The Philippine Air Force's Mil Mi-171 Heavy Lift Helicopter Program In-Detail

The acquisition projects of the Armed Forces of the Philippines usually involve military equipment originally from the West, especially from the United States and several European countries like Poland and Italy, along with established defense partners like South Korea and Israel. Russia is recently gaining attention about this subject matter.

A Mi-171 Helicopter was utilized in operation. Image Source.

The first idea on the Armed Forces of the Philippines' plan on buying Russian hardware started in 2017, at the time when there was the hype that surrounded this idea, especially at that time when Russia docked its warship in the port of Manila, attracting bystanders and enthusiast alike upon seeing an Udaloy-class Destroyer with its crew and fitted weaponry up, close and personal.

It was at this time that the Philippine Air Force still formulating and ironing out ideas for its Horizon 2 lineup in which, along with other branches of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, were still in preparation as that Horizon were about to be implemented a year later, having projects in the pipeline ranging from Offshore Patrol Vessels to Multirole Fighters, as well as procuring more Combat Utility Helicopters.

Speaking of Combat Utility Helicopters, there was one candidate for the project which was originated from Russia, which is now similarly the one being pushed for this Philippine Air Force acquisition project, only this time, this was primarily aimed at acquiring heavy-lift helicopters for the air branch of the Philippine Armed Forces which is clearly different from the once-implemented Combat Utility Helicopter Acquisition Project which was won by Poland's PZL Mielec and its S-70i Blackhawk Helicopters.

Now that PZL Mielec being in the process of delivering these Blackhawk Helicopters to the Philippine Air Force, both themselves and the Department of National Defense is now keen on securing this project, even if it came with the risk of getting sanctioned by the United States under CAATSA which will be discussed in detail throughout this article.

In this topic, we will discuss this Russian-made air platform that was developed during the Cold War era, wherein it is still being produced by that country's military-industrial complex, which now has the increased chance to get in the Philippine defense market, showcasing these platforms despite the risk that is associated to the deal and on this acquisition project.

The Mi-17 Hip of the Indonesian Army (Angkatan Darat). Obtained from Sputnik.

The origin of the modern Mi-171 traced from Mi-17, which in itself is derived from Mi-8, built by the Soviet Union in the 1960s, which is basically the time when UH-1s were the thing for the countries that were aligned with the United States, developed, and produced during that time by the Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant and Designed Bureau through its partner helicopter production facilities during that time.

About the company, Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant was founded in 1947 by Michael Mil, a Soviet Legendary rotorcraft designer during that time and is the one that produced this known Soviet-era combat utility helicopter design that is still being used across the globe, much like the ones that Bell Helicopters made in the United States still in service like the UH-1 Huey and succeeding variants like the Bell 412 in the Philippine Air Force inventory.

Currently, Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant is part of the infrastructure of the holding company Russian Helicopters, which in turn is part of the Russian state-owned company Rostec, a primary investor for Russian-made defense and military technology, as well as Russian-made high technology advances that will help the country propel its capability further by employing its existing and future designs, research, and development on both military and civilian aspects.

Mil Moscow Helicopter also developed other helicopters aside from the iconic Mi-8/17/171 utility helicopter, which they also made the older designs like the Mil Mi-2, Mi-4, and Mi-6, as well as the equally iconic Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunship and the larger Mi-26 heavy-lift helicopter, in which the two latter platforms are currently in service with the Russian Armed Forces as their rotary logistics platform alongside Mi-8/17.

This company serves as one of the pillars of the Russian military-industrial complex, aside from other Russian aerospace companies like Sukhoi, Mikoyan Gurevich (MiG), Yakovlev, Tupolev, and Ilyushin (all of which are now part of Russia's United Aircraft Corporation), and others like URAL Automotive Plant, Uralvagonzavod, Rubin, and JSC United Shipbuilding Corporation.

A Polish Air Force Mil Mi-8 "Hip" Helicopter. Image Source.

In the early 1960s, the Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant started to develop and improvise what will be the Mi-8 "Hip" helicopter during that time, replacing the Mil Mi-4 piston-powered helicopter that was developed and produced from 1953, in a bid to improve logistical capabilities over its predecessor by obtaining a more powerful turboshaft engine, as well as obtaining a larger fuselage that can accommodate more than Mi-4 "Hound" helicopter's 14 personnel.

The first prototype of the Mi-8 took its first flight on the 9th of July, 1961, followed by multiple power testing that allowed the developers in Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant to improve its engine composition that can lift the whole helicopter with ease, wherein it took the Helicopter plant five (5) more years until the Mil Mi-8 "Hip" Helicopter finally introduced to the Soviet Air Force in 1967.

Since then, Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant produced thousands of Mil Mi-8 helicopter copies that were then distributed to both military and civilian users all throughout the Soviet Union (of which it is still in service on most of its successor states, including Russia), as well as countries in Eastern Europe that were once part of the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact such as Poland (as seen in the image above).

The success of the Mil Mi-8 prompted Mil to further improve the design that was associated with this utility helicopter, resulting in the advanced, multimission variant now designated as Mil Mi-17 "Hip" helicopter, with its primary purpose as being a version of Mil Mi-8 with the export market in mind, expanding the Soviet's defense export market further the Eastern bloc and to countries like India, Indonesia, and China.

The first flight of the Mil Mi-17 "Hip" Helicopter took place in 1975, which took six more years until it was introduced in 1981, which both the Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant and another Soviet aerospace factory, the Kazan Helicopter Plant, produced at around 12,000 copies of the helicopter with multirole configurations and role as a gunship, VIP transport, and search and rescue, aside from its typical logistics/cargo design capability.

From here, multiple variants of Mil Mi-17 "Hip" Helicopter were developed and produced, of which one of those variants is the marketed Mil Mi-171 helicopter that the Philippine Air Force and the Department of National Defense are seeking for its Heavy Lift Helicopter Project, currently produced by Mil, through Kazan and Ulan-Ude helicopter plants.

Like other products, the Mil Mi-171 is still being improved today, with one of the recent developments involve an update to its A3 variant, which is a longer-range version that is designed for the offshore and gas market, with its passenger capacity increased to 24 and its specifications complying with international oil and gas transport standards.

The specifications of the Mi-17 Hip Helicopter. Image Source.

Take note that the specifications shown above are for the Mi-17 [Mi-8MT] Hip Helicopter, which is also shared with its other variants like the Mi-171 that the Philippine Air Force is seeking, with the only difference being the engine which the latter was upgraded to the more powerful 2x Klimov TV3-117VMA 2,070shp turboshaft engine (or 2x Klimov TV3-117VM turboshaft engines for the Mi-171Sh), as compared to the 1,950shp Isotov TV3-117MT turboshaft engine.

For it to be a heavy lift helicopter requires a powerful engine, which both the Klimov and the Isotov can deliver at the platform's gross tonnage of 13,000kg, capable of carrying around 5,630kg - 5,900kg, albeit the Klimov turboshaft engine allows the Mi-171 helicopter to fly at greater rates of climb and hover ceilings, adding up to the performance that the helicopter needs, especially for rapid deployment.

It is worth noting that for the Heavy Lift Helicopter Acquisition project, we discussed the possibility of having Chinook Helicopters to the Philippine Air Force, which in itself is a known dedicated cargo/lift helicopter in western militaries like in the United States and the United Kingdom, that can be used as the measurement of specifications and comparisons to fit on this topic and the air branch's procurement program.

The Mil Mi-171 Helicopter has a main rotor diameter of 21.3 meters, whilst Chinook's dual main rotor has a diameter of 18.29 meter, powered by the Klimov TV3-117VMA turboshaft at 2,070shp (with the Mi-171Sh having the option of having the VK-2500 turboshaft engines at 2,700shp) and Lycoming T55 turboshaft engine at 4,777shp, respectively, clearly giving the Chinook its advantage in this category in terms of raw lifting power capability as showcased in its engine output.

Meanwhile, Chinook's fuselage is obviously larger than the Mil Mi-171 helicopter (given its double main rotor configuration), with the former having the carrying capacity of 33 troops (with litter capacity of 24), whilst the latter obtains a carrying capacity of 24 troops and cargo (or 33 troops + 3 crew for the Mi-171Sh), which is augmented further with the maximum sling load capacity of 11,793.40kg (26,000lbs center hook) and 3,000kg (4,000 for the Mi-171Sh), respectively.

In terms of pricing meanwhile, it is clear that Russian military technology and goods, in general, are less expensive than military technology and goods that have originated in the west, making it advantageous to the Department of National Defense, especially from the standpoint of limited budgeting allocations, given the current situation that portions of the annual funding are currently being reverted or realigned to solve the current health crisis that any nation like the Philippines are still facing.

While Chinook is clearly on the advantage in terms of cargo capacity and raw engine power against the Mil Mi-171 helicopter, it is not only the measurement that compels procurement planners in making a decision, as it includes the availability of spare parts, the proportion of the price offer to the package that the supplier provided, and political factors like the potential CAATSA issue and the risk it has to any buyer of Russian military technology.

Specifically, the variant of Mi-171 that the Philippine Air Force is about to have will be
the Mi-171Sh one.
From AIN Online.

The Heavy Lift Helicopter Project, while being in the implementation and with the Philippines pursuing this deal with the Russians, the whole acquisition project in itself is not new, since this was also pushed in the original AFP Modernization Program, under R.A. 7898 (alongside other projects inserted under R.A. 10349 like the Multirole Fighter Jets, Frigates, Armored Vehicles, and others), which was not pushed through all thanks to the economic windfalls of the time, an effect after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

Originally under the Horizon 3 phase of the Revised AFP Acquisition Program, it was reported that the Heavy Lift Acquisition Project frontloaded to Horizon 2, making these current deals involving the Russians possible, even though it does not go smoothly without any obstacle, especially with the United States' current implementation of CAATSA or the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

The law, signed by then-President Donald Trump on August 2, 2017, was specifically designed to impose sanctions against North Korea, Iran, and Russia, which made things tricky for countries like the Philippines that has a strong alliance with the United States, to negotiate with the Russians for the Mi-171 helicopters without considering the real consequences this law bear.

Getting around the sanctions imposed by CAATSA is something that the Department of National Defense is working hard for the Philippine Air Force to attain this project, and with that came the delay for the implementation of the project as these institutions seek a third-party financial institution that will help provide resources for this project without getting the wrath of the United States' imposition of sanctions that will inflict harm to the current modernization efforts of the Philippine Armed Forces.

This was the case that is currently happening in Turkey when their government decided to buy Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missiles, which also affected their defense industry like the Turkish Aerospace Industry or TAI, the company responsible for exporting T-129 "ATAK" dedicated attack helicopters to the Philippine Air Force, which is now on production phase as the United States was said to have provided certification for the export of engines to power these war machines.

The contract amount for the project is slated at Php 12,797,509,932.00, intended to procure 16 units of Mi-171Sh, a military transport variant currently in service with countries like Peru, Croatia, Czech Republic, Ghana, Bangladesh, and Burkina Faso,  with one unit reported as a VIP-configured freebie, said to be the Mi-171A2 VIP helicopter with the Department of Budget and Management said to have released two Special Allotment Release Order (or SARO, one of which is renewed) for the project.

The Mil Mi-171Sh helicopter is marketed on the Rosoboronexport website. Screenshot.

This helicopter variant is one of many Russian-made military assets that is currently marketed by Rosoboronexport, a key Russian state-owned defense export entity that is included on the list of sanctioned companies and other entities under the United States CAATSA, specified on Section 231(e) Defense and Intelligence Sectors of the Government of the Russian Federation.

This is one of the reasons why the Russians showcased their state-owned shell company "Sovtechnoexport" on the deal involving these Mi-171Sh helicopters, representing on behalf of Rosoboronexport in dealing with the Philippine government in finalizing and securing this contract under the Heavy Lift Helicopter Acquisition Project.

Like the Mi-24 and some variants of the Mi-171, the Mil Mi-171Sh helicopter is also capable of carrying armaments which apparently, was derived from the former with this platform having two stub wings with a total of 12 hardpoints for various weapons such as the Shturm-V or Ataka-V anti-tank missiles and Igla-V air-to-air missiles, pods with 57 mm and 80 mm unguided rockets, and bombs that can only be found and supplied by countries that use such platforms like Russia.

While having those armaments consider as a plus in terms of the Mi-171Sh's capability, the Philippine Air Force and the Department of National Defense stick only on having these units as heavy-lift cargo platform (although it is clearly considered as a medium-lift helicopter), given the obvious reason of having light and dedicated attack helicopters that are either in materialization or already in active service which only makes it redundant, not to mention logistical issues in obtaining those armaments.

With the government still pursuing the deal for the Mi-171 helicopters under the Heavy Lift Helicopter Project, it may only take a matter of time to see these Russian-made air asset on Philippine soil, where it bears the Philippine Air Force insignia, adding to the mix of assets that the 205th Tactical Helicopter Wing will operate that includes Bell UH-1 Huey Helicopters, Bell 412s, and the recently-added Sikorsky S-70i Blackhawks.

The modernized Mi-171A2 VIP Helicopter, designed for offshore oil and gas operations. Image Source.

The Heavy Lift Helicopter Acquisition Project is one of the procurement programs that the Armed Forces of the Philippines pursued since the original AFP Modernization Program, under RA 7898, which was added again to the recent iteration, under RA 10349, along with other key projects that have aimed to improve the military organization's ever-growing capabilities.

Once delivered, shall it pushed through, it will be the first time that the Philippine Air Force to operate, obtain, repair, and maintain a helicopter platform that was designed and produced from a country like Russia, a country that was and still seen as a key adversary of the United States of America, alongside the ever-growing power of the People's Republic of China that risk shifting the power balance in the Indo-Pacific region.

This development came as the current administration, at the time that this article published, came with a friendlier approach to the Russians aside from the Chinese to the extent that the former's naval ships visited the country, and for some instances, donated its Cold War-era equipment like Kalashnikov assault rifles, steel helmets, and old, Ural utility trucks, with the Mi-171 helicopter being an addition to the list of everything Russian that the Armed Forces of the Philippines currently obtain in its inventory.

With all of this development, the fact remains that CAATSA is real and is actively being implemented by the United States government as part of their foreign policy push, forcing the Russians to set up a state-owned shell company and for the Philippine government, through the Department of National Defense, to look for a third-party financial institution that is willing to take the risk just to fulfill the project.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting as to how both parties will manage to pull the project to completion, all without risking the alliance that the Philippines have with the United States, and in the process, the other military acquisition projects with US-made technologies in it, given that all of these acquisition projects are considered important for the Armed Forces of the Philippines for its minimum credible defense posture.

(c) 2021 PDA.


Unknown said...

Are they really going to buy these Mi choppers.

Anonymous said...

any updates regarding this acquisition project?

Pitz Orpiano said...

Still not pushing through due to CAATSA concerns (Russia intensifies its ante over Ukraine at the time this comment has made).

Pitz Orpiano said...

Remains to be seen, and the likelihood is getting slim.

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Anonymous said...

With what it was meant to be used for, it's a shame it was now cancelled.
Parts really isn't a concern for this thing since it's one of the most common helicopters in the world even with the current Mi-171Sh we would be getting.
And if negotiations would have went well, we could have even have requested our version of the Mi-171Sh be equipped with Western avionics much like the Mi-171S has which would be very much possible and Mil most likely to approve of the request especially since we are a non-Western country with Western-made or Western-based equipment.

Although on paper the Chinook looks better, the Chinook has it's own disadvantages that would have made it a problem for the PAF mainly it's incredibly high price not just for purchase price but also maintenance cost overall and the fact that the Chinook is not something that can easily be maintained.
That and because it's too physically cumbersome to have where it can't just be landed anywhere even in our provinces especially in areas that would be devastated by disasters.
This is one reason why you barely if eve saw Chinooks being used by the American forces who helped in the relief efforts after Haiyan/Yolanda hit and the ones most used were the other choppers like their Bells, the Blackhawk, the Sea Knight (which was the predecessor of the Chinook and was smaller and would have been perfect for us but has been discontinued) and even the Osprey (but much of the Ospreys were relegated to airport landings.
You also can't just land this willy nilly in any city area as well.
So in short, it's a shttt helicopter to have in an emergency situation.
It's pretty much like trying to drive an Isuzu C or E series truck in the tight streets of Divisoria whereas it would have been easier for something like the Mi-171 which would be comparable to a Hilux in this analogy.
Sure you can carry more and load more with the bigger choice but that size is also it's biggest drawback (see what I did there?).

The Mi-171 is indeed smaller and carries less than the Chinook but it has the advantage of being able to land and pretty much go anywhere without a problem.
Likewise, the Mi-171 is also bigger than the Blackhawk or even our Hueys or Bell 412 or even the Sokol plus the Mi-171 carries more both internally and externally while being more maneuverable and easy to move and land anywhere which is why, in it's own weird way, the Mi-171 would have been a great choice for our country.

And no, the parts concern, like I said, isn't really much of an issue since a lot of non-Russian countries make parts for it and the chopper itself is a really reliable machine. Even the Americans know this and it's why they actually bought Mi-171s for the former Afghan military instead of drowning them with Blackhawks or even Chinooks mainly due to the abilities of the Mi-17 in regards to the environment, the capabilities of the Afghan military and the uses it would have served for the Afghans.
Plus it being mostly used for transport, search and rescue and relief efforts makes it not need those unnecessary stuff like Link-16 or other uber pro-American stuff that MaxDefense and his rabid followers wants attached to everything in this country while they drive their substandard Japanese or American crap cars with little amenities and safety equipment equipped.

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