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Issue Brief #3998 on International Conflicts

July 23, 2013

Mi-17 Helicopters: The Best Choice for the Afghan Air Force and the U.S. Taxpayer

By

As part of an ongoing process to ensure that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are ready and capable to take over the lead for security in Afghanistan by 2015, the U.S. has agreed to purchase up to 86 Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters for future service in the Afghan Air Force (AAF).

Many on Capitol Hill are questioning why the Department of Defense is buying Russian-made helicopters at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer and then giving them to the Afghans. Opponents to this plan argue that the U.S. should be buying American-made helicopters, such as the UH-60 Blackhawk, instead. The UH-60 Blackhawk is one of the finest helicopters ever to have flown in combat and has served the U.S. military wonderfully in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. However, the Mi-17 is the best all-around choice for both the Afghans and the American taxpayer.

Afghanistan’s Unique Challenges

In counterinsurgency operations, especially in Afghanistan, helicopter lift is vital. In order to function, the ANSF will need an AAF that can transport soldiers to the front lines, resupply them, and evacuate the wounded when required. NATO, with all its resources, has had problems providing this capability for Western troops in Afghanistan, so it goes without saying that providing this same capability for the Afghans will be neither cheap nor easy.

It terms of rotary-wing helicopter lift, Afghanistan has its own set of challenges. Low literacy rates in Afghanistan make it challenging to find qualified personnel who can train to become pilots. Afghanistan is a massive country with a diverse terrain and harsh climate. The population is spread thinly across a vast area making counterinsurgency operations even more difficult. For example, its border with Pakistan is slightly more than 1,500 miles long—roughly the straight-line distance between Washington, D.C., and Denver, Colorado. The highest mountain peak in Afghanistan tops 24,000 feet.

Not all helicopters operate well over long distances. Others cannot carry heavy loads at high altitudes in extreme weather. The Mi-17 can. By some estimates, the Mi-17 is used by more than 60 countries around the world and has proven itself to be adept to the many aviation challenges encountered in a country such as Afghanistan. In fact, NATO contracts civilian-operated Mi-17 helicopters to help meet its own airlift demands in Afghanistan. The U.S. even has a small but growing fleet of Mi-17s located at the U.S. Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence in Fort Rucker, Alabama.[1]

Capabilities First, Politics Second

Opponents of the Department of Defense’s plans to purchase helicopters from the Russians argue that American-made helicopters, such as the UH-60 Blackhawk, would be a better alternative. Although the UH-60 has similar operational capabilities to the Mi-17, the Mi-17 is the best choice for the needs of the AAF, the Afghan government, and the U.S. taxpayer for a number of reasons:

  • The AAF has experience operating Russian-made helicopters, and the Mi-17 will allow the Afghans to reach full operating capability faster than if they were operating an American-made alterative;
  • The unit cost of an Mi-17 is likely to be less than any capable equivalent, such as the UH-60; and
  • It is likely that the Mi-17 will have cheaper through-life operating and maintenance costs than the UH-60 and thus be more sustainable for the Afghanistan government and a better deal for the U.S. taxpayer.

The Department of Defense is not in the business of job creation; it is in the business of providing the best capability required at the best cost to the U.S. taxpayer. In the case of equipping the ANSF, this means Mi-17 helicopters.

Security Is Not Cheap

It is not just the cost of the Russian-made helicopters that has lawmakers concerned but also the overall cost of the ANSF. Afghanistan’s armed forces will need financial support from the international community for the foreseeable future. A major part of the post-2014 commitment to Afghanistan will be mentoring, training, and funding the ANSF. Maintaining an ANSF capable enough to take the security lead in Afghanistan will cost the international community approximately $4 billion to $5 billion per year, of which the U.S. has agreed to fund roughly half. To place this sum into perspective, the U.S. spent about this amount every 12 days on combat operations in Afghanistan in 2012.

As NATO troops start to reduce their numbers in Afghanistan, the responsibility of security will be left to the Afghans themselves. The U.S. and its NATO partners have come too far in Afghanistan to let their achievements be squandered by an unwillingness to properly fund and equip the ANSF after 2015.

The U.S. should ensure that:

  • U.S. taxpayers get the best value possible. Mi-17 helicopters offer the best rotary-wing aviation capability for the ANSF at the best cost to the U.S. taxpayer.
  • The ANSF remains capable. The U.S. should ensure that the ANSF has the equipment and capabilities required to fulfill its mission—especially helicopters and counter-improvised-explosive-device capability.
  • The ANSF remains properly funded for the foreseeable future. The strength of the ANSF should be determined by the security conditions on the ground. NATO leaders should resist the temptation to reduce the ANSF’s size and capability simply for financial reasons.

Learn the Lessons of History

The ANSF is just now developing the capabilities required to carry out autonomous combat operations. While the ANSF is far from being perfect, perfection was never NATO’s goal. The goal is to raise the forces to a level where the Afghans can provide their own internal security. Operating the right type of helicopters is a major part of achieving this level of capability.

When Russia stopped funding Najibullah’s regime in 1992, the Afghan air force was grounded due to lack of fuel, and Afghan army desertions increased by 60 percent due to lack of pay and food shortages. This established the chaotic conditions in Afghanistan that, in part, helped to bring the Taliban into power in 1994. NATO should learn the lessons of Afghanistan’s recent history and ensure that the ANSF are fully funded and capable.

—Luke Coffey is Margaret Thatcher Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

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[1]Kenneth Kenser, “Army Gets Two More Russian Helicopters to Be Modified in Huntsville,” Huntsville Times, December 23, 2011, http://blog.al.com/huntsville-times-business/2011/12/russian_helicopters.html (accessed July 23, 2013).

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