Rotor & Wing International
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The UN's Helo Fleet

Former Soviet helicopters play a pivotal role in UN peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, but the current secretary general is looking at aviation to cut costs.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a pivotal moment in history with many positive and negative effects, but one clear good has been the number of ex-Soviet helicopters — such as the Mi-8, Mi-26, and Mi-17 — freed up to perform peacekeeping and humanitarian missions for the United Nations.

A raft of duties can accompany such missions, such as search and rescue, medical treatment and transport, reconnaissance, protection of civilians, armed escort and combat, support for local police, and food and medicine deliveries.

“The ship of the line for us is the Mi-8,” a U.N. peacekeeping official told Rotor & Wing International. “They’re workhorses. They’re reliable and can fly in bad weather and complex environments and can perform a variety of tasks.”

An official with the U.N. World Food Program, which manages the U.N. Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS), said separately that UNHAS has also most often employed the Mi-8.

“MI-8 types, including the MTV, AMT, and T models, are the most used for UNHAS at this time for a combination of reasons, including reliability, cost, operational context and the expected capacity needs of the operation,” the U.N. World Food Program official said.

The U.N. has used a number of helicopters for its peacekeeping missions, including Boeing CH-147 Chinooks — employed by the Canadian peacekeeping contingent in Mali. A Romanian contingent is slated to replace the Canadian force in Mali later this year and is to bring along four Airbus IAS 330L Puma helicopters.

The U.N. spends more than $7 billion annually on 14 peacekeeping missions in Haiti, Kosovo, India/Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Western Sahara, Mali, Darfur, Sudan, South Sudan, Cyprus, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

While U.N. peacekeeping saw a surge to 120,000 personnel more than a decade ago, deployment levels have been decreasing, as the U.N. has closed its peacekeeping missions in Liberia and the Ivory Coast and is downsizing operations in Darfur, Haiti and the DRC.

Several hundred U.N. and associated personnel have died in violent attacks since 2012, including 34 workers last year alone — 26 peacekeepers and eight civilians. Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic have been top danger spots.

Keeping U.N. personnel safe as they protect local populations has been a mission furthered by helicopters. “Most of the places we operate don’t have large, well-maintained airstrips to land large cargo aircraft, like an Ilyushin 76,” said the U.N. peacekeeping official. “Heavy helicopters, like Mi-26s, can take an armored vehicle where we need it.”

U.N. peacekeepers employ 133 helicopters to support 10 peacekeeping operations, six special political missions, and the African Union mission in in Somalia, including 72 military helicopters on so-called military letters of assist and the remaining rotorcraft on long-term commercial contracts.

The Siberian-based UTAir Group is the top provider of U.N. peacekeeping helicopters at 30, followed by Ukrainian Helicopters at 10, the governments of Ukraine and South Africa with eight military helicopters, and the governments of Italy, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka at six military helicopters each. UTAir Group said that it has annually provided the highest number of helicopters for U.N. operations since 2001.

UNHAS is employing 22 helicopters for humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, the DRC, Nigeria, South Sudan and Sudan.

“Since UNHAS is demand-driven, all helicopters are deployed either for passenger and/or cargo transport, as may be required,” said the U.N. World Food Program official. “Helicopters provide essential services to complement the use of fixed wing aircraft in humanitarian operations. In most of the countries where we operate, helicopters are the only means to access hard-to-reach destinations where humanitarian needs are prevalent.”

To aid helicopter safety, the U.N. peacekeeping official said that “both satellite tracking and a Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning System are mandatory items for commercial aircraft, as per the technical operational evaluation criteria (TOEC), the official guidance applied to all those desiring to compete for a contract with the U.N.”

“In some cases now, we require a Traffic Collision Avoidance System as an additional safety measure,” he said. “This is not a U.N. standard, but, as part of specific bids for contracts, dependent on a requirement at a specific location.”

In the aviation arena writ large, the U.N. has said it is trying to reduce unnecessary costs. In April 2017, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres announced an initiative to trim helicopter and fixed-wing costs. Thus far, the organization says it has saved more than $110 million.

At the time, the U.N. was spending about $750 million annually, using 58 airplanes and 157 helicopters for 12 peacekeeping missions and 6 special political missions.

"The Secretary General’s Aviation Initiative was successful in identifying a range of savings which has led to a consistently reduced aviation budget, and associated expenditures, through 2018, and into the 2019-20 budget proposal cycle," the U.N. peacekeeping official said.

"His initiative to enhance the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of U.N. Aviation focused on all aspects of aviation, including fixed-wing and unmanned aircraft system deployments," he said. "The majority of savings, on the order of just over $110 million, were obtained through the reduction of fixed-wing aircraft, although helicopter reductions did have an impact as well. This was accomplished through the reduction of under-utilized aircraft, the replacement of aircraft with more cost-efficient versions, and finally a reduction of flight hours through more finely tuned schedules.”