashovo after performing a low-level/high-speed pass over the desk.
The ship survey had revealed that the height of the hangars and the aircraft elevator size is sufficient to house both the Ka-52 and Ka-27/29 families, but next to elevators the height was lower than the required minimum, rendering impossible to move the Ka-27 and Ka-29 from the elevator into the hangar and back. This, together with a good many other elements of the ship structure, had to be redesigned; the list of improvements added to the Mistral’s Russified derivative had also included strengthening the hull for operation in extreme Northern climatic conditions with ice on the sea surface, providing a heating system for the flight desk (needed for operating in extreme cold weather conditions in order to prevent ice accretion) and arming the ship with surface-to-air systems for self-defense as well as installing Russian-made navigation and communications equipment.
The contract between the Russian MoD and a consortium made by France’s DCNS and Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corp for purchasing the ships was eventually agreed in June 2011. It covered the purchase of two modified Mistral-class ships, to be built at the STX shipyard in St Nazaire, France, with an option for two more to be built in Russia at a later stage using all the technical documentation developed for the first pair. The first of the two France-built ships ordered for the Russian Navy, named Vladivostok, was slated to be ready for hand-over in November 2014, earmarked to be operated by Russia’s Pacific Fleet. The second ship, named Sevastopol, was slated to follow soon afterwards, again to be delivered to the Pacific Fleet.
Naval-specific design features
The supplement to the Ka-52’s technical and tactical assignment (specification) issued by the Russian Air Force and Russian Navy called for the development of a dedicated shipborne version designated Ka-52K (internal Kamov OKB designation Item 820). It got a newly-designed rotor column with manually-folded rotors, new radar, an all-new aircrew life-support system, a new air conditioning unit, a newly-added emergency flotation gear and new navigation aids for deck landings. The airframe also features enhanced corrosion resistance while the stub wings were required to fold, together with the rotor, in order to reduce the footprint when stored inside a ship’s hangar or on crammed flight desks. It also introduced a new-design centralized refueling system and the KSU rescue system for SAR operations in sea environment.
The shipborne Ka-52K, christened by Mikhev Katran (Spiny Dogfish), retained both the targeting suite and weapons mix of the baseline model unchanged as well as the powerplant and transmission. The most complex task at the Kamov OKB was to design the folded rotors as the design solution, used in the 1970s on the Ka-27, could not be implemented as it is on the Ka-52K. The reason is the novel design of the Ka-52’s rotor blades that feature semi-rigid suspension and torsion bearings in the form of steel plates. The resultant design solution was non-standard and offered manually-folding rotor blades with folding and unfolding time of around one minute; the blades have no additional operating limitations imposed compared to those of the land-based variant.
As Mikheev explained, the Ka-52K’s wings were initially planned to fold upwards and even a scale model with this particular folding scheme had been demonstrated on scale models on several defense shows. Later on, however, it turned out that such a wing folding scheme would be incompatible with the engine cowlings when opened to enable the ground personnel to perform routine engine inspections or maintenance. As a result, a new folding scheme had been developed using shortened movable sections of the wings stowed aft, rotating around a hinge on the trailing edge, next to the weapons pylon. This new wing folding scheme had no adverse effect on the flight performance and combat load but due to the shorter-span wings (compared to the wings of the land-based variant), the shipborne Ka-52K is provided with only four weapons pylons compared to six of its land-based forebear while retaining the same load-carrying ability. Moreover, as Mikheev noted, the inner wing pylons had been strengthened in a bid to be made able to carry up to 1,000kg (2,200lb) of weapons each. This, in turn, would enable the Ka-52K to take onboard two Kh-35 anti-ship missiles. This new ordinance load, however, would require integrating an all-new radar for long-range target detection and missile designation. The current Ka-band FH-01 Arbalet-52 (Crossbow), inherited from the ground-based Alligator, is optimized for overland use and would be ill-suited for anti-ship missions due to its insufficient range, extending to no more than 11nm (20km). That is why the Ka-52K is planned to be equipped in the future with a X-band radar with a range exceeding 150km (81nm) when employed to detect and track large ships.
For the Ka-52’s ship-borne derivative Phazotron-NIIR had proposed a new dual-band radar, based on the FH-01 Arbalet design and featuring an additional centimetric-wavelength channel (working in the X-band, emitting at 3cm wavelength). It would be optimized for detection of sea surface targets, capable of detecting large ships at a distance of between 150 and 180km (81 to 97nm).
Phazotron-NIIR’s designer general, Yuriy Guskov, maintained that, in principle, the dual-wavelength capability could be provided by both the original mechanical-scan parabolic antenna of the FH-01 Arbalet-52 (by utilizing two separate emitters for the milimetric and centimetric wavelengths) or alternatively by introducing a purpose-designed active electronic-scan phased array (AESA). The former option, however, is considered as being far more affordable and the AESA may not be implemented until the early 2020s. The Russian MoD had not yet made a firm decision on the radar type to be used on the follow-on Ka-52Ks as the four pre-production examples built at the AAC Progress in 2015 and 2016 retain the Ka-52’s original millimetric-wavelength set.
The huge Kh-35 anti-ship missile had already been test-fitted onto the inner wing pylon of the second Ka-52 prototype, serialled ’062’, which was also used as a test-bed to evaluate in flight the forward-folding wing design and the rearwards-folding rotors.
More sea trials
In August 2011, the Ka-52’s first prototype underwent extensive ship suitability trials, operating off the small deck of the Russian Northern Fleet’s large anti-submarine ship (Project 1155) Vice-Admiral Kulakov sailing in Kola Bay, in the Barents Sea. The choice of this ship was a compromise solution since the landing desk of Vice-Admiral Kulakov was judged to be too small, able to accommodate only two Ka-27 helicopters. However, there was no better alternative to be used for sea trials at the time since the lone Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, was in a prolonged repair. The helicopter was flown by Vitaliy Lebedev, a Kamov test pilot with rich naval flight operations expertise and experience under his belt accumulated on the Ka-25 and Ka-27 helicopters, flown predominantly from small-size ships. The second crew member was test navigator Evgeniy Savin.
Ka-52 ‘061’ deployed to Severomorsk-1 airfield near Murmansk and commenced the desk suitability flight testing campaign on 31 August. In two weeks, it accumulated 35 sorties with numerous landings on the deck of Vice-Vice-Admiral Kulakov when moored and on the move in the Kola Bay, exploring in full the capabilities of the Ka-52 to land and take-off from rolling and pitching desks. The maximum desk pitch during these operations reached 50 and the wind speed was 20m/s (about 39 kts). The ship’s stern displacement experienced at the maximum pitch was around 0.5m (1.6ft) in sea surface state one, making landings on the small desk much more challenging than those on the much more stable large amphibious assault ships.
Lebedev flew the shipborne trials with landings using all possible methods, including a parallel closure with subsequent lateral movement to hover over the desk center. The program also included exploring the go-around capabilities of the helicopter in various emergency situations; the crew members noted that the Ka-52 can perform a safe go-around at any point of the glideslope and also during a rough landing. The list of the shortcomings revealed during this testing campaign though included the poor visibility over the nose when closing to the desk, which size was limited by the hangar wall. Mikheev, however, tended to comment that the Ka-52K is intended for operations from the desks of large-size ships so this problem is not so acute and would not necessitate any radical re-design. At the same time, Lebedev noted that the Ka-52 is even better suited for shipborne operations compared to the Ka-27 family thanks to its lower maximum height (by 410mm) and the corresponding lower center of gravity position in combination with the longer undercarriage base (the distance between the front and main undercarriage units). As a result, these features had rendered the Ka-52 much more stable when on the moving ship desk. In addition, the design of the main undercarriage unit shock absorbers enabled to shorten the lift-off time.
In development and production
The Ka-52K development contract between Kamov and the Russian MoD was eventually signed in 2012. It called for a full-scale development and construction of four pre-production aircraft at the AAC Progress. The contract price amounted to Roubles 3,396 billion (equating to about US $110 million at the time). Then, a contract between Kamov and AAC Progress for the production of four helicopters was inked on 16 September 2013, with all the helicopters originally slated to be handed over until October 2014. Following this, a batch of 32 production-standard Ka-52Ks were to be delivered to the Russian Navy’s aviation service from 2015 onwards, under a separate contract signed between the AAC Progress and the Russian MoD.
The original development program schedule called for the first experimental Ka-52K to be handed over to the Kamov OKB for full-scale testing and evaluation in 2013, while all four examples ordered had to be delivered by October 2014. The program, however, suffered from a serious delay due to the need to solve numerous technical issues, with all the new technical solutions initially being tested on the Kamov-owned Ka-52 prototypes and pre-series machines. The main reason for this slippage had been attributed to the constantly changing requirements of the end customer, the Russian Naval Aviation. It led, in turn, to a good many design alterations that required time and effort to be tested and then implemented on the aircraft at the production line.
The first pre-production Ka-52K shipborne helicopter (c/n 01-01) made its maiden flight on 7 March 2015 at the manufacturer AAC Progress’ airfield in Arsenyev, Russia, flown by the Kamov OKB test pilot Nail Azin and test navigator Alexander Shveikin. Four months later this machine was displayed in public for the first time at the Naval Salon in St Petersburg held in July 2015; next to it the proposed for integration Kh-35U and Kh-38E missiles were shown. Then the Ka-52K was displayed at the MAKS-2015 air show, held at Zhukovsky airfield near Moscow in August, only on the static display. The eagerly-anticipated contract covering the delivery of 32 production-standard Ka-52Ks was inked on 8 April 2014 by the Russian MoD and AAC Progress. The first 12 of these Katrans were to be ready for delivery already during 2015, but later on the hand over date slipped to 2016. At a later stage, however, the production contract was canceled and it is now slated for a signature not before 2019.
Also in 2014, Russian simulation technology specialist, TsNTU Dinamika, was awarded a contract for the delivery of two simulator training complexes for the Ka-52K, with delivery deadline set at 25 November 2014. The first of these was required to be set up at the Russian Naval Aviation Combat Training and Aircrew Conversion Center at Yeisk while the second one was earmarked for installation at the naval airbase in Nikolayevka north of Vladivostok.
Mistral deal cancelled
The Ka-52Ks was originally intended to be operated from the two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, with each of these able to take on board up to eight Ka-52Ks, in addition to eight more Ka-27/29s. The Mistral contract termination by mutual convenience was followed by the prompt return of the payment for the ships to Russia, in the amount of nearly Euro 1 billion. At the same time, as Mikheev claimed in August 2015, nobody in Russia had been rushing to cancel the Ka-52K’s production order.
However, after the eventual French government refusal to hand over the ships in 2014 due to newly-raised tensions surrounding Russia’s involvement in the crisis in Ukraine and the subsequent termination of the contract by mutual convenience in August 2015, the Ka-52K production contract was also canceled, set to be reviewed in the future, when Russian-built large amphibious assault ships will be ordered.
In addition to Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, the Russian Navy currently has only two ship classes that would be suitable, at least in theory, to carry the Ka-52K – it is Project 1174 Ivan Rogov, which can accommodate up to four helicopters (but none of the three ships of the class is currently in operational use), while the newly-built Project 11711 Ivan Gren’ and Petr Morgunov can take up to two.
Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corp claimed in 2015 that it can propose larger assault landing ships, capable of accommodating of up to 16 helicopters but the first of these is set to be ordered in 2019 and would be not ready before 2023 at the earliest.
Future development plans
According to Mikheev, the Kamov OKB is well suited to develop follow-on Ka-50 and Ka-52 derivatives for naval use. One of his novel proposals calls for an airborne early warning (AEW) version, utilizing an array of conformal radar antenna panels for 360° coverage and electronic boxes housed in external pods. Mikheev claimed that such a design is going to be better than the current Ka-31 – designed in the late 1980s – that features a large rotating antenna under the fuselage that creates huge stability and control problems and requires the use of a sophisticated automatic flight control system. The resultant AEW helicopter based on the Ka-50 or Ka-52 will be much more compact and boasting a considerably higher performance than the Ka-31.
In regard to the naval-specific features of the Ka-52, Mikheev is sure that some of these could be also used with success on the land-based version. This is especially true for the folding rotors, which are a useful feature for helicopters operated in dessert or extreme cold conditions. The land-based Ka-52 with folding rotors and wings has a much smaller footprint and therefore can be accommodated in small-size hangars for ease of its servicing in hot climate. The same is true for helicopters operated in Arctic conditions, where small heated hangars can be used for helicopter maintenance and storage.
Egypt is the first export customer for the Ka-52K, which staged a tender for new shipborne attack helicopters and in May 2017 the Katran offered by Russia arms export monopolist agency Rosoboronexport was announced the winner, while Airbus Helicopters lost the competition, offering its Tiger. A contract of an undisclosed quantity of export-standard Ka-52Ks for Egypt is expected to be signed until the end of 2017, with first deliveries expected in late 2019 or early 2020.
In September 2017, a Chinese military delegation visited the AAC Progress plant to evaluate the production process. It was hinted that the delegation had a special interest in the Ka-52K, considered as a candidate to enter into service with the naval air arm. If approved by both governments, a Ka-52K contract for the Chinese naval aviation arm is expected to be inked in 2018 or 2019, with first deliveries taking place two years afterwards.
First testing phase completed
In April 2017, Russian Helicopters reported that the Ka-52K has successfully completed the first phase of its comprehensive naval testing program including deck operations. It took the participation of two pre-series helicopters, which were then transferred to the Kamov flight test and maintenance facility in Chkalovsky near Moscow for a detailed technical examination after the prolonged on-sea operation in aggressive environment and introducing some modifications.
The first phase of the naval testing took place from late 2016 to early 2017, with one of the helicopters operating off the desk of the Russian navy aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which sailed from its base in Murmansk to the eastern Mediterranean to support the Russian military campaign in Syria. The pair of Ka-52Ks flew only testing and evaluation sorties in proximity to the ship, including firing of 80mm rockets and the 30mm 2A42 gun.
According to Vladislav Savelyev, deputy director general of Russian Helicopters holding responsible for the sales, the Ka-52K completed successfully the naval testing effort and got an approval from the Russian military airworthiness authorities for basing on the aircraft carrier desk for routine combat operations. As Saveliev noted, the Ka-52K testing will continue, including off the desk of Admiral Kuznetsov. In July 2017 one of the prototypes completed a short testing program off the desk of the frigate Admiral Gorshkov in the Baltic Sea to evaluate shipborne compatibility details.
The second phase of Ka-52K testing was launched in August 2017 and covered the resistance to high-intensity electromagnetic fields of helicopter’s avionics and armament. The new inertial navigation system was also set for a comprehensive testing.