Warplanes: Cheaper Is Often Better


June 5, 2017: The United States has agreed to provide the Kenyan peacekeepers operating in Somalia with twelve MD530F armed scout helicopters. These will replace older MD-500D models of which only about fifteen are still operational. The MD530F is the latest model of the popular MD-500 light helicopter. Afghanistan received 27 MD530Fs between 2011 and 2016 where they succeeded despite the harsh extremes of hot and cold and high altitudes. The MD530Fs for Kenya will be armed with 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine-gun pods as well as seven tune 70mm rocket pods. Normally one machine-gun and two rocket pods are carried. The MD530F can also carry three passengers in the back. Because of the low cost and simplicity of the MD500 the Kenyans (military and police) have been using them for decades. Most MD530Fs can fly several sorties a day doing reconnaissance and to provide ground support for troops who need some help fast.

The MD530 is the civilian version of the U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) MH-6. Used for scouting and commando operations the MH-6 (and the similar AH-6) were developed from the 1960s era OH-6 light reconnaissance helicopter. Developed in the early 1980s, the MH/AH-6, or "Little Bird" is a 1.6 ton helicopter with a crew of two and a top speed of 280 kilometers an hour. Sortie length can be as long as three hours but more often are one or two hours. Nearly 5,000 MD-500 type helicopters have been built and they are particularly popular with police and military users looking to get the most for their money.

The MH/AH-6 was designed so it could be armed with two 7.62mm or 12.7mm machine-gun pods, or two 70mm rocket pods (seven or 12 rockets each) or four Hellfire missiles. The current MH-6 model is often equipped with a day/night targeting system, including a laser designator and laser guided missiles. Without weapons, the MH-6 can carry six troops (usually Special Forces operators) externally. The Kenyans had already been using TOW missiles on some of their older 500D models but the 70mm rockets (with a range of 8,000 meters) are more effective for the counter—terrorism operations along the Somali border.

Earlier in 2017 the U.S. agreed to sell Kenya twelve AT-802U light attack aircraft and two AT-504s (two seat versions of the AT-802 equipped as trainers.) The deal is worth $400 million, which comes out to $28.6 million per aircraft. Without military electronics and weapons systems these aircraft cost about $4 million each. Military type sensors, electronics and weapons systems can triple that price. Add in maintenance and training contracts, spare parts, a supply of ammo plus the usual bribes for local officials and the cost per aircraft can easily get close to $30 million. The AT-802s are meant to replace Kenya’s aging (and largely inoperable) F-5 jet fighters. The AT-802s became popular in Colombia after 2002 when they were militarized to aid in fighting leftist rebels and drug gangs. A growing number of Middle Eastern and African nations have adopted the armed AT-802U and found that the version equipped to fire Hellfire missiles was easy to operate and maintain and much cheaper (about $400 per flight hour) to operate that jets or helicopters (which cost at least ten times that).

The MD530Fs were also expensive and Kenya expected to get foreign aid to cover most of the cost. That, and accusations of bribery in Kenya have put both of these programs on hold for a while. While the bribery and other illegal practices are a concern, so is the work Kenyan troops are doing to deal with Islamic terrorism in Somalia and tribal lawlessness elsewhere in the region.