More Mi-17s for Sri Lanka
In mid-July 2012, Russia’s Rosoboronexport announced an order from Sri Lanka for another 14 Mi-171 helicopters, to be built at the Ulan-Ude plant. The SLAF started operating Mi-17s in 1993, and the current fleet of 13-18 machines equips No. 6 Helicopter Squadron at Anuradhapura, in north-central Sri Lanka.
The additional buy is part of a $300 million, 10-year loan to buy equipment for Sri Lanka’s military, which was signed during a 2012 state visit to Russia. Why buy more helicopters? SLAF spokesman Group Captain Andrew Wijesuriya told Reuters they were buying them for civilian tourism. Oddly enough, that’s probably at least partly true…
Sri Lanka’s air force does operate an effort called Helitours, which uses the SLAF’s array of Huey, Jet Ranger and Mi-17 helicopters, as well as its Chinese Y-12 and Ukranian AN-32B fixed-wing transports. It’s more about short-haul transport than sightseeing tours, but the government’s full victory over the Tamil Tigers is expected to open the island for more tourism, as well as other economic activity. Repurposing the SLAF to support that expansion is politically shrewd, and makes extra funds available to the military now that major hostilities are over.
Having said all that, it’s also true that transport helicopters are critical to counterinsurgency efforts, and the Mi-17s can be armed. The exact version wasn’t specified, but even civil-certified M-171A1s can be militarized to carry weapons later, as Mi-171Sh variants are delivered ready for that role.
Russia and China were instrumental in Sri Lanka’s “Rajapaksa model” of dealing with its insurgency, and provided political cover at world forums like the UN. Even more important, they provided a significant quantity of weaponry and support without any human rights conditions, or threats of embargo. That backing, in turn, allowed Sri Lanka’s government to unleash the full might of its military against the Tamil Tigers, smashing through their strongholds and towns en route to the final battle near Putumattalan.
Both China and Russia continue to remain very active in Sri Lanka. china’s centerpiece is a massive construction effort to built a port at Hambanthota, which will serve as a way-station for commercial traffic to Africa, and will also be capable of hosting warships. The announcement of latest deal between Russia and Sri Lanka, meanwhile, comes as Sri Lanka this week discussed exploration and development of its natural gas resources with Russia’s Gazprom, who has been doing some exploration in the area.