Air Transportation: Russian Made, American Upgrade


January 4, 2012: The U.S. Department of Defense has bought, upgraded, and delivered over a hundred Russian Mi-17 helicopters to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Russian choppers have Western electronics installed and are often rebuilt to make them more reliable and durable.

As a result of these efforts, in early 2010 Iraqi commandos conducted their first air assault using their own Mi-17 helicopters. For several years Iraqi troops had conducted air assaults using American operated helicopters. But in that time, their air force has been building a large fleet of helicopters, especially Mi-17s. By 2010, Iraqi helicopter crews reached the point where they were able to handle the combat assaults themselves. So far, Iraq has ordered over 80 Russian Mi-17 helicopters. Most are currently in use for transporting supplies and troops. But 26 are equipped with more sensors and electronics for use by Iraqi commandos.

Iraq and Afghanistan like Mi-17s because they are familiar and cheap. The cost of these Mi-17s varies widely. Some second hand ones from Eastern Europe nations cost less than a million dollars each. Iraq has 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 Iraq, at a cost of $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.

The Iraqis and Afghans both prefer the Mi-17, as both nations 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 (2,800 out of 12,000 made) helicopter on the planet.

The Mi-8 is about twice the size and weight of the UH-1, but only hauls about 50 percent more cargo. However, the Mi-8 had a larger interior and can carry 24 troops, 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 10 ton UH-60 could carry as much as the 12 ton Mi-8. But the Mi-8 costs about half as much as a UH-60, and the larger interior is popular with many users. Russia also offers lower rates for training pilots and mechanics. Russia is keen on establishing good relations with Iraq, which has been a good customer in the past. The Iraqis have fond memories of the Russians and their military equipment. It was Russia that supplied most of the weapons for Iraq during the 1980s war with Iran.


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