Air Transportation: Iraq Suffers Mi-17 Withdrawal

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September 10, 2022: The Iraqi Army is heavily dependent on its fleet of 40 Russian Mi-8/17 transport helicopters. They are used to quickly evacuating wounded troops and quickly bringing in needed supplies or troops. Sanctions on Russia since the Ukraine invasion in February have cut the supply of spare parts and maintenance services for the thousands of exported Mi-8/17 helicopters. Iraq was a special case because it is still waging war against Islamic terrorists in Iraq and across the border in Syria. If Iraq were at peace, the army could simply reduce use of its 40 Russian transport helicopters and reorganize its helicopter maintenance efforts. That’s not an option for Iraq where the transport helicopters remain in heavy use because the enemy is relentless. Initially Iraq thought it could cope by speeding up its helicopter refurbishment program. This was started over a year earlier to extend the useful life of the transport helicopters replacing worn components and allowing the helicopters to be heavily used without risk of breakdowns. The refurbishment program depended on key components supplied by Russia and these were no longer available. Other sources could be found but this was time-consuming and slowed down the refurbishment process. Without the refurb, continuing to use the older transports risks losing them to accidents. At the very least some of these helicopters will experience serious component failures which will ground helicopters.

Iraq had an opportunity to obtain some American UH-60 transports but this was more costly in terms of purchase price and the time and expense of training crews and maintenance personnel. No one expected Russian logistical support for their helicopters to suddenly disappear, but it did and it’s too late to obtain UH-60s.

Iraq is not the only country suffering from helicopter support problems. The Mi-17 is used by over fifty countries with Russia and China being the largest users but is really just an upgraded Mi-8 originally meant mainly for the export market, which is more demanding than the Russian military.

The M-17 is actually more than just an updated Mi-8. The Mi-17 has evolved into a popular and inexpensive transport helicopter. Yet the Mi-17 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-17 has evolved into a more modern aircraft than the Mi-8 even though the two still look quite similar.

Weighing about 14 tons, and carrying a four-ton load, the Mi-17 has a range of 800 kilometers at a cruising speed of 260 kilometers per hour. Top speed is 280 kilometers per hour. There is a crew of three and as many passengers as can be squeezed in. In practice that means up to 40 people, but usually 20-30. A sling underneath can also carry up to four tons.

Some 17,000 Mi-8/17 helicopters have been built since the 1960s with about twenty percent exported. The Mi-17 is, like its Mi-8 ancestor, rugged, inexpensive ($4-5 million each) and better suited for less affluent nations. For many nations the additional performance and reliability of similar, and much more expensive, Western models is not worth it or simply too expensive. Many countries will even use some Mi-17s as VIP (Very Important Person) transports for senior military and other government officials. The VIP models are carefully selected (from what the government, but more usually just the military) has, and then lavished with more attention (more skilled mechanics, more frequent checkups and maintenance and access to spares). These VIP helicopters are usually as safe as much more costly Western designs. The Russian manufacturer will even include VIP features for new or existing Mi-17s.

It's interesting to note that the Mi-8s contemporary (developed a decade earlier), the American UH-1, continues to be used in large numbers, as do many Mi-8s. But there are also several upgraded UH-1 models (most for the non-military market) but easily converted to all sorts of uses. Nevertheless, in terms of simplicity and economy the Mi-8/17 has an edge. Unless Russia is suddenly no longer able to supply maintenance support.

 


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