November 17, 2011: STRATEGY PAGE
One side-effect of the world-wide recession is that lots of the idle helicopters have found work in Afghanistan. There, the U.S. has been prodding other NATO nations to provide helicopters for their own troops. But too many of these nations either do not have helicopters to send or don't want send what they have into such a hostile environment. This is sometimes because the helicopters available are old, or not equipped for service in such a hostile environment.
The constant pressure from the United States, which has to supply emergency helicopter service when called on, has persuaded NATO allies to lease helicopters. Over the last five years this has led to the leasing several hundred helicopters for use in Afghanistan. Initially, many of them were Russian models from Eastern Europe. These were Cold War surplus machines from firms that had gone into the leasing business in the 1990s for foreign aid and peacekeeping operations. Three years of economic recession has made a lot of helicopters available in the West, and now more of these are headed for Afghanistan.
The basic problem, however, remains. European nations either don't have helicopters suitable for service in the hot and high (and dusty, and freezing in the Winter) conditions of Afghanistan, or their helicopter units are not organized and trained for service overseas, or the politicians don't want to send their helicopters abroad. These nations are content to lease helicopters, including crews and support personnel, from civilian firms.
Russian firms paved the way here. Russian and Ukrainian companies were already supplying heavy jet transports for NATO forces since the 1990s. These same companies had helicopters available as well. The Russians know their choppers will work in Afghanistan, because of their experience during the 1980s. Many of the same helicopter types are still in service, although with updates. Safety and reliability standards for Russian helicopters have also increased. There are also many non-Russian firms that offer helicopter leasing for "challenging environments" (mainly oil field or mining operations support). But the Russians were cheaper, and are less concerned with getting shot at. In the end, however, the pleas from the NATO troops for more helicopter support could not by the politicians back home and the demand for leased helicopters remained strong.