The Iraqi military would face significant difficulties in maintaining its fleet of Russian-made military helicopters as an indirect result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The latest quarterly report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the United States Department of Defense on Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State notes that the Russian supply chain problems caused by the war in Ukraine and the sanctions against Moscow for perpetrating it affected Iraq’s ability to maintain its Russian-built aircraft.
The OIG report revealed that the Iraqi Army Aviation Command (IqAAC) Mi-17 Hip military transport helicopters, in particular, are negatively affected. As well as forming the backbone of the IqAAC helicopter fleet, which also includes Mi-28NE and Mi-35M attack helicopters, these Mi-17s are essential for supporting ground forces and performing evacuations sanitary.
The report pointed out that “the reduction in Mi-17 maintenance and logistical support resulted in the largest decrease in mission capability rate among ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) aircraft attached to ground units.”
“Furthermore, given the ISF’s desire to use the Mi-17 frequently in operations, airframes exceed their recommended flight hours, exacerbating their low mission capability rates,” he added.
The setbacks come just months after Iraq launched a repair program for its military helicopters.
During a March 1 visit to Taji Air Base north of Baghdad, Iraqi Defense Minister Anad Sadoun inspected Russian-built helicopters recently returned to service by the program.
“We are continuing this campaign and in the near future we plan to repair a second batch of helicopters, and so on, until we complete the repair of all the broken down helicopters, and thus increase the level of overall readiness at over 80. %” he said.
Citing the US-led coalition against ISIS, the OIG report predicts “a reduced operational status of these platforms for at least the duration of the conflict in Ukraine.”
With this war likely to continue for the foreseeable future, Iraq will likely not be able to complete its reparations project at any time. It may even eventually have to ground and cannibalize some of its helicopters to keep others airworthy.
A significant decrease in the number of operational Mi-17s could harm the ISF’s ability to fight ISIS remnants in the country.
As with the Iraqis, the Afghans treasured their Mi-17s, finding them much more suited to the dusty environment of Afghanistan and easier to maintain and operate thanks to decades of experience in their use.
Given this familiarity, the United States made the practical decision to procure Mi-17s for the Afghan army, as he did for Iraq. However, Congress put a stop to this in 2012 and the United States pushed the Afghan army to adopt the UH-60 Black Hawk.
The Afghans had no knowledge of the iconic American medium lift helicopter. They were to have completely retrained pilots and mechanics with extensive hands-on support from thousands of American contractors. Even if the Afghan army had not dramatically collapsed in August 2021, it would have, according to a US official, taken until the mid-2030s before the Afghans could fully maintain their Black Hawks on their own.
While Iraq after 2003 acquired F-16 fighter jets and M1 Abrams main battle tanks from the United States, it decided to continue buying most of its helicopters from Russia.
Baghdad did request a possible sale of US AH-64 Apache attack helicopters in January 2014, but ultimately opted for Russian equivalents. The Mi-35s and Mi-28s that Iraq acquired in the mid-2010s were easier to use and integrate into its army given its previous experience with earlier variants. Moreover, Moscow attached no conditions to the sales, which Washington would no doubt have done with an Apache sale.
Iraq was also much happier procuring additional Mi-17s rather than seeking Black Hawks for similar reasons as the Afghan army. It would no doubt, like Afghanistan, have encountered considerable difficulty integrating the Black Hawk into its army.
All of these decisions made complete sense for Iraq at the time. Nonetheless, the ensuing Russian invasion of Ukraine and the adverse effects of the resulting supply chain issues on the IqAAC may ultimately leave Baghdad wishing in retrospect that it had diversified its fleet of rotary-wing aircraft by purchasing at least a few American helicopters.