June 24, 2010:
The United States has bought 31 Mi-17 ("Hip") helicopters for the Afghan army, paying about $20 million each. U.S. politicians are complaining that, since the U.S. is paying for this, the Afghans should be using American helicopters. American and Afghan commanders disagree.
The Mi-17 is the export version of the Mi-8, a twin-engine helicopter, roughly equivalent to the U.S. UH-1 ("Huey"). 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. While the Afghans are still somewhat ticked off at the Russians because of the 1980s war, they have fond memories of their military equipment. It was Russia that supplied most of the weapons for Afghanistan in the 1970s and 80s. Afghanistan has many veterans who flew and maintained Mi-17s in the past. American helicopters would cost more than twice as much, and Afghan pilots would have to be retrained. U.S. military officials insist that the Mi-17 is better suited to Afghan needs, and a switch would simply cost more money and time.
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 ("Blackhawk") 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 as much as the UH-1 (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 offers lower rates for training pilots and mechanics. Russia is keen on establishing good relations with Afghanistan, which has been good customer in the past.