The Russian navy has introduced into service the Kamov Ka-31R “radar picket” helicopter, a refined version of the Ka-31 (NATO reporting name Helix-B) that is already in service with the Indian and Chinese navies. A mouthpiece of the Russian defense ministry, the Zvezda (“Star”) media company, broadcast a TV program about the Ka-31R having become operational with the navy’s Black Sea Fleet. It filmed a helicopter with registration 34166, side number 90, at the Kacha aerodrome near Sebastopol. This machine also appears flying over the Crimean peninsula and making a touchdown on the Marshal Ustinov, a Project 1164 guided-missile cruiser.
In a televised interview, Lieutenant Colonel Igor Nekrasov said: “Its primary function is to detect targets and provide targeting information on sea-going targets, as well as aerial ones, including manned and unmanned flying vehicles, cruise missiles, and so on.” The broadcaster added that the Ka-31R’s radar is so powerful that it can cover the whole of the Black Sea’s surface. It further said that Side 90 had recently been handed over to an aviation unit (believed to be the 318th Independent Air Regiment) reporting to the command of the Black Sea Fleet and that a new squadron had been formed in that regiment to operate such helicopters.
This implies that the Russian defense ministry has placed a qualitative order for the Ka-31R, since only one example of this variant had previously been built, assembled in 2012 for manufacturer and operational trials. Although the Ka-31’s prototype flew for the first in 1987, numerous issues with its mission equipment delayed completion of state acceptance trials to 1995. This was a mere formality, for the customer did not place any order.
The type entered serial production in 1999 when India awarded Russia’s Rosoboronexport arms exporter an initial contract worth $207 million for nine such rotorcraft. Following shipments in 2001-2004, the launch customer added a follow-on order for five more units in 2009, at $20 million each. In the following year, the Chinese navy received its first Ka-31 out of nine ordered, thus becoming the second export customer. Later, New Delhi signed for 10 additional Ka-31s, but recent press reports suggest the number has been reduced to six due to the Indian navy’s budget cuts. However, negotiations are being accelerated to meet the commissioning next year of the carrier Vikrant.
Russia’s defense ministry has hesitated to commit before the product’s mission equipment demonstrates full compliance with requirements. Historically, the Soviet navy ordered the development of the Ka-252RLD in the mid-1980s, in the wake of the Royal Navy’s induction of the Westland Sea King AEW.Mk 2, an airborne early warning version of the baseline Sea King equipped with the Searchwater long-range observation radar (later to be superseded by the Crowsnest on the Merlin platform).
Kamov assembled two prototypes, Side 031 and 032, based on the Ka-27 (NATO: Helix) platform, carrying the E-801 Oko radar from NPO Vega. This sensor has the ability to detect a fighter at a distance of 150 km (81 nm) and a patrol boat at 250 km and track up to 20 targets simultaneously. It was also able to detect sea-skimming cruise missiles. The radar’s antenna has a length of 5.75 meters (about 19 feet) and area of 6 sq m (65 sq ft). It is stowed under the helicopter’s belly when not in use. Unfolded in flight, the antenna makes a 360-degree rotation every 10 seconds. Weighing 12.5 tonnes (27,557 pounds), the Ka-31 can loiter for two and a half hours at an altitude of 11,500 feet.
The foreign orders enabled the industry to run numerous refinement efforts and introduce modifications, including the Ka-31SV. Intended for operations over land as a means of battlefield reconnaissance, it drew attention from the Russian Land Forces. Trials took place in 2004-2009 using Side 031 and 032 (remarked as 231 and 232) with a new set of mission equipment. Later, they were rebuilt again into a naval configuration, to resume testing in 2012.