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No New Helicopters For Struggling Afghan Air Force

November 16, 2013

Russian Mi-17

The US Defense Department has canceled its latest order for 15 additional Mi-17V5’s.

The Mi-17V5 is a variant of the bestselling Mi-8 utility helicopter. Manufactured in two Russian cities, Kazan and Ulan Ude, the Mi-8 ranks among the world’s most widely exported helicopters. Since the 1970s, some 12,000 are believed to have been built.

But on Wednesday, November 13, news broke that the Defense Department’s effort to supply the Afghan Air Force (AAF) with Mi-17’s is coming to an end. An estimated $345 million contract with Rosoboronexport for 15 Mi-17V5’s  was shelved.

Rosoboronexport, a subsidiary of state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec, functions as a sales agency for Russian arms exports. It’s doing robust business with traditional clients and reaching new markets in Africa and South America (Venezuela, Nicaragua, Peru, Brazil).

The Mi-17, which first came to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, is a mainstay of the country’s fledgling air force.

Beginning in 2008, the US Army Contracting Command (ACC) launched a project to re-equip the Iraqi and Afghan militaries with helicopters. They called it the Non-Standard Rotary Wing Aircraft program.

That year, they bought six Mi-17’s to boost the AAF.

The program was accelerated in 2011. According to Rosoboronexport 21 helicopters were paid for and delivered by the following year. 12 more were ordered in 2012 and on June, 2013, an additional order for 30 was made.

The total cost for all the Mi-17’s reached $1.1 billion. 63 of these helicopters will be delivered to the AAF by 2014.

Done Deal

The Mi-17 is supposed to form the backbone of the AAF, whose inventory includes less than a dozen Mi-35 gunships, transport aircraft, and aging Czech-made Albatross trainer jets. To boost its firepower, 20 Brazil-made Super Tocano propeller aircraft were bought in 2012.

The problem is, despite press coverage and online media attesting to the use of Mi-17’s by the AAF, exactly how many are in service is unknown. A 2008 document, the US Plan for Sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), put the number at 17.

But a 2011 news item published by the US Army claims that 52 Mi-17s were in Afghanistan then.

This August, however, an article for the Atlantic by Human Rights First member Sonni Efron claimed 21 Mi-17’s were in AAF service.

With no new helicopters, the US withdrawal throughout next year and the presidential elections scheduled for April 2014 could leave the ANSF struggling. To this day, the ability of the 300,000-strong  ANSF to fight the Taliban remains dubious.

Indeed, organizations like the UN view post-2014 Afghanistan grimly. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) just published its Afghanistan Opium Survey 2013. It reveals opium production is at a record high and Afghanistan remains the source for 90% of the world’s heroin.

It’s an uncomfortable fact that for most of the US+NATO Afghan war, the untouched opium industry allowed the Taliban to fund themselves and fueled government corruption.

The Mi-17 debacle is widely viewed as a response to the ongoing disagreement between the US and Russia over Syria, a response orchestrated by the NGO Human Rights First. However, questions about Rosoboronexport’s inflated pricing have dogged the transaction since 2010.

But one knowledgeable blogger has a different perspective: No more Mi-17’s means the US gets out of Afghanistan with as few obligations as possible.