In Mid-July 2014 Russia delivered another three Mi-17 helicopters to Afghanistan. As usual, the three were shipped in a single An-124 transport (with the rotors folded back so that the three choppers fit in the huge aircraft.) Afghanistan now has 51 of these Mi-17s, all ordered for Afghanistan in 2011 from Russia by the United States. Russia is on schedule to deliver another dozen to complete the contract. Originally the contract was for 78 Mi-17s but because of Russian support for Syria the U.S. cancelled the last 15 Mi-17s on the 2011 contract (in November 2013). This was the result of American politicians seeking to punish Russian support for the Assad dictatorship in the current Syrian civil war. It is still unclear how the U.S. Department of Defense will deal with loss of fifteen helicopters the Afghan security forces need. It is possible to obtain used Mi-17s on the world aviation market and refurbish them. Meanwhile, the Afghans still want the Mi-17V5s and may seek to obtain them on their own. The ones the U.S. was going to buy were to cost $18 million each and deliveries will be completed in 2014.
The November cancellation also resurrected the debate over giving the Afghans Russian helicopters versus American models. The U.S. military personnel, especially the Special Forces officers who spoke the Afghan languages and understood the culture, insisted that the Russian choppers were the best short term option because cultural factors (low education, careless attitudes towards maintenance and safety) made American grade aircraft impractical. On paper, and in the long term, American helicopters were a better option and some American politicians still believe this was the best way to go.
The V5 model of the Mi-17 is often equipped with Western electronics, making them more compatible with customer specific needs. The V5 also differs from earlier models by having more powerful engines, an improved auxiliary engine, and an extra door on the right side. The nose of the aircraft protrudes, unlike the glassed-in round nose more typical of Mi-17s. The Mi-17V5 is also equipped to be quickly fitted with weapons (rockets, missiles, machine-gun pods). In effect, the Mi-17V5 can be used as both a transport and gunship helicopter.
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 over a hundred Russian Mi-17s for this program. These 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. In 2012 Iraq 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 purchased Mi-17s are those equipped for night operations and with American electronics. These cost nearly $20 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. In the American military 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. Thus, if the current ban continues, Afghanistan may simply have to do without any more Russian helicopters.