Two Ukrainian Mil Mi-24 'Hind' combat helicopters were shot down in eastern Ukraine on 2 May during a major escalation of violence in the ongoing Ukraine crisis.
According to initial statements published by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence (MoD), both helicopters were shot down by man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS), while an Mil Mi-8 'Hip' transport aircraft sustained damage from ground fire. All of the helicopters were attacked overnight close to Slavyansk in the troubled Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
Two crew members from the Mi-24s were killed in the incidents, with several more wounded, the MoD stated. The pilot of one of the Mi-24s is understood to be badly wounded and to have been captured by pro-Russian forces.
The MoD stated that four people have already been arrested for their alleged involvement in the incident.
Ukraine's Army Aviation unites have a fleet of about 60 Mi-24 helicopters of various types in service. The powerful 'Hind' can carry up to eight troops as well as a range of weaponry, including a cannon up to 30 mm, rocket pods, and guided missiles.
The violence in Ukraine has rapidly escalated since the launching of a major Ukrainian effort to retake several key towns in East Ukraine from protestors and armed groups. Despite this, the shooting down of the two Ukrainian Army Aviation helicopters could signal the crises moving into a new stage of intense conflict.
Although little information is available on the MANPADS used, they are likely to have been an Igla, either the earlier 9K310 Igla-1 (SA-16 'Gimlet'), or the later 9K38 Igla (SA-18 'Grouse'), which are in service with both the Ukrainian and Russian armed forces.
Seeing MANPADS outside of formal armed forces has historically been very rare, and their potential proliferation has been a cause of great concern to many nations. The MoD stated that the "fact of the [MANPAD] use against the Ukrainian Armed Forces testifies that there are well-trained and armed groups are currently acting in Donetsk Oblast." However, the use of MANPADS in the conflict does not necessarily demonstrate the involvement of Russian forces in the incident. In early March local media reported that Igla systems had gone missing from two Ukrainian military units near Lvov.
Unless equipped with modern defensive aid suites (DAS), helicopters are highly vulnerable to MANPADS due to their normally low flight altitude and comparatively low speed. Recently MANPADS have proliferated widely within the ongoing Syrian civil war, with many Syrian government helicopters having been shot down by them in the past year.
It remains to be seen whether this shooting is simply an isolated incident, or whether Ukrainian helicopters will continue to be attacked by MANPADS while operating over East Ukraine. If the MANPADS threat continues it may force Ukraine to deploy ground attack aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-25 'Frogfoot' in the place of helicopters like the Mi-24. However, were Ukraine to begin using fixed wing aircraft against its own people, then it would appear almost inevitable that some form of overt Russian intervention into the conflict would follow.