Air Transportation: Chinese Preferences

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August 15, 2017: In mid-2017 China ordered four more Russian Mi-17E transport helicopters, for delivery within a year. This comes after another order in late 2016 for 18 more Russian transport helicopters. This order included eight Ansats (a three ton transport similar to the UH-1 and used as an ambulance), four Ka-32s (the civilian version of the 12 ton Ka-27 naval helicopter that can carry up to four tons) and six Mi-17Es. Despite having their own helicopter industry (including licensed manufacture of some European and Russian designs) China continues to buy Mi-17Es from Russia because China needs more military transport helicopters right now and still needs other types of Russian helicopters in such small quantities that producing them in China is not practical. The Russian military still has budget problems and the Russian Helicopter Corporation (a recent merger of most Russian helicopter firms) is geared mainly for export sales and has the capability to expedite orders for favored customers, which China qualifies as. Moreover the 2014 sanctions imposed on Russia caused Russian Helicopters to lose some business, especially from Afghanistan (but paid for by the United States). Afghanistan is now replacing its Mi-17s with UH-60s.

The last major Chinese Mi-17E import order was completed in 2014 when the last of 52 Mi-171Es China ordered since 2012 were delivered. This model can carry up to 37 passengers or four tons of cargo and has engines that are particularly effective under "hot and high" conditions. This is useful for the Chinese, who need equipment that can operate in Tibet, where many areas are at altitudes of over 4,000 meters. China is quite fond of the Mi-17E and the older Mi-8 it is derived from even though China has based its locally made designs on Western models. Then again so have the Russians, especially since the 1990s. But the Mi-17 is like the DC-3 or C-130; a design you can improve but not replace.

Currently China has about 300 Mi-17/Mi-8 type helicopters and over 500 locally made helicopters. Most (Z9/Z-19) of these local builds are based on the Eurocopter AS 365 Dauphin while another hundred locally built Z-10 gunships were based on a Russian design. China has shown a preference for the Mi-8/17 design and would like to more than double its force of Mi-17s.

In 2010 Chinese and Russian helicopter manufacturers established a joint venture to perform maintenance and refurbishment on helicopters, especially those of Russian design. This was part of a larger plan, which also included the factory in China building Mi-171s. This came in the wake of a 2008 China deal that allows China to legally manufacture the Mi-171 at the Sichuan Lantian Helicopter Company Limited (SLHCL). There was also a proposal for China and Russia to jointly develop a large transport helicopter, based on the existing Mi-26T (a 20 ton aircraft that can carry 80 passengers). The Mi-26T model was modified to suit Chinese needs and the Chinese military and commercial firms continue to buy it from Russia. There may be other joint development deals to produce updated versions of existing Russian helicopter designs. This sort of thing could be mutually beneficial. China now has a domestic source for inexpensive transport helicopters which its civilian and military users are demanding many of.

The M-171 is basically an inexpensive transport helicopter. But it can easily be modified to carry weapons, or any other specialized gear. Some of the Mi-171s are even being equipped with radars and other sensors, to be used for reconnaissance and surveillance. The Mi-171 is based on the 1970s era Mi-17, which is the export version of the similar Mi-8. Weighing about 12 tons, and carrying a four ton load, the Mi-171 has a range of 590 kilometers at a cruising speed of 250 kilometers per hour. There is a crew of three and as many passengers as can be squeezed in (up to 40 people, but usually 20-30.) A sling underneath can also carry up to four tons. Several hundred Mi-171s have been exported by Russia. The helicopter is rugged, inexpensive ($4-5 million each) and better suited for less affluent nations. Development of this model was completed in 1998 and Russia has been pushing sales hard.

 

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