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Pakistan’s Interest in Russian Arms (Part 3): Helicopters

Though it was not mentioned by the Pakistani Minister of Defence, Khurram Dastgir Khan, in his comments to the Russian News Agency RIA Novosti, helicopters are an issue of mutual interest between Russia and Pakistan. The Pakistan Army Aviation Corps (PAA) and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) already operate Mil Mi-17/171 transport helicopters, while the PAA is receiving four Mi-35M attack helicopters from Russian Helicopters. Granted, the subject matter does not attract as much attention as the talk surrounding main battle tanks (MBT), Su-35 fighters or air defence systems, but it is an area that fulfils the underlying points discussed in part-one and part-two of this series, specifically: (1) cost feasibility vis-à-vis Pakistan’s fiscal realities, (2) active requirements (with Mi-171s already in place) fueling interest, (3) Russia’s willingness.

Pakistan ordered four Mi-35Ms from Russian Helicopters in 2015 for $153 million US.[1] Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) stated that the contract also included ground support equipment (GSE).[2] When Pakistan signed the contract, IHS Jane’s had reported that the PAA could procure up to 20 Mi-35s through the long-term, conditional on Pakistan’s fiscal situation. This initial Mi-35M batch was bought via cash the Pakistan Army already had on-hand.[3] Today, the Mi-35M is the only active Russian defence sale to Pakistan, one the Kremlin has coloured as its support for Pakistan’s counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts.

Helicopters: Potential for Growth?

In contrast to other big-ticket defence items, helicopters – be it transport, scout/utility and/or attack helicopters – could conceivably generate growth in Russian defence sales to Pakistan.

Firstly, the area has traction in place through not only the Mi-35M, but the longstanding supply of Mil Mi-17/171 medium-lift transport helicopters to the PAA and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The Mi-17-series is a mainstay transport in the PAA (as a medium-to-heavy-lift platform), while the PAF operates the Mi-171 as a ‘heavyweight’ in its composite (i.e. mixed-fleet) search-and-rescue helicopter units. Thus, not only do Russian helicopters have traction in terms of sales, but the PAA and PAF prefer them as workhorses.

Secondly, the Russians are willing to sell. One can evidently count upon the Mi-35M and Mi-171 as being available to Pakistan, but grounded reports of the Mi-28-series being offered had emerged as well. Jane’s reported in 2016 that Russia had offered four Mi-28NE to Pakistan as a supportive gesture for the latter’s COIN efforts.[4] If correct, it was certainly not a ‘toothless’ offer. Fundamentally, the Mi-28NE is meant to be an analogue of the Boeing AH-64D Longbow Apache – i.e. an anti-armour/conventional warfare asset. In terms of targeting Pakistan’s lightweight helicopter needs, Kazan Helicopters (a subsidiary or branch of Russian Helicopters Group) demonstrated its Ansat platform to Pakistan in November 2017.[5] However, it is a tough push seeing that Airbus Helicopters’ H125M is the PAA’s mainstay scout/lightweight helicopter.

Is Pakistan Interested? Absolutely.

Seeing that Russia is offering Pakistan the platforms the latter requires and pursues, at least in terms of the PAA’s workhorse transport helicopter that is the Mi-17/171, Pakistan is certainly interested. In fact, with the Mi-17-series already in place and the Mi-35M joining, Pakistan had looked in 2015 to establish a complete maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) centre for both helicopter types.

Speaking to Sputnik News, then Head of International Cooperation at Rostec (a state-owned trading firm representing Russia’s state-owned enterprises) Viktor Kladov, had stated in November 2015: “There is a huge number of Russian helicopters in Pakistan. We are currently holding negotiations…about creating a technical service center, which would maintain and repair helicopters”.[6]

Pursuing such an expansion to one’s operating infrastructure would indicate an intention to scale through the long-term with additional aircraft purchases. Firstly, pursuing MRO signifies an intent to fly the Mi-17 and Mi-35 through the long-term by spending on local support mechanisms, which can reduce long-term operating costs by leveraging lower services costs and reducing foreign-currency outflows. Second, with such infrastructure in place, it follows that a large domestic fleet would be built to draw maximum utility and cost-savings from domestic MRO services. In Pakistan, the Mi-17-series is operated by the two armed forces branches, at least two provincial governments and the Federal Ministry of Interior. It is an asset.

The Mi-35M itself is a derivative of the Mi-17/171 in that is based on the latter’s airframe while also maintaining common turboshaft engine options (e.g. the VK-2500 and ТVЗ-117VМА). In effect, the user can leverage a streamlined logistics channel for spare parts and GSE for the Mi-17-series and the Mi-35M. Furthermore, the PAA is familiar with the core platform’s strengths and vulnerabilities, making the Mi-17-series a tried or mature platform for its roles. Currently, the PAA reportedly has 46 Mi-17/171s in service.[7]

Thus, the Mi-17/171 and Mi-35M programs are likely to see growth. In contrast to other areas – such as the Su-35 or T-90 MBT – the Hip-Hind is not a question of potential, but continuance. Pakistan is already engaged with Russia on these platforms, the question is whether Pakistan wants to expand its fleet. The key factors – i.e. Russian willingness and Pakistan’s interest – align to suggest that this will be the case.

Briefly, though its current status vis-à-vis Pakistan is unknown, the Mi-28NE would be a marquee addition. Currently, the Bell Helicopter AH-1Z Viper would be the PAA’s heaviest attack helicopter, but it is not a complete analogue to the Apache-series. The latter is not only heavier, but its latest iterations offer certain technology features – such as millimeter wave (mmW) radar for enhanced targeting – not yet in-place for the Viper. In addition, the Mi-28NE could be fit with the same turboshaft engine as the Mi-171 and Mi-35M (VK-2500), enabling for a more common logistics channel.

The Mi-28NE would enable the Army to include a credible anti-armour capability to integrate with its key mechanized formations. One can imagine the impact if paired with a purchase of mobile/quick-reaction low-level surface-to-air missiles and anti-air guns (discussed in part-two). Indeed, it would certainly be a serious step to building a credible land force if integrated with tank-armour, armoured carriers, mobile artillery, mobile anti-air warfare and PAF fighter cover. The Mi-28NE is the only plausible option for adding a heavyweight attack helicopter in the foreseeable future, but it is conditional on Pakistan’s fiscal state.


Despite the potential, several issues could stymie growth in terms of Pakistani helicopter purchases from Russia. For Pakistan, a valuable MRO site for the Mi-17/171 and Mi-35M would involve the ability to freely source spare-parts. Though a depot-level MRO site is valuable, it still relies on a channel for the necessary parts for repairing and overhauling aircraft. These helicopters – especially the Mi-17/171 and its engine options – benefit from alternate suppliers to Russia, most notably Ukraine.

It stands to reason that Pakistan would like to leverage alternative sources to avoid a parts backlog (with Russia as the bottleneck). Relying upon the Russians to establish a MRO site could remove that flexibility, which would be a problem. This is purely speculation, but the apparent inability to finalize a MRO site with Russia could be related to this issue (i.e. prompting Pakistan to find another course, which is a must seeing that the Mi-17-series are workhorses). Should Pakistan look to localize its engine support through licensed parts manufacturing, then uncertainty in Russia’s willingness (or lack thereof) to enable it is also an issue.

In general, Russia has not shown much enthusiasm with parting from undertaking after-sale support work – namely parts manufacturing – for Russia’s export customers. It is a perfectly rational expectation seeing it is a lucrative source of employment and long-term hard/foreign-currency gain for Russia. Despite having more leverage than Pakistan in the way of fiscal resources and alternatives, even India has had trouble in this regard.[8] It is difficult to transform this liability into an advantage, though one could argue that Russia would be enticed to keep its Pakistani market – i.e. avoid cutting the supply of spare parts, lest it result in Russian suppliers completely losing the support market for Pakistani helicopters to Ukrainian companies.

Broadly, committing to the Mi-17/171 and Mi-35M in sizable numbers and by expanding the support overhead is going to shift interest and funding away from more domestic development. This is an abstract issue: in terms of helicopters there is no noticeable interest in Pakistan’s for domestic helicopters, but committing to imports such as the Mi-17-series, AW139 and H125M fully negate the prospect of domestic designs in the medium-to-heavy, light-to-medium and lightweight helicopter categories, respectively.

There is a cost to imported platforms, from upfront acquisition to maintenance/after-sale support, even when domestic MRO sites are raised (due to spare parts being imported). However, in selecting the Mi-17/171, AW139 and H125M, Pakistan is leveraging the advantages borne from ubiquitous platforms – i.e. aircraft manufactured in sizable number for a large and globally-distributed user-base. This economies-of-scale helps in terms of affordable life-cycle costs, but the long-term beneficiaries of Pakistani spending on supporting these helicopters will be external, not Pakistani.

[1] Ministry of Defence Production (MoDP) Yearbook 2015-2016 Part II. Government of Pakistan. p.15

[2] Ibid.

[3] Farhan Bokhari. “Pakistan buys initial batch of four Mi-35s”. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 24 August 2015. URL: (Last Accessed: 11 April 2018).

[4] Nikolai Novichkov. “Pakistan reveals interest in Russian dual-control Mi-28NEs”. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. 31 March 2016. URL: (Last Accessed: 11 April 2018).

[5] Press Release. “Russian Helicopters test Ansat in Pakistan”. Russian Helicopters. 01 November 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 11 April 2018).

[6] “Moscow, Islamabad Discuss Establishment of Helicopter Service Center”. Sputnik News. 08 November 2015. URL: (Last Accessed: 11 April 2018).

[7] World Air Forces 2018. Flight Global. URL: (Last Accessed: 11 April 2018).

[8] Vivek Raghuvanshi. “India’s Sukhoi fleet faces problems despite Russian spare parts deal”. Defense News. 22 March 2017. URL: (Last Accessed: 04 April 2018).

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