09.11.2019 Author: Dmitry Bokarev

Russian Helicopters Conquer the Southeast Asian Region


Russia is known for its aviation, helicopter technology in particular. Russian helicopters are popular in many countries. According to Russian Helicopters (a holding company that unites Russian firms specializing in helicopter-building), more than a hundred countries, besides Russia itself, utilize over 8,000 helicopters constructed in Russia. It is also reported that Russian Helicopters occupies 10% of the global helicopter market and that 22% of all military helicopters in the world, used both for combat and for military transport, are of Russian origin.

This success can be explained by the fact that the foundations of Russian industry were laid in the USSR where the needs of the army and the state stood above the income of the military-industrial complex. Therefore, Soviet and Russian equipment, including helicopters, differs from Western counterparts: it costs significantly lower while the quality is the same. This is the reason helicopters from the USSR and Russia remain popular among developing countries which need high-quality technology but can’t afford to spend too much on it; a significant number of Soviet and Russian helicopters are located in the countries Asia and Africa with relatively underdeveloped economies.

However, the richer Asian nations also value Russia-made helicopter equipment. Hundreds of Soviet and Russian military helicopters are in service in the Air Force of India, Russia’s leading partner in military-technical cooperation, and China. Several transport helicopters from Russia are also used in the South Korean Air Force, traditionally an ally and importer of U.S. military equipment.

However, there is a promising region in Asia which has not yet massively imported Russian helicopters, even though cooperation in this area can be very beneficial for both sides. These are the states of Southeast Asia (SEA), the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Timor-Leste, which has observer status in ASEAN.

The region does not yet boast a very strong economy (with the exception of some countries, such as Singapore), but is actively developing and, among other things, increasing its military and civilian helicopter fleet. Cooperation with Russia to accelerate this would be well in line with both the needs and capabilities of the Southeast Asian states. However, there are relatively few Russian helicopters in the region, at least in local air forces. An old ally and socialist partner of the USSR, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, has the most Soviet and Russian helicopters. According to various sources, over 150 Vietnamese military helicopters are of Soviet-Russian origin.

Almost half of the helicopters of the Myanmar Army (approx. 30) are reported to be of the same origin.

Laos only has about 30 military helicopters, and at least 19 of them were developed in the USSR or the Russian Federation.

The Cambodian Air Force has about 20 helicopters, of which at least 8 are Russian.

However, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines have no helicopters from Russia, and Timor-Leste is said to have no air force at all.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that many of the countries on this list support or have previously supported close military-technical cooperation with the United States. Thus, the Air Forces of these states were formed during the Cold War, when America limited its allies’ contacts with the USSR in every way, especially in military collaboration. The Air Forces of these states are still staffed mainly by American and European helicopters (but, for example, most of Indonesia’s helicopters are produced within the country).

However, times are changing. Russia is expanding trade cooperation with the countries of Southeast Asia, preparing to conquer their helicopter market.

For one, the Russian Federation conducted a spectacular ad campaign: at the end of 2018, Russian helicopters were presented during a demonstration tour around Southeast Asia.

The starting point of the tour was the Chinese city of Zhuhai, which hosted one of the largest aerospace exhibitions in the world in November 2018 — Airshow China. Russian aircraft designers have always been considered guests of honor at the event. Among the achievements of the aviation and defense industry of the Russian Federation, the latest multirole helicopters Mi-17A2 (powerful and heavy lifting, can be used as a transport, military transport or passenger helicopter) and Ansat (which can be used for freight and passenger traffic, firefighting, search and rescue missions) were presented at Airshow China with great success. China even decided to purchase 20 of them. After the exhibition, the helicopters traveled from China to Southeast Asia. They were presented at Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and the final point of the tour was Malaysia. In total, Russian helicopter pilots covered almost 5,000 km. Their journey lasted for about a month. This was the largest demonstration tour of its kind in the history of both Russia and the USSR.

Presentations and demonstration flights were held in each country of the region. Representatives of the local government, of various businesses and industries came to see Russian helicopters. It is crucially important that the Southeast Asian countries had the chance to see the work of Russian machines in their climate conditions. Helicopter equipment is known to be sensitive to factors such as temperature, humidity, wind and air density. Sometimes machines that work well in temperate latitudes work differently in the highlands, over the sea or in the tropical jungle (the usual conditions in Southeast Asia). However, Russia’s foreign partners saw that the Mi-17A2 and Ansat are well adapted to work in their region.

As a result of the tour, Russian Helicopters significantly increased its portfolio of orders for this type of machine, with Southeast Asian countries filing applications for a total of 50 helicopters. The combined cost of the orders (including 20 vehicles purchased by China at Airshow China) was more than $500 million.

These are positive figures for both SEA and the global helicopter market. According to experts from Russian Helicopters, in the next decade, Southeast Asian countries may buy up to 420 helicopters. And so, Russia has already taken a big step towards leadership in the helicopter market of the region by signing contracts for 50 helicopters.

Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”