Procurement: Why The U.S. Army Is A Major Buyer Of Russian Helicopters

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August 4, 2012: The U.S. Army has ordered another ten Mi-17 helicopters from Russia, for the Afghan Air Force. These Mi-17s will cost $17.2 million each. There is resistance in Congress to this purchase because Russia is also supplying weapons to Syria, where the dictatorship is fighting a bloody insurrection by most of its population.

The U.S. Department of Defense has, for nearly a decade, obtained Mi-17 helicopters for Afghanistan, and then Iraq, as part of American military aid. The U.S. has already bought, upgraded, and delivered nearly a hundred Russian Mi-17s for this program. The Russian choppers have Western electronics installed and are often rebuilt to make them more reliable and durable.

The cost of these Mi-17s varies widely. Some second hand ones from Eastern European nations cost less than a million dollars each. Iraq recently obtained 22 Mi-17 helicopters from Russia for about $3.7 million each. At one point the U.S. bought 24 refurbished Mi-17s for $4.4 million each. The most expensive purchase was for 22 Mi-17s equipped for night operations and with American electronics. These cost nearly $15 million each.

Afghans and Iraqis prefer the Mi-17, as they have used Russian helicopters for decades. The Mi-17 is the export version of the 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 (3,000 out of 12,000) made helicopter on the planet.

For many bargain conscious nations, Russian helicopters are preferred. In particular, the Mi-8 and Mi-17 are still in big demand. This chopper is about twice the size and weight of the UH-1, although it only hauls about 50 percent more cargo. However, the Mi-8 has a larger interior and can carry 24 troops (or up to 40 civilians), 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. The UH-60, while weighing twice as much as the 4.8 ton UH-1, could carry as much as the 12 ton Mi-8. However, the Mi-8 costs about half as much as a UH-60, so if you want mobility for the least cost you get the Mi-17. Many peacekeeping and humanitarian operations go for the Mi-17, which can be leased from Eastern European firms, complete with maintenance crews and English speaking pilots.

The U.S. handled the purchase of the Russian helicopters for Iraq and Afghanistan because the aircraft were being paid for by American aid and the corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan would have greatly increased the cost of the helicopters if the United States did not handle the purchase and delivery.

 

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