October 2, 2013
Russia recently announced that it had sold some Mi-17 helicopters to Cameroon. This was a big deal because it was the first sale of Russian military equipment to Cameroon. Russia sees this as a trend as it seeks to revive Cold War era markets in sub-Saharan Africa. All that disappeared with the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union in 1991. After that the new country of Russia (half the population of the Soviet Union) could no longer offer attractive financing terms, and many Soviet era customers saw Russian gear as second rate and switched to Western suppliers. But Russia persevered. It eventually provided better after market support for Soviet era equipment than the Soviets ever did and were quick to supply Mi-17s and Russian pilots for UN peacekeeping operations in Africa. East European contractors also established a good reputation with their leased Mi-17s and contract pilots. All this paved the way for the return of Russian aircraft salesmen and now, actual sales.
The Mi-17 has been very popular outside Russia for decades. Even the U.S. has bought over a hundred of them for Afghanistan, and then Iraq, as part of American military aid. These Russian choppers have Western electronics installed and are often rebuilt to make them more reliable and durable. Russia has made it easier for customers to install Western electronics and other accessories.
The cost of these Mi-17s varies widely. Some second hand ones from Eastern European nations cost less than a million dollars each. Iraq obtained 22 Mi-17 helicopters from Russia for about $3.7 million each. At one point the U.S. bought 24 refurbished Mi-17s for $4.4 million each. The most expensive purchase was for 22 Mi-17s equipped for night operations and with American electronics. These cost nearly $15 million each. Afghans and Iraqis prefer the Mi-17, as they have used Russian helicopters for decades.
The Mi-8/17 is a twin engine helicopter roughly equivalent to the U.S. UH-1 “Huey.” Both these helicopters arrived about the same time (Vietnam War era), but the Mi-8/17 is still in production and is the most widely exported (3,000 out of 12,000) helicopter on the planet. For many bargain conscious nations Russian helicopters are preferred. The Mi-8 is about twice the size and weight of the American 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, while weighing twice as much as the 4.8 ton UH-1, could carry as much as the 12 ton Mi-8. However, the Mi-8 costs less than half as much as a UH-60, so if you want mobility for the least cost you get the Mi-17. Many peacekeeping and humanitarian operations go for the Mi-17, which can be leased from Eastern European firms, complete with maintenance crews and English speaking pilots.