The MI-171E is a twin gas turbine versatile helicopter manufactured by AVIA Russia (Russia Helicopters) that has been supplied by Russia to nearly 80 countries globally. The MI-171* series was developed from the Mi-8 airframe, and has been converted for civilian purposes. The engines mounted on the chopper generate 2500-2700 horsepower [Try putting that amount of power in a car, as Nissan did, this is what happens]. The build is quite robust and it is equipped to operate on a single engine as well – in the event of an engine failure.
The medium-lift Mi-171 E can operate in hostile weather conditions (temperatures of -50 degrees to 50 degrees Celsius), can operate at high altitudes, and is equipped with avionic systems from BAE and Russia. The chopper can carry loads of 4 tonnes (4000 kg). Further, it can accommodate 26 passengers (and 37 in case of rescue operations), and the passenger units can be replaced to carry 12 stretchers. It can travel around 540-610 km with maximum fuel; however, range can be increased by adding fuel tanks (a maximum of four) to the helicopter.
Tactical usage in combat roles
While the above version is a civilian variant, the Mi-171 is a convertible and can be used in combat roles. The Mi-17V-5 is a military variant that is manufactured by Kazan helicopters, a subsidiary of Russian helicopters. It can be equipped with Sthrum missiles, a 23mm machine gun, PKT (Pulemyot Kalashnikova Tankovyi, Kalashnikov Machine-gun Tank version) machine guns and AKM sub-machine guns besides having eight firing posts – this means that soldiers can fire from different sections/positions in the chopper – equipped with machine plates to protect the gunner. Further, the crew members (operator, navigator and technician) are also protected through armor.
For instance, the Afghan National Security Forces Special Mission Wing ordered 30 of these helicopters to use them in counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, SAR and special military operations. The choppers can fly to an altitude of 20,000 feet and can be used to attack Taliban installations in the mountains of Spīn Ghar, also known as the White mountains in eastern Afghanistan – the nearest access point to the mountains is the town of Parachinar in Pakistan. The temperatures here are quite unforgiving and the Russian choppers are likely to be operate better in such environments. Similar US aircraft suffered a major blowout in inclement weather in 2013 and this grounded 80 US choppers. The Russia Mi-17 V5 has demonstrated better resilience globally as well and its expansive area and weight only add better armor to small-arms firing by the insurgent groups.
However, their weight and size offer a huge surface area that makes them particularly vulnerable to enemy attack. Should the choppers fly at low altitudes, they can be attacked by Stingray missiles – this was witnessed in the 1999 war between India and Pakistan. An Indian Mi-17 chopper was shot down by a shoulder Stingray missile used by Pakistani irregulars. This does not amount to their inability in offensive operations but merely limits their use in tactical battlefields. The Mi-17 choppers were flown at altitudes of over 20,000 feet since the average heights of the mountain ranges exceeded 18,000 feet. While the IAF recognized the limitations of the chopper, it was quick to admit that this chopper was not configured with a self-protection flare dispenser.
Missiles can also be mounted on the chopper, since the Mi-8 frame supports such platforms. However, the chopper is unlikely to carry sophisticated missile platforms. The Sri Lanka Air Force also used these helicopters in combat and SAR operations against the LTTE insurgent forces. However, they also used a sturdier variant – Mil Mi 24 – built on the Mi-8 frame in specific combat roles against the insurgents.
The Mi-17 Series is not an offensive chopper, but it’s versatility helps it being employed in a wide variety of scenarios.
*Note: It’s called Mi-17 for export purposes.