America’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) is world renowned for its ability to get special operators into and out of the fight with stealth and precision. The pilots that earn a place in the 160th, or Nightstalkers as they’re commonly called, operate some of the most capabile military aircraft on the planet under only the most difficult of conditions — low visibility, extreme weather conditions, and the constant threat of active engagement are just part of the 160th is built to contend with — and Russia is increasingly aware of just how valuable a special operations taxi service of the sort can be.
This year, Russia is celebrating the one-year anniversary of establishing their own iteration of America’s special operations aviation detachment. Housed within the 344th State Center for Combat Application and Retraining of Flight Personnel, Russian military pilots have traveled to Torzhok where they train alongside (and compete against) other pilots from around the Russian military. At the end of they call “theoretical course work,” the best and most capable pilots are selected to move on to more arduous practical training that forms the pipeline into Russia’s special operations aviation units.
“We must covertly get out to the designated area as soon as possible. By special means, not visible to the eye of the person, to find a group of special forces and evacuate it. Or, having received from the group of targeting, to strike the enemy accurately,” the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Vladimir Salyov, told Russian media outlet Tsarizm.
One of the biggest challenges of being a special operations aviator for any national military is operating under cover of darkness. American special operations units commonly insert and extract at night, meaning the aircraft used in both operations must also be able to operate in total darkness with minimal communications. As the Russians have found in their first year of training their own version of the Nightstalkers, operating at night and flying complex missions with an extremely high level of proficiency are entirely different things.
“Almost all army aviation pilots are able to fly with night vision devices, as well as in difficult weather conditions,” explained Salyov. “But this is not enough to effectively support special forces. Therefore, the flight crew of the army aviation is trained by our squadron.”
One pilot, who was identified only as “Lieutenant B,” was also permitted to speak to the Russian media, adding that, “The main feature of the PNV (night vision goggles) is that the image relayed to the pilot does not convey depth. Therefore, without the developed skills, it is very difficult to determine the real distance to objects on the ground. At the same time, the helicopter flies at a very low altitude at a very high speed. And there may be rain or snow around.”
Russian pilots are training to fly in teams of Mi-35 Strike Helicopters alongside Mi-8 Transport helicopters, with teams of eight special operators aboard the Mi-8 for insertion.
“The Mi-8 helicopter is equipped with two winches, which allow to evacuate personnel from heights up to 60 m,” said Salyov. “This vehicle also has two sliding doors, which allows special operations teams to disembark or evacuate as soon as possible.”
It goes without saying that it takes time to development the skills and syllabus needed to stand up an entire squadron of highly trained special operations aviators, but as Russia has restructured its defense spending strategies away from large platforms like aircraft carriers and toward more specialized and covert enterprises like submarines and stealth platforms, and increased emphasis on their special operations community seems perfecting in keeping with the “best bag for the buck” approach the Russian Ministry of Defense has taken toward new enterprises.