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Russia’s Secret Weapon of the ISIS War

In the battle with ISIS for storied Palmyra, Russian forces unleashed their flying tank.

03.30.16 5:00 AM ET

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces battling to recapture the ancient city of Palmyra had a lot of help from above. At least one Russian Mi-28 attack helicopter—Moscow’s answer to the U.S. Army’s fearsome Apache gunship—flew top cover as Syrian tanks and infantry stormed the modern city adjacent to the UN World Heritage Site.

Video posted online by a pro-regime group clearly shows an Mi-28 firing a rocket from beneath one of its stubby wings. The battle for Palmyra, which ended this week as ISIS militants fled the city, apparently represented the two-seat, gun- and missile-armed Mi-28’s combat debut.

The Russian gunship’s appearance over Palmyra underscores Russia’s continuing support for the regime of Assad, Syria’s president. In a surprise move on March 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had ordered Russian forces to withdraw from Syria, around six months after thousands of Moscow’s troops and scores of its best warplanes deployed to western Syria to help bolster Assad’s own embattled forces.

In fact, the Kremlin didn’t withdraw its troops—it merely switched up the mix of forces, swapping far-flying jet bombers for Mi-28s and other helicopters better suited for closely supporting Syrian troops on the ground as they fight to retake territory from ISIS and U.S.-backed rebels.

Putin “brought in different assets and returned things he had less use for,” a senior Israeli military officer told trade publication Defense News on condition of anonymity. “Now there’s more emphasis on air support by attack helicopters.”

The Mi-28 boasts infrared and daylight cameras, a nose-mounted 30-millimeter cannon and stub wings that can simultaneously carry as many as eight precision-guided anti-tank missiles and 10 unguided rockets, each of which packs the explosive power of an artillery shell. The Mi-28 can fly as fast as 200 miles per hour. Its cockpit armor is thick enough to deflect heavy machine gun fire. Able to spot and strike targets from miles away, the Mi-28 combines the qualities of an aerial spy and a flying tank.

In addition to Mi-28s, the Russian air wing based near Damascus includes huge, heavily-armed Mi-35s and high-tech Ka-52 copters, the latter specializing in flying close air support for Special Operations Forces. Kremlin-backed TV network Russia Today revealed the Mi-35s—which can transport squads of infantry in addition to firing guns and rockets—in a December report on Moscow’s contingent in western Syria.

Around the same time, Syrian media inadvertantly revealed the Mi-28s’ and Ka-52s’ presence in the country in a TV report about the November incident in which Turkish jets shot down a Russian bomber. Russia’s government-owned Sputnik News site soon followed with a piece celebrating the “finest Russian combat helicopters com[ing] to Syria.”

A Reuters TV spot broadcast on March 16—two days after Putin’s “withdrawal” order—also depicted an Mi-28 and a Ka-52 in western Syria. The Reuters piece showed the Ka-52 with its rotor blades removed—standard practice for shipping a helicopter inside a cargo plane. It’s unclear if that particular Ka-52 was just arriving in Syria or getting ready to depart. At least one Mi-28 definitely stuck around, as just a few days later it flew into action over Palmyra.

The Mi-28 isn’t alone. Low-flying gunship helicopters bristling with weaponry have played a central role in the two-year-old war on ISIS. Iraqi gunships helped to blunt the militants advance in western Iraq in mid-2014—and their crew paid a high price, as ISIS gunners shot up at least 60 of the Iraqi military’s roughly 100 copters, destroying some of them and killing several aviators.

The U.S. Army deployed Apache gunships to Baghdad in the summer of 2014 to help defend American advisers rushing back to the city to help train and advise Iraqi troops fighting a desperate rearguard action against the advancing militants. In October 2014, the Apaches blasted ISIS forces approaching Baghdad, halting the militants’ assault and buying time for the Iraqi army to regroup.

The Apaches have continued to back Iraqi troops as Baghdad has launched multiple counteroffensives aimed at retaking key Iraqi cities from ISIS. Clearly, regime troops chipping away at the militants’ strongholds in Syria enjoy equally effective air support from Russia’s own gunships.