Warplanes: Secret Weapon In Short Supply


July 13, 2009: Pakistan is in desperate need of more helicopters. France and the United States are helping out. Pakistan needs the additional choppers now, but there is no quick way to get more helicopters. The urgency springs from the fact that Pakistan is at war with pro-Taliban Pushtun tribes, who mostly live along the Afghan border. For thousands of years, the people of Punjab and Sind (the Pakistani provinces that contain 80 percent of the population) have avoided going to war with the Pushtuns (who, for most of that period, served as a buffer between Persian and Indian empires) up in the mountains.

The helicopter has changed all that. While the airplane and artillery gave the flatlanders from Punjab and Sind an edge, it was the helicopter that did most of the damage to the tribal warrior's ability to run and hide in the hills (the better to ambush you, or avoid your machine-guns and artillery.) But with over 100,000 troops in the tribal territories, the existing force of 300 helicopters is spread too thin.

With helicopters, Pakistani troops can avoid Pushtun ambushes, find where the tribal gunmen are, and prevent them from getting away. The Pushtun warriors are not stupid. They only fight battles they are pretty sure they will win. If defeat appears possible, the tribesmen take off for the shelter of the hills. But with helicopters above, such "run away, to fight another day" tactics no longer worked. Naturally, the word got around to all the Pakistani troops that they could defeat the tribal fighters if helicopters were available. Otherwise, be really careful.

The 300 helicopters are a very mixed bag. There are eleven different models, from France, the U.S. and Russia. The French and Americans have provided additional maintenance and spare parts support for the choppers their nationals supplied. The Russian helicopters are the rugged Mi-17, and these, of fairly recent vintage, are not in trouble yet. What the Pakistani really want are a few dozen more helicopters, especially gunships. But Pakistan is not an oil rich nation, and currently buys most of its new gear using American military aid. For that, the U.S. expects the money to buy American whenever possible. Meanwhile, the French believe that if they can do a good enough job keeping the French made helicopters operational, this will pay off in some future sales. Russia may be the one to actually deliver, as the Mi-17/Mi-8 is the most widely exported military helicopter of the last half century, and there is a lively market for used ones. This model can be quickly fitted out as a gunship, which is what the Pakistanis need the most. In the end, the Russians may win this one.



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