Six Months After The Russians Shot Down Ukraine’s Last Naval Rescue Helicopter, the U.K. Is Sending Replacements

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The United Kingdom is sending three Westland Sea King helicopters to Ukraine.

The 1970s-vintage rotorcraft, which once served in large numbers in the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, are Ukraine’s first Western helicopters. Harbingers, perhaps, of the Ukrainian military’s future as it gradually evolves into a NATO-style force with large quantities of European and American-made weaponry.

U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced the transfer on Wednesday. The first of the ex-Royal Navy Sea Kings already was in Ukraine, Wallace said. The navy meanwhile has trained 10 crews, the U.K. Defense Ministry tweeted. It’s not clear whether the ministry meant 10 total pilots, co-pilots and crew chiefs, or 10 three-person crews. The latter seems more likely.

The Sea Kings, which apparently are the three HU5 models that civilian operator HeliOps took over from the Royal Navy upon the type’s retirement from U.K. military service in 2018, are “enhancing [Ukraine’s] search-and-rescue capabilities,” the Defense Ministry tweeted.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Ukrainian navy began Russia’s wider war on Ukraine back in late February with—you guessed—three search-and-rescue helicopters. The Soviet-vintage Mil Mi-14s flew from Odesa, Ukraine’s strategic port on the western Black Sea.

It’s possible just one of the Mi-14s was airworthy. In early June, this Mi-14 was flying over Odesa when a Russian Sukhoi fighter intercepted it. Col. Ihor Bedzay, a deputy commander of the Ukrainian navy and the Mi-14’s pilot, tried and failed to evade the Sukhoi. Bedazy and presumably the rest of the crew died when an R-73 infrared-guided missile struck the helicopter.

It seems the June shoot-down left the Ukrainian navy with no operational rescue helicopters. Since then there hasn’t been any photographic evidence of Ukrainian Mi-14s in flight.

The replacement helicopters arrive at a critical moment for the Ukrainian navy. The fleet is beginning to recover from the disastrous losses it suffered early in the conflict, including its sole frigate, many of its patrol boats and yes, its Mi-14.

With most of its ships on the bottom or the Black Sea or in Russian hands, the navy pivoted. Its TB-2 armed aerial drones, explosive drone boats and land-based Neptune anti-ship missile became its most important weapons—and highly effective ones, at that.

As the Ukrainian navy’s drones and missiles plucked at the Russian Black Sea Fleet, sinking the missile cruiser Moskva and many smaller vessels, the navy began acquiring Harpoon anti-ship missiles plus scores of patrol boats from the United States and other Western allies. The boats formed riverine squadrons that patroled the wide Dnipro River cutting north to south through central Ukraine.

When the Ukrainian army and marine corps liberated the port of Kherson at the mouth of the Dnipro earlier this month, Ukraine’s new small-boat navy seemingly became more active along the river mouth, potentially even supporting commando raids on Russian positions on the Kinburn Peninsula.

With more and more Western weaponry, the Ukrainian navy slowly is regaining its strength. Now, thanks to the United Kingdom, it has rescue helicopters again—possibly for the first time in six months.

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