Ex Afghan MI-17 Helicopters for Ukraine

War in Ukraine has entered in 3rd month and rest of the world is anxiously speculating about the unfolding of large-scale Russian attack in East after a month-long readjustment and regrouping. The width of the active front i.e Karkiev in North to Kherson in south is around 500 kms of flat land with the port city of Mariupol largely under Russian control. Unlike previous phase of operation this time it is expected to be traditional Russian way of warfare i.e massive use of fire power to shell shock / neutralize enemy defences followed by quick occupation with fast moving hard hitting motorized Battalion Tactical Groups. Many analysts are concluding that Russian Army being the Army of Artillery will allow less freedom of action which Ukrainian Army enjoyed in the first phase of the war. Western countries have responded with the provision of heavy equipment to enable the Ukrainian Army to fight on relatively better if not equal terms. Neutralization of Russian long range artillery assets will be critically essential to create freedom of action for the Ukrainian forces.   

Though, 800 Mn USD military aid package includes many critical weapons systems but these mainly comprise defensive capabilities like artillery guns with artillery radars and additional quantities of Javelins and Stingers. Total US military aid now stands at 2.5 Bn USD. One piece of military aid caught attention and that is the transfer of 11 ex Afghan Army Mi-17 V5 helicopters to Ukraine. These are in addition to 5 x MI-17 helicopters previously provided early this year. What makes these helicopters special is that these were procured for the Afghan National Army. In late 2013 payments for 12  x Mi-17V5s were made by Pentagon to Rosoboron export of Russia, along with spare parts, ground-service facilities etc. This deal was part of a larger deal of 21 x MI-17 V5s for ANA signed in 2011. Variant chosen i.e MI-17 V5 was the most suitable for the hot and high environments of Afghanistan and exploited the advantage of existing trained man power on MI-17 types of helicopters. However, US Senate voted against it blaming Russia for supplying of arms to Syria. A bill, introduced by Democrat congressman Jim Moran, was passed by a 407-5 vote and was attached to the 2013-2014 US military budget. Helicopters could not be delivered to Afghan National Army despite being physically acquired.

Even before the breakout of the hostilities there were news that these helicopters could be transferred to Ukraine. Now these would have already been transferred to Ukraine Army at the time of writing this article. Given that Ukrainian Airforce is a long-time user of Mi-17 helicopters. Total of 48 Mi-8 helicopters (mostly older version) were held with Ukraine before the start of war. Ukraine has been one of the largest contributors of Mi-8 helicopters to UN also. Therefore, the pool of skilled crews to fly and maintain Mi-17s can be leveraged with no loss of time.

Though, Ukraine has also been the sole country to manufacture MI-17 engines but the town of Zaporizhzhia where the engine manufacturing facility is located falls within the active operation zone hence the facility is closed since the Russian attack. Yet one could argue that employment of over 200 helicopters by Russians in the very initial days, most of which were Mi-17s, could not create effects once faced with MANPADs what difference would these 11 helicopters make while operating in rear areas most of the time? Yet at the same time President Volodymyr Zelensky made special appeal for the provision of Mi-17 helicopters. That makes the case that these helicopters fall in the critically required military equipment, demanding elucidation.

MI-17 is a medium lift cargo helicopter capable to perform multiple tasks under varied conditions with a solid reputation of a reliable work horse. It carries 2600 ltrs of fuel and is capable to fly with max weight of 13 tons. It is configured on modern lines with two side doors and a hydraulically operated rear ramp for quick boarding and deboarding, beside allowing carriage of small vehicles. It can undertake tactical flying at night under Night Vision Goggles regime and is also equipped with three axis autopilot. A chart shows the characteristics of MI-17 V5:-

 TypeEngineCockpit / Engine ControlCruise SpeedRangeLoadMax Operating AltitudeArmamentArmour Protection
MI-17 V52xKilimov VK-2500 : 2600 shp eachDigital Cockpit with digital engine control250 kms750 Kms35 x troops / 3.5 tons6500 MsDoor /  ramp machine gunsEngines, front cockpit. Self sealing fuel tanks

 At the face of it President Zelensky’s appeal becomes quite understandable as the war has entered into 3rd month and there is simple and straight need to reinforce the existing fleet of Mi-17s which mist be fast depleting. Russian made helicopters need more compulsory down time for maintenance inspections as compared to western counterparts besides only 2000 hrs of total time between over hauls.  By now the lead MI-17s of Ukraine must have neared over hauls. Hypothetically, under sustained high rates of employment ie. 80 – 120 hours / per helicopter per month replacement of MI-17s becomes a compulsion.  

These 11 helicopters are quite different from what Ukraine Airforce holds. With two side doors and a hydraulic ramp with fair amount of armor protection these are relatively advantageous for quick insertion and extraction of a specialized body of troops.  One possibility could be that Ukrainian Army may use these for routine supply and casevac missions evenly spread along a 500 kms front. However, total lift capacity comes to  33 tons which is certainly far too small to make a worthwhile difference other than saving lives of critically wounded soldiers. This standard kind of employment can potentially lose sustained availability within a month’s time due to compulsory maintenance after every 100 and 300 hours.

However, there may be a need to keep in mind the recent employment of highly successful infantry teams at tactical level equipped with man portable anti-tank and anti-air craft missiles. A thought full integration of these helicopters can multiply the combat potential of those integrated tank hunting teams in a given sector thanks to small size and less weight of Stingers, Javellins and NLAWs. US alone is set to supply over 2000 Javelins and 1000 Stingers not to mention the supply of NLAWs, Star Streaks and other similar category weapons by other countries. That will be an exponent increase in the total number of anti-tank teams with far greater reliance. Yet another potential area of employment is to supply critical ammunition to the recently provided M777 artillery system along with Artillery Locating Radars ANTPQ 37s.  As is being reported that large quantities of GPS Guided maneuverable Excalibur rounds are also being given which can achieve pinpoint single shot hit at ranges in excess of 40 kms. Since, neutralization of Russian long-range artillery will be critical for the employment of anti-tank resources MANPADs this artillery package can shoot and scoot in under two minutes can make a huge difference in a given sector.  

Likely Employment of MI-17s.

Rapid delivery of critical weapon systems like NLAWs, Javelin and Star Streaks and Stingers to the area where most needed.

Quick shifting of Integrated Tank Hunting and Stinger parties. Each MI-17 can easily carry 8-10 men party with at least 2 – 3 round loads of both Javelins / NLAWs plus the Stingers. Or can shift a triple launcher weapon system of Star Streak. Large internal cargo cabin and rear ramp allows not only the quick disembarkation of teams but also allows offloading of small vehicles / jeeps for greater mobility to the teams.

Two MI-17s can drop a load of Excalibur rounds at gun positions to the amount of 3 tons which comes to 35 rounds. 35 or 70 rounds at one gun position can make a huge difference since unlike conventional artillery Excalibur rounds are fired as single shot with pinpoint accuracy without the need of ranging.

May shift the M777 howitzers through slings as it weighs 3700 kgs which falls within the lifting capacity of MI-17 helicopters. Given the favourable temperatures in Ukraine along with low field elevations 4 – 5 MI-17s can transport 2 – 3 M777 artillery guns at a distance of 100-150 kms in 30 – 40 mins with enough ammunition to fire. All depends on the training and skill of the Ukrainian pilots. This possibility can not be ruled out.

One thing which is in favour of Mi-17 crews in Ukraine i.e unlike Afghanistan the ground is dustless at least till mid-May along with low temperatures allowing carriage of maximum of loads i.e 3 tons inside the fuselage and 4 tons as underslung.

Conclusion.    Operational mobility which is free of ground friction can greatly offset the inadequacies of capacity to defend large front by shifting critical resources at the place of need. Hardly a decade ago the minimum desire for such a capability was a company or a battalion of special forces troops which could be rapidly heli – lifted to the place of critical need. Those troops were not only devoid of heavy firepower as helicopters could not lift heavy weapons but also required large number of helicopters for a meaningful result. But now 15 kg Stinger or 12 kgs each NLAWs or 18 kgs each Javellin can be dropped along with the firing teams in less than an hour. Given the accuracy these these weapon systems have the potential to create strategic effects at tactical levels. Western powers are forcing the Russians to use operational assets for tactical gains while Ukrainians are using superior tactical weapons with operational and even strategic effects. Coming 30 days are going to be critical if not decisive, lets see how the Ukraine Army capitalizes the recently acquired potent resources.

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