Helicopter Wars: US Helo Hooey

Russian MI 17
Russian MI 17



 by  Col. Eugene Khrushchev


A decision by the US House to put on ice all contractual agreements between the Pentagon and Rosoboronexport was a pathetic show of exhibitionist grandstanding, cold war ankle-biting, and lip service to drug eradication & interdiction in Afghanistan.

Let’s step back for a sec from chest-pounding and foot-stomping and pose a couple of legit questions.

Why did the Defense Department need any Russian copters in the first place? Does it mean that the US top brass has been on the take and/or thoroughly compromised by the Moscow moles?

The official story line is that the Pentagon has bought 33 dual-use MI-17 helicopters for the Afghan military but unofficially, it’s rather more complicated than the global pissing contest between Russian and American copters.

For Russia, the deal was supposed to be a symbolic litmus test of Afghan counter-narcotics policy under the new pot-friendly POTUS.

When Moscow prodded Washington to come clean about its ostrich policy on drugs in Afghanistan, it got two contradictory responses:

  • the Foggy Bottom claimed, with a poker face, that the “US doesn’t interfere into the internal affairs of the sovereign states”, (when laughing, don’t drop off your seat, please) while…

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  • the DEA pleaded for airborne assets as a sine qua non to swoop on high-value targets, identified by the Russian intelligence: opium kingpins and their hideouts & caches.

Back in 2006, as a liaison officer between the Russian & American Embassies in Kabul, I also had to deal with Vertical-T Company, the main non-combat air service provider and operator of Russian rotary-wing aircraft, including MI-17 fleet.

The reality was that not only the UN, but most of US agencies in Afghanistan, including DOD,  preferred the Soviet/Russian decades-old platform of venerable MI-8, aka MI-17 export package to ‘made in the USA’ options for non-lethal air traffic.

The reason was not that Uncle Sam suddenly turned Uncle Scrooge in Afghanistan.  At that time, the Pentagon had a carte blanche for any overseas shopping spree and couldn’t care less about saving US taxpayers money – it might as well ‘go patriotic’ and purchase the state-of -the-art  American choppers.

As a gunship rider during US proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan, with two TV special reports on KA-50 Black Shark and MI-28 Night Hunter, I can bet my bottom dollar that US copters, if price tag were not an issue, would be the best – had they only been designed with Afghanistan in mind, like dual-use MI-17 and special purpose Hokum &Havoc.

MI-28 Night Hunter

As US pilots could attest, in addition to the Soviet vets, Afghan spec sheet for ‘helo rodeo’, even without hostile fire, is grim & ugly – for the bird and for the crew alike:

  • Sporadic magnetic interference in nap-of-the-earth maneuvers
  • Forbidding high-altitude mountain terrain,
  • Extreme temperature fluctuations,
  • Gusty crosswinds & sandstorms.

Under such penalizing conditions, the life & death issue of airborne navigating is aircraft reliability, not the fancy Caddy ergonomics or the wizardry of weaponry onboard – and the predominant tech factor in favor of Russian helicopters.

Apart from that, there was a human factor – Afghan Security Forces as an eventual customer of hardware surplus that the US CENTCOM has hoarded in the country.

Notorious for breaking things and fixing them up, tech-savvy Afghans by nature are the world experts in fool-proof reliability testing of all things mechanical, and their preferences are hardly news breaking: American  comm. gear, Japanese SUVs & pickups and Russian guns & copters.

Where the Military Goes – The Drug Dealing Flows

In low-tech asymmetrical conflict in Afghanistan, the sophistication of US civ/mil hardware is rather a bane then a boon: it has demonstrably negated high-tech superiority into high-maintenance morass and consequently, contributed to the diffusion of US tactical & operational predominance into strategic stalemate.

And, finally, there was a multidimensional set of political and low enforcement considerations behind the DOD & Rosoboronexport cooperation – the least spoken but the most important factor to clinch the helicopter deal – despite the vehement political opposition from communists and nationalists in Russia.

The Pentagon acted as an intermediary with a tacit intent to supply the DEA FAST (Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams) commandos with MI-17s for trilateral Afghan-American-Russian joint task force to ‘search & destroy’ opium labs & stockpiles and ‘kill or capture’ top druglords in Afghanistan.

The Senate should persuade the House to reconsider on the copter deal if they want to shake off impression that US War on Drugs is a monumental Drug War cover-up to perpetuate  narco-aggression from Afghanistan and infiltrate & manipulate top echelons of intelligence, military and law enforcement in Central Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Editing:  Jim W. Dean





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