July 24, 2010: The U.S. recently delivered four refurbished Mi-17 helicopters to Pakistan. The U.S. is refurbishing 24 of these helicopters for Pakistan, and the remaining eight will be completed by the end of the year. After that, another ten will be done. The U.S. also recently delivered two Bell 412 helicopters (an advanced civilian version of the UH-1). The U.S. has also found 13 old AH-1 gunships, which it is giving to Pakistan to be used as spare parts for Pakistani AH-1s. The U.S. also recently delivered 13 AH-1 helicopter gunships. Pakistan particularly wants gunship models, as these are a key weapon in their battle with pro-Taliban Pushtun tribesmen. The U.S. has been upgrading its current fleet of older AH-1s. The Pakistanis consider the American helicopter gunships more reliable, and find the older ones easier to keep safe to fly. But for transport, the Russian Mi-17 is the preferred ride. Cheap, rugged and easy to handle, these birds have put the usually fearsome tribesmen at a disadvantage.
Not all these American gifts have been appreciated. Last year, the United States gave Pakistan four Mi-17 transport helicopters. Earlier this year, Pakistan announced it wants to give them back. The reason was age, as these four helicopters were old, mostly from the 1990s. One of them had crashed, and the Pakistanis feared it was not worth the hassle of keeping these aging choppers in flying condition.
Pakistan already has over 80 Mi-17s, but is always looking for more. The reason for this is because over a hundred thousand Pakistani troops are at war with Pushtun tribesmen along the Afghan border. Helicopters are an important factor in the army's success in that fight. The Pakistani army has a fleet of over 300 helicopters, including 28 AH-1 gunships and 35 UH-1 transports. But the Mi-17 is a favorite, partly because Pakistan does not have the human or material resources required for U.S. helicopter maintenance operations.
The Mi-17 is the export version of the Russian Mi-8, a twin-engine helicopter, roughly equivalent to the U.S. UH-1. But the Mi-8/17 is still in production and is the most widely exported (2,800 out of 12,000 made) helicopter on the planet. The Mi-8 is about twice the size and weight of the UH-1, but only hauls about 50 percent more cargo. However, the Mi-8 had 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 frame. But the UH-60, while weighing ten tons (compared to UH-1s' 4.8 tons), could carry as much as the 12 ton Mi-8. But the Mi-8 costs about half as much as a UH-60, and the larger interior is popular with many users. Russia also charges less for training pilots and mechanics. The U.S. has lots of experience with Mi-17s because it has led the way in obtaining this model for Iraq and Afghanistan (both long time users of the Mi-17.)