A year or two ago, procurement from abroad was one of the hottest topics among analysts of the Russian military. This generated lots of controversy in the Russian press over whether it was appropriate for the MOD to buy from abroad, or whether it should support domestic manufacturers. The topic had largely died down once the Mistral deal was concluded last summer, but now it appears to have been resurrected, courtesy of a recent decision by the MOD to issue a tender for light helicopters. The tender states that the ministry seeks to purchase 15 dual-engine and 30 single-engine light helicopters at a total cost of just over six billion rubles. The technical specifications for the tender make it almost certain that the goal is to buy AS350 and AS355 helicopters made by Eurocopter. Some reports indicate that over 100 helicopters of this type will eventually be procured for the MOD, with assembly to take place in Russia.
These are direct competitors of the Russian single-engine Mi-34 and dual-engine Ka-226 and Ansat helicopters. In fact, the Ka-225 and the AS350/355 are currently the two finalists in a tender for the Indian Ministry of Defense. Russian defense industry officials have already made the expected complaints about how this is undermining domestic manufacturing and how purchasing a whole party of helicopters from abroad contradicts Putin’s call just last week for supporting domestic defense industry except in cases where Russian manufacturers are not able to produce the technology in question. So it may be more interesting to look at the reasons why the MOD decided to go with a foreign supplier in this case.
Reports so far provide two possible explanations. First, the comparable Russian helicopters are not yet ready for mass production. According to Konstantin Makienko of CAST, the Mi-34 has not yet completed testing, while the Ansat and Ka-226 are both heavier and more expensive. Furthermore, according to Ilya Kramnik, Russian manufacturers have not yet built a suitable engine for a light helicopter. In the Soviet period, light helicopters such as the Mi-2 were built in Poland. Now, Russian light helicopters such as the Mi-34 are being tested with foreign engines. The tender indicates that all 45 helicopters are to be received by the Russian armed forces by November 25, 2012. Russian-made helicopters could not be procured that quickly.
The second explanation (published in Moskovskii Komsomolets) notes that according to the tender, these helicopters are to be used primarily for transporting military personnel. It jumps from that to the argument that the real purpose is to transport VIPs in helicopters that provide the comfort and reliability that such figures have come to expect. It is seen as unsuitable for VIPs to be transported in the same helicopters as regular soldiers, especially given that they are used to Mercedes and other foreign luxury automobiles when traveling on land. I’m not sure how reliable this particular conjecture is — it may be that the helicopters will just be used for regular training and transport purposes. Time will tell.
This is probably not the last foreign purchase to be made by the Russian military in the near future. Kramnik notes that the Russian air force may soon acquire C-27J Spartan light transport aircraft, to replace the aging An-26. While the lack of direct domestic competitors will make such a purchase less controversial, the overall point is that the Russian military seems firmly committed to being open to buying foreign equipment whenever it feels that domestic equivalents do not measure up.