US Spent a Billion USD on Russian Helicopters for Afghanistan, Will Now Spend a Billion More to Replace Them With US-Made Machines

Russia sanctions wreaked havoc with Pentagon's project to build up an Afghan rotary-wing force

Mi-17, the most produced military helicopter of its class

Here is American efficiency for you. In 2011 the Pentagon decided it would buy Russian Mi-17 helicopters for Afghanistan. The decision to go Russian made every sense – it was the aircraft Afghans themselves wanted, for understandable reasons.

Afghanistan already had pilots and mechanics who were familiar with the machine, the Mi-17 is more rugged, easier to fly, and requires less maintenance. It costs less than American machines, and has proven itself over Afghanistan’s dust and many high peaks and plains. With a medium-sized fuselage it is also more versatile than either the small-ish UH-60 Black Hawk, or the huge CH-47 Chinook.

It was simply the best helicopter for the job. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey himself told Congress in 2013: “There’s no way we can put them in anything other than that helicopter.”

So for the next five years the US military was buying Russian helicopters and handing them over to the US-created ‘National Afghan Army’. It continued to do so even after the US Congress – which is naturally in the pocket of domestic arms makers – started throwing a fit over it in 2013.

The US even paid India to hand over four of its Russian-built Mi-24 helicopter gunships to Afghanistan last year

Turns out going the common sense route for even just once is not the American way, however. In late 2016 the Pentagon proclaimed it would stop buying Russian-made helicopters and start buying American-made helicopters to replace them with.

Hilarious. The wisdom of building an enormous helicopter force that Afghanistan can’t possibly maintain on its own aside, the decision to get the Russian Mi-17s was a good one. The decision in 2011 to get (the more expensive and sensitive) American-made helicopters would have been less good, but still okay.

Instead the US took the worst possible path. To first buy up Russian machines – then, as soon as that was done – to turn around and proclaim the 63 new helicopters bought at $16-18 million a piece would begin to be phased out, as another $814 million was spent to replace them with machines that are less suited to the job.

The chosen replacement is the UH-60 Black Hawk. Like the Mi-17 the Black Hawk is a 1970s design. It is actually in the same weight-class as the more spacious Russian helicopter but has a narrower, more aerodynamic fuselage. That means it is considerably faster, but unlike the Mi-17 is useless as a transport helicopter.

Where the Mi-17 can transport cargo, equipment and troops, the American aircraft is a straight up troop transporter. That means the issues of re-training, cost, and ease of operating aside the Black Hawk simply can not adequately replace the Mi-17 at everything the latter does.

Sikorsky UH-60 “Black Hawk”

Nonetheless, the first Black Hawks were handed over to the Afghanistan last month with great fanfare, with Americans proclaiming this marked a “modernization” for the Afghan Air Force. This albeit both of the helicopters date back to the 1970s, the Black Hawks the Afghans are getting are refurbished, and the Russian machines had only just been bought a few years ago.

US Congressmen wrote they hope this is just a start of the Afghan bonanza for Sikorsky and that after the order of 53 machines to replace the Russian-built helicopters the US military will purchase another roughly 100 Black Hawks for the Afghans (and then pay to maintain them, for Afghans can not afford to).

So then, are Russian helos being phased out because the greedy the military-industrial-congressional complex finally got to the Afghan war planners? Doubtful. Congress has been trying to put a stop on it since 2013, but Pentagon always found a way around it. Rather the cause is more likely to be found in this passage:

The Russian-designed Mi-17 helicopters that currently form the backbone of the Afghan air force worked well for crews used to Russian equipment, but deteriorating relations between Moscow and Washington meant that the Americans were unable to provide new parts and aircraft to replace the overworked aircraft.

Seems the Afghan’s Russian-built helicopter fleet fell victim to America’s sanctions on Russia. The US passed various embargoes to try to get at Russia, but in this case it was their project to build up the Afghan air force which paid the price.

Mi-17s are also frequently and easily armed