Prisoner statements, aerial reconnaissance and electronic communications intercepts indicate that the Syrian Air Force has gotten the most out of its largely Russian built helicopter force, but has lost most of their several hundred choppers in the process. In late 2010, before the civil war began, the Syrian air force had 130 Mi-8/17 transport helicopters and 80 helicopter gunships (32 Mi-24 plus 30 SA-342 and 20 Mi-2a light attack models). Eventually the Syrian Navy had to send its twenty helicopters to support ground operations. Ten of these were Mi-14s, which are naval versions of the Mi-8. The Mi-24 is also an Mi-8 variant. In all the Syrians had 230 military helicopters available. While Russia supplied a lot of spare parts and some technical personnel since then, Russia sent no additional helicopters. Thus by early 2015 about 80 percent of the 2010 helicopter force was out of actions because of combat damage or simply because they were worn out and could no longer fly, or fly safely.
Unlike the “fast movers” (jet bombers and fighters) that came in fast and usually got away before ground fire could hit them, the helicopters came in low and slow. Although the helicopters learned to stay above most small arms (assault rifle and machine-gun) range that was only about 1,600 meters/5,000 feet altitude. This was still close enough for larger caliber machine-guns and portable anti-aircraft missiles. About half the missions flow by these helicopters since 2011 have been for bombing, dropping “barrel bombs” on urban areas.
Most of the Syrian helicopters are Mi-8s or variations of the Mi-8. This is a 1960s era design that is often exported as Mi-17. This 12 ton helicopters is about twice the size and weight of the American UH-1, but only hauls about 50 percent more cargo. However, the Mi-8 has a larger interior, and can carry 24 troops, versus a dozen in the UH-1. The UH-1 was replaced by the UH-60 in the 1980s, while the Mi-8 just kept adding better engines and electronics to the basic Mi-8 airframe. The Mi-8 costs about half as much as a UH-60, and the larger interior is popular with many users. For that reason over 3,000 Mi-17s have been exported along with many more Mi-8s and Mi-14s. While the Russian aid for the Syrian helicopters was free, the Russians did take notes on the extensive combat experience of their Mi-8s since 2011. The Syrian use of Russian helicopters in combat was the most intense use of the Mi-8 since the 1980s (Afghanistan and Iraq). Thus the Russians got to see how all the Mi-8 upgrades since the 1980s have worked out.