Air Transportation: Mercenary Helicopter Crews in Combat

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October 28, 2007: NATO forces in Afghanistan are scrambling to try and get some additional helicopters before Winter sets in. This will be expensive, but apparently money is not a major obstacle. A medium lift helicopter, like the Mi-17, costs about $420,000 a month for the chopper, crew and maintenance. This includes hazardous duty pay for the crew. Commercial helicopter leasing companies are accustomed to providing aircraft in combat zones. They do it for relief organizations in war zones all the time. In Iraq, civilian security companies, especially Blackwater, maintain a sizable fleet of helicopters. The pilots are usually former military, and many have combat experience. They make several times what they did while in the military.

NATO has never had enough helicopters in Afghanistan. This is particularly embarrassing because U.S. forces are better equipped with helicopters, and operate more effectively because of it. The problem is that European nations either don't have military helicopters suitable for service in the hot and high (and dusty, and freezing in the Winter) conditions of Afghanistan, or their helicopter units are not organized and trained for service overseas, or the politicians don't want to send their helicopters abroad. The solution is apparently to lease helicopters, including crews and support personnel, from civilian firms.

An American firm has been asked to arrange for leased helicopters. This may involve subcontracting, with Russian firms as prime candidates. Russian and Ukrainian companies are already supply heavy jet transports for the NATO forces. These same companies have helicopters available as well. The Russians know their choppers will work in Afghanistan, because of their experience during the 1980s. Many of the same helicopter types are still in service, although with updates. Safety and reliability standards for Russian helicopters have also increased.

There are also many non-Russian firms that offer helicopter leasing for challenging environments (mainly oil field or mining operations support). But the Russians are cheaper, and are less concerned with getting shot at. The leased helicopters will be based in Kandahar, and be used to keep NATO troops off dangerous stretches of road. That's because more than half of NATO casualties have been caused by roadside bombs and suicide bomb attacks.

 


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