March 19, 2010:
Last year, the United States gave Pakistan four Mi-17 transport helicopters. Now Pakistan wants to give them back. The reason is age, as these four helicopters are old, mostly from the 1990s. One of them has crashed, and the Pakistanis fear it's not worth the hassle of keeping these aging choppers in flying condition.
Pakistan already has over 80 of this model, but is always looking for more. This is especially the case as over a hundred thousand Pakistani troops are at war with Pushtun tribesmen along the Afghan border. Helicopters are an important factor in the army's success in that fight. The Pakistani army has a fleet of over 300 helicopters, including 28 AH-1 gunships and 35 UH-1 transports. But the Mi-17 is a favorite. Except for the four American gift helicopters. These came from an American training unit, where U.S. maintainers found the advanced age of these birds manageable. But Pakistan does not have the human or material resources of U.S. helicopter maintenance operations.
The Mi-17 is the export version of the Russian 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. But the UH-60, while weighing ten tons (compared to UH-1s' 4.8 tons), 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 charges less for training pilots and mechanics. The U.S. has lots of experience with Mi-17s because it has led the way in obtaining this model for Iraq and Afghanistan (both long time users of the Mi-17.)
Meanwhile, the U.S. recently delivered 13 AH-1 helicopter gunships. Pakistan particularly wants gunship models, as these are a key weapon in their battle with pro-Taliban Pushtun tribesmen. The U.S. has been upgrading its current fleet of older AH-1s. The Pakistanis consider the American helicopters more reliable, and find the older ones easier to keep safe to fly.