What do we know about the downing of the Russian helicopter in Syria?

Men inspect the wreckage of a Russian helicopter that had been shot down in the north of Syria's rebel-held Idlib province, Syria, August 1, 2016.

Men inspect the wreckage of a Russian helicopter that had been shot down in the north of Syria's rebel-held Idlib province, Syria, August 1, 2016.

On Aug. 1 Al-Nusra Front militants shot down a Russian Mi-8 military-transportation helicopter in Idlib Province. All five crewmembers died. What do we know about the attack and how could the death of the Russian officers been prevented?

1. Where was the Mi-8 flying?

The Mi-8 military transportation helicopter was flying to the air base in Kheimim after having allegedly brought humanitarian aid to the residents of Aleppo.

2. Who shot down the helicopter?

Al-Nusra Front militants in Idlib Province shot down the helicopter with a surface-to-air missile.

3. How was the helicopter destroyed?

The helicopter was flying at a height of 15,000 feet at the moment of the attack. A helicopter flying at such an altitude can be shot down either by air defense systems (which the militants do not have) or by man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).

According to TASS military expert Viktor Litovkin, the terrorists used either the Igla MANPAD, which they had stolen from storehouses in Libya, or the American Stinger MANPAD, which had been supplied to the moderate opposition but then found its way into the hands of the militants.


4. How should a crew respond to an attack with a heat-seeking surface-to-air missile?

Mi-8 military-transportation helicopters are equipped with a series of protection systems against surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. Among them is a heat trap for diverting infrared-guided missiles from the helicopter, which the crew must use when attacked using a MANPAD.

"This system shoots out a sort of flare missile and ‘attracts’ the warhead to itself. Because the flare's temperature is higher than the engine's temperature the infrared-guided warhead flies away from the helicopter," said Dmitry Safonov, a military observer from the Izvestiya newspaper.

The reason why the crew of the Mi-8 did not employ the heat trap is not known.

Video from the site where the helicopter was brought down. Source: baladi- news/YouTube

5. Why was the helicopter flying without cover?

According to Litovkin, this is the fault of the command of the Russian air force in Syria, as well as of Syrian reconnaissance, which had told the Russian military that along the route that the Mi-8 was flying there would be no militants.

6. Was the Mi-8 carrying weapons?

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, during the mission the Mi-8 only had a stationary machinegun with ammunition. However, a tweet from Eliot Higgins, founder of investigative journalism site Bellingcat, and another one from German journalist Björn Stritzel  contain photographs that appear to show empty rocket pods at the crash site.

7. So what are these rocket pods?

According to Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy director of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, pods with guided and unguided reactive warheads can be attached to the helicopter. However, he claims, the Mi-8 was not carrying such warheads during the humanitarian mission in Aleppo.

"During war there are no 'clean' transportation craft. The question is: What are the missions that each helicopter must accomplish? The Mi-8 has military equipment but it does not mean it will use it. It cannot be compared to the Ka-52, for example," explained Khramchikhin.

Russian army losses in Syria

It is the first time since the beginning of the operation on Sept. 30, 2015 that the Russian contingent in Syria has lost five servicemen in one incident. Prior to the downing of the Mi-8 the total number of Russian losses was 14.The last time a Russian serviceman died was on July 22, following an explosion of a self-made explosive device, also during a humanitarian mission in Aleppo.

Read more: Russia to test new ship-based helicopters in Syria>>>

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