Air Transportation: The UH-60 Generation In Afghanistan


May 8, 2018: The Afghan Air Force is in the midst of replacing its Russian Mi-17 helicopters with American UH-60s. There are several reasons for this. For one, the new generation of Afghan pilots prefer the American helicopters. They are more reliable, can be easily equipped to carry weapons and identical to those used by American forces. Deliveries of UH-60s began in 2017 and by early 2018 the Afghans had 11 UH-60s with another 20 being delivered by the end of 2018. The Afghan Air Force still has 46 Mi-17s but only about half of them are operational. The readiness rates of the UH-60s are much higher and the UH-60s perform better in Afghan conditions than the Mi-17s. The Russians discovered that when they were there in the 1980s and while the Mi-17 has been upgraded it could still not match the UH-60, which is a more recent design and has undergone more upgrades.

The UH-60 was introduced in 1979. The 11 ton UH-60M can carry 14 troops, or 1.1 tons of cargo internally, or four tons slung underneath. Cruise speed is 278 kilometers an hour. Max endurance is two hours, although most sorties last 90 minutes or less. Max altitude is 5,790 meters (19,000 feet).

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. 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 could carry as much as the 12 ton Mi-8/17. 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. For a long time many peacekeeping and humanitarian operations preferred the Mi-17, which could be leased from Eastern European firms, complete with maintenance crews and English speaking pilots. But that has changed as East European nations switched to Western helicopters because they could afford a more reliable and versatile Western aircraft. Another important factor was that the UH-60 was safer to operate as it was designed to be more “crash proof”, at least for the pilots and passengers. The remaining Afghan Mi-17s are used for hauling cargo while Afghan troops prefer to travel in a UH-60.

For a decade the United States bought Mi-17s for the Afghans, partly because the older generation of Afghan pilots knew how to fly the Mi-17 and there were still Afghans around who knew how to maintain them. That generation is now largely gone. In 2012 the U.S. Army has ordered another ten Mi-17 helicopters from Russia, for the Afghan Air Force. These Mi-17s cost $17.2 million each. There was growing resistance in Congress to this purchase because Russia was also supplying weapons to Syria, where the dictatorship is fighting a bloody insurrection by most of its population. After 2014 sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine made purchases of Mi-17s for the Afghans even more difficult to justify.

The U.S. Department of Defense had, for 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 nearly a hundred Russian Mi-17s for this program. The Russian choppers have Western electronics installed and are often rebuilt to make them more reliable and durable, at least in Iraq. But the harsh conditions of Afghanistan and the heavy use of American UH-60s convinced the younger generation of Afghan pilots that the UH-60 was a better choice.

The U.S. handled the purchase of the Russian helicopters for Afghanistan because the aircraft were being paid for by American aid and the corruption in Afghanistan would have greatly increased the cost of the helicopters if the United States did not handle the purchase and delivery. That made it easier to switch to UH-60s, which were either refurbished or newly built and came from American firms.




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