Ukraine Invasion Opens Eastern European Door For U.S. Helicopters

Eastern Europe will be cut off from spare parts and replacement Russian-built aircraft as a result of the war in Ukraine.

byMay 5, 2022 1:58 PM
UH-60 ukraine Mi-17
(U.S. Army photo by Michele Wiencek).
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European operators of Russian helicopters face an uncertain future where their need to maintain and modernize their fleets will come up against sanctions on Russian goods, which opens a door to U.S. arms manufacturers to supply them with new equipment. 

Eastern European nations that belong to NATO or are wishing to at least align themselves with the U.S. and its European allies, will have difficulty obtaining spare parts for the Russian military equipment they operate. That is especially true of helicopters, which require constant maintenance and overhaul to safely operate.

Sikorsky sees this as an opportunity to boost foreign military sales of the UH-60 Black Hawk to European operators of Russian choppers like the Mi-17/8, according to President Paul Lemmo. 

A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter in Poland in 2022. U.S. Army photo by Michele Wiencek

“It will be interesting to see, you know, in Eastern Europe, given many of them fly Russian helicopters, they're probably not going to be able to get parts for those and will look to the West as those fleets get depleted,” Lemmo told The War Zone and other outlets during a recent visit to Sikorsky’s headquarters in Stratford, Connecticut. “We certainly would like to offer them the Black Hawk as a solution.”

The world has also seen how poorly Russian helicopters fare against modern, man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), through countless videos of them being shot down by shoulder-fired missiles in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers. 

The Mi-17 Hip helicopter is flown by Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Turkey, among other nations in the region. While all of those nations have supported sanctioning Russia, several are beholden to Moscow for their energy needs and have not supported cutting off energy imports. At the same time, they all will have to address helicopter fleet obsolescence issues and spare parts availability now that Russia is locked in a land war with Ukraine. Bell already has made inroads in Eastern Europe, selling both the UH-1Y and AH-1Z to the Czech Republic, for instance.

Ukraine itself operates the Mi-17 and stands to receive 17 more from the U.S. that were initially destined for the Afghan Air Force before it essentially disintegrated as the Taliban seized control of the country. While it is easier for the U.S. to provide familiar aircraft to aid Ukraine in its struggle, there is a possibility that the country could modernize with U.S. and NATO equipment later in the war or when hostilities cease. 

A Russian Mi-17 Hip helicopter, the same model flown by many former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe. Russian Ministry of Defense

Meanwhile, Sikorsky’s Black Hawk production contracts with the U.S. Army will dry up around 2027 and the company is looking for opportunities to extend the line beyond five years, Lemmo said. Sikorsky hopes to win the Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) contract this summer, a lucrative deal that would see it replace the UH-60 with its Defiant X coaxial compound helicopter. Even with that work, there is a gap between ending Army Black Hawk production and ramping up FLRAA in the 2030s, which Lemmo wants to fill with UH-60 sales abroad. 

Even as FLRAA comes online, presuming the Army can afford to build out a program of record, the service still plans to operate the Black Hawks it has until about 2060 alongside the new aircraft. That will allow Sikorsky to continue to modernize the aircraft, as it has done from the UH-60A to the more-modern M-model, Lemmo said.

Ukraine has long been an operator of the Mi-8/17, but that could change as it rearms with the help of its western allies. (Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“Black Hawk is still very ubiquitous and in demand around the world,” he said. ”Australia recently came out and said they were going to buy Black Hawk helicopters, so we are very engaged there with Australia. But, you name it, whether it's in Eastern Europe or Asia … we're hoping to still sell some internationally. It probably won't be at the volume that we're producing today. But, it's certainly something that we're going to be after.”

Both the UH-60 and Mi-17 are similar in size and mission profile, with twin engines and room for significant cargo or troop transport. Where the Mi-17 has a maximum takeoff weight of about 28,000 pounds, the Black Hawk can liftoff at a total of 22,000 pounds. Both aircraft can fly at a maximum speed of around 150 knots. However, the Hip has more volume than the Black Hawk, sports a rear ramp and is more capable of being sustained in austere environments by less-trained crews. It also performs better in hot weather at high altitudes under certain conditions.

Sikorsky is well-positioned to offer European nations, or others in the Eastern Hemisphere, the UH-60, or as it is known outside the U.S., the S-70i. It operates a subsidiary in Mielec, Poland, called PZL which was the largest defense contractor in Poland when Sikorsky bought it in 2007. It is now operated by Lockheed Martin, which bought Sikorsky in 2015. PZL also builds the S-70M, which just received a special airworthiness certificate from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA certificate allows civil and commercial U.S. customers to buy brand-new Black Hawks directly from Sikorsky instead of purchasing cast-off Army A-model aircraft, stripping them down and repopulating them with modern avionics and equipment.

An S-70i built by PZL Mielec in Poland. PZL Meliec

PZL has delivered its S-70i Black Hawk to various customers in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. The Polish Police fly S-70is, as does the Romanian Ministry of the Interior. The Philippines Air Force is the largest Black Hawk operator in Asia, with 16 S-70i helicopters made in Poland.

Mielec is in southeast Poland, very near the border with Ukraine, where it would be a convenient maintenance, repair and overhaul depot for nearby Black Hawk operators. About 180 miles due west of Lviv, Ukraine, it has seen a flood of refugees but has not experienced any operational interruptions as a result of the neighboring conflict, Lemmo said. The company’s employees are aiding Ukrainian refugees by opening their homes and providing food and clothing, Lemmo said. 

“We're busy executing programs,” he said. “PZL is doing well and you know, they are close to the Ukrainian border, but everyone is safe. … Everybody's doing well and we're just focused on delivering aircraft.”

That could win Poland’s Sikorsky subsidiary some goodwill with Ukraine. If the effectiveness of other Western arms Ukraine is using against the Russians is any indication, they may be looking west for helicopters, as well.

Contact the author: Dan@thewarzone.com

Author's note: Sikorsky provided travel accommodations for the visit to Stratford. 

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