A very interesting article from the Washington Post by Craig Whitlock today. Entitled, "U.S. military criticized for purchase of Russian copters for Afghan air corps."
The Pentagon has spent $648 million dollars to buy or refurbish 31 Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters for the Afghan National Army Air Corps. NATO codename "Hip." Department of Defense wants to get ten more in 2011, and several dozen more over the next decade. The Mi-17 is an aircraft that is use in Iraq and Pakistan.
The Mi-8/17 "Hip" is a medium size, twin-turbine transport helicopter that can also act as a gunship. Specifically designed by the Russians for the condictions found in Afghanistan when they were there in the 1980s. The Mi-17 is the designation for the export version of the helicopter. Russian armed forces refer to it as the Mi-8MT. The two can be told apart because the Mi-17 has the tail rotor on the port side instead of the starboard side like the Russian military models do.
The type is used all over the world from Bangladesh, Croatia, Czech Republic, India, Kazan, Mexico, Pakistan, and several other nations. Even Canada leases these helicopters through SkyLink Aviation.
So of course when Senators Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) heard about this - well they just had to stick their noses into it. Basically, Afghanistan should be buying U.S. built aircraft-period. Never mind there wrench that will be through into the "Afghanistanizing" (look ma, created a new word here I think!) of the war.
(Quote): U.S. and Afghan military officials who favor the Mi-17, which was designed for use in Afghanistan, acknowledge that it might seem odd for the Pentagon to invest in Russian military products. But they said that changing helicopter models would throw a wrench into the effort to train Afghan pilots, none of whom can fly U.S.-built choppers.
"If people come and fly in Afghanistan with the Mi-17, they will understand why that aircraft is so important to the future for Afghanistan," said Brig. Gen. Michael R. Boera, the U.S. Air Force general in charge of rebuilding the Afghan air corps. "We've got to get beyond the fact that it's Russian. . . . It works well in Afghanistan."
U.S. military officials have estimated that the Afghan air force won't be able to operate independently until 2016, five years after President Obama has said he intends to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But Boera said that date could slip by at least two years if Congress forces the Afghans to fly U.S. choppers . "Is that what we really want to do?" he asked. (end quote).
And another quote for context as to WHY the US forces went this way on the Mi-17 helicopters. (Quote): Because Afghan airmen had historically trained on Russian choppers, the Pentagon decided to make the Mi-17s the backbone of Afghanistan's fleet. The Soviet Union specifically designed the Mi-17 for use in Afghanistan. U.S. officials say it is well-suited for navigating the altitudes of the Hindu Kush mountains, as well as Afghanistan's desert terrain.
With few reliable roads, helicopters are a primary mode of transport in Afghanistan. (end quote).
The Afghan National Army Air Corps has the following pieces of equipment and number of personnel: Russian-made attack helicopters Mi-35, Italian-designed C-27s (a fixed-wing aircraft used to transport troops and supplies). The air corps so far has 48 aircraft and 3,300 personnel.
Gen. Boera said plans are to expand the Air Corps up to 146 aircraft and 8,000 personnel by the year 2016. While there are Afghan pilots in the Unites States training, so far, only one has graduated. Afghan pilot recuits-many who are illiterate in their own language, have to learn English (which is the official language of flight to begin with).
(Quote): Gen. Mohammed Dawran, chief of the Afghan air corps, said most of those pilots are in their 40s and set in their ways. Requiring them to start fresh on U.S. copters would be an uphill battle.
"They learned the previous system and different ideas," he said in an interview. Most of the veterans also don't know how to fly at night or in poor visibility, when a pilot must rely on an aircraft's instrument panel to navigate. (end quote).
Another contruibing factor is that the Russian hardware is much more basic than the American equipment. Lack of GPS (Global Positioning System) to the maintenance crews using whatever they can get their hands on to make repairs.
Plus, U.S. military officials would like to operate their own Mi-17s for U.S. Special Operations Command for clandestine missions. And the Russians know that - so they have raised the prices for new and used Mi-17s.
But, because of politics, DoD is now "leaning away" from buying Russian hardware. (Quote): "As a 'Buy American' kind of individual, I think it's totally appropriate as we go forward that we continue to assess the program," Army Secretary John McHugh, whose service oversees foreign helicopter purchases, told the Senate Appropriations Committee in March. (end quote).
My take on this is Buy Russian! Go ahead. Seeing how the aerial refueling tanker deal, the F-22 production line stopping too soon, and F-35 deals have "save" the American tax payer so much money over the past 15-20 years... Hell, I say go ahead and buy some Su-27s while you're at it! Personally, I like that twin turbo-fan amphib the Russians have, the Be-200. I would love to see that in US Coast Guard markings.
Washington Post, June 19, 2010. by Craig Whitlock (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/18/AR2010061805630_pf.html).
Wikipedia, Mi-17 "Hip" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mil_Mi-17). image from Wiki also.