An exclusive report on the first Russian military aircraft to be purchased by a NATO country — Levent Basara and Serhat Guvenc look at Mi-17s in the service of Turkey’s Gendarmerie.
THE JANDARMA (GENDARMERIE) is one of the oldest institutions in Turkey — indeed its roots can be traced back as far as the Ottoman era. Its role and tasks have changed dramatically to stay in keeping with the needs of modern Turkey and the Jandarma now wears two hats — one related to internal security as a law enforcement agency reporting to the Interior Ministry; the other as a branch of the armed services under the command of the Turkish General Staff. The Jandarma’s law enforcement and policing functions cover nearly 92% of Turkish territory which are beyond the jurisdiction of the urban police. In times of war or state of emergency the Jandarma, as an integral part of the Turkish Armed Forces, becomes a subordinate command to the Turkish General Staff; augmenting other services for the defence of Turkey. Although it lacks the heavy and sophisticated weapons systems of the Turkish Army, the Jandarma still represents a capable military asset although it is never included in NATO contingencies, being exclusively reserved and deployed for nationally planned military operations. From the 1960s the diverse tasks and responsibilities of the Jandarma caused it to develop from a lightly armed contingency to a highly mobile force that can field several well-trained air-mobile/commando battalions to any theatre of operations, thanks to its own aviation branch. The foundations of its aviation unit were laid down in 1968 when the first four Agusta-built AB-206BS were received by the Jandarma a Helikopter Taburu (Helicopter Battalion) in Diyarbakir. This first unit was followed by a second battalion based at Guvercinlik, Ankara. The Jandarma fleet continued to expand in the 1970s with other types of rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, such as the AB-204, AB-205, Rockwell 690 A Turbo Commander, Piper PA-32 and Cessna F182P. The fixed-wing aircraft were originally purchased to equip the Jandarma’s Narkotik Filo (Narcotic Squadron) to monitor poppy cultivation which the Turkish Government partially lifted the ban on in 1974; subject to very tight control measures.
The aviation battalions in Diyarbakir and Guvercinlik were officially redesignated as Jandarma Hava Grup Komutanliklari (Gendarmerie Aviation Group Commands) in March 1978. Additionally a third unit was formed in Van as the Helikopter Filo (Helicopter Squadron). Agusta-built helicopters provided the backbone of Jandarma aviation well into the late 1980s.
By the mid-1980s, Jandarma units began to shoulder the brunt of combat against the separatist organisation, PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), which waged a terror campaign against both civilian populations and military targets in southeastern Turkey. Round-the-clock operations, coupled with the rough terrain and harsh climate of the region, soon took its toll on the ageing Jandarma rotary-wing fleet. As a stop-gap, six Sikorsky S-70A-17s were ordered to augment the AB-204s and AB-205s. The first six Black Hawks of the Jandarma were delivered in 1989 and were appreciated so much for their agility, ruggedness and reliability, that a follow-up order for 30 was placed in 1992. Although the Black Hawk is now the indisputable queen of the Jandarma fleet, a recent and unusual addition seems to have grabbed public attention. The unique Jandarma force has made Turkey the first NATO country to buy new military aircraft from Russia. For the Turkish military, nothing can symbolise the end of the Cold War better than the 19 Mi-17Vs than the Jandarma operates today. The abrupt end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union did not only effectively end any Russian threat to NATO but it also offered hitherto unimaginable opportunities for economic and political cooperation. Due to its geographical proximity, Turkey was quick to seize on this opportunity to enhance its economic and trade ties with the successors of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Turkey generously made available credit facilities for its export-oriented economy to stimulate exports to these newly emerged markets.
Trade with the Russian Federation developed mainly in the form of exchange of merchandise between the two countries. By 1993, the Russian Federation’s terms of trade with Turkey deteriorated, with Russia in debt to the tune of $300 million. Worsening economic conditions and a lack of foreign exchange in Russia prompted both parties to look for a way to settle the outstanding balance and eventually the Russian Federation offered to pay with military equipment.
Indeed the Turkish military already had Soviet-built weapons and military hardware in its inventory. After the unification of Germany, some ex-East German weapons and equipment, such as BTR-60 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), AK-47 rifles, RPG-7s and even helmets, were handed down to Turkey in substantial quantities. However, these items frequently turned into a source of tension between Turkey and Germany. Bonn was opposed to Turkey using these weapons in military operations against the PKK. Thus Germany suspended military transfers to Turkey several times on the grounds that Turkey had broken its pledge not to employ ex-German arms against the PKK. The Russian offer provided a good opportunity to obtain brand new and improved versions of the ex-German arms, some of which could be useful in the type of operations Turkish security forces carried out in the southeast of the country.
The Turkish Jandarma was to be the major recipient of new Russian equipment. As a priority, the Russian Federation agreed to supply BTR-60 and improved BTR-80 APCs, and various types of helicopters were also considered. Initially the Russians demonstrated the heavyweight Mi-26 Halo, then a Turkish military delegation visited various helicopter manufacturers in the Russian Federation.
The Turkish military primarily focused on utility/transport helicopters, although the Russians also offered export versions of Mi-24 Hinds. Since the AH-1W Super Cobras bought from the United States satisfactorily filled the requirement for attack helicopters, they were not given serious consideration. The Mi-26 was also dropped from the Turks’ shopping list because of its overweight and poor performance. The Mi-17V Hip-H stood out as the best option to meet the Jandarma’s utility/transport helicopter requirement. Another factor that contributed to the selection of the Mi-17 was that its predecessor, the Mi-8, was already in service with some civilian operators in Turkey and they had been impressed by the type.
Once the decision was made in favour of the Mi-17V Hip-H, the Jandarma requested certain modifications particularly to the avionics in order to Westernise the helicopter. In November 1993, Turkey and the Russian Federation signed their first arms deal agreement since 1939. After a visit to Kazan Helicopters which manufactured the Hips, Jandarma pilots and support personnel were sent to Russia for training. The Mi-17Vs rolled off Kazan’s production lines were flown by Jandarma pilots to their main base at Guvercinlik via Kazakhstan. A dispute related to the cost of installing Western radio equipment delayed the deliveries temporarily. The 19 Mi-19V Hip-Hs were officially handed over to the Jandarma on November 25, 1995, and they made their public debut on February 9, 1996, at Guvercinlik when they were shown to the press.
Turkey had previously bought a large quantity of military aircraft from the Soviets in 1929, Letov S.16 Smoliks which served with the 3 Tayyare Alayi, Izmir (3 Aviation Regiment) into the mid-1930s. And in order to consolidate relations between the two young republics, the Soviets donated four aircraft to Turkey on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey in 1933. Some of the first aviators of the new Turkish state had their training in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. Before the Hips’ arrival, the Turk Hava Kurumu (Turkish Air Association — TEIK) had bought a number of An-2 transport aircraft from Poland for parachute training and crop-spraying. These were the only Soviet-designed aircraft to serve in Turkey in the Cold War years, and they were with a civilian operator.
The Mi-17Vs are of course a different breed of aircraft, built to the standards and tactical requirements of a ‘superpower’. Although the Jandarma is never assigned NATO tasks, its equipment has usually complied with NATO standards for logistical and communication purposes. The Mi-17Vs represent a significant departure from the pursuit of equipment standardisation and commonality between the Turkish armed services and are viewed as an important force multiplier by the Jandarma, particularly in terms of its heavy lift capability. Training pilots and other personnel is currently under way at Guvercinlik to meet the needs of the sizeable Mi-17 fleet. The initial cadre trained in Russia are now instructing a new generation of Mi-17 crews.
As with the S-70A-17s, the Jandarma considers the Mi-17s to be a utility helicopter. However, the Hip-H is not rated in the same league as the Black Hawk. The two helicopters are typical representatives of very different design philosophies. It is obvious that in designing the Mi-17, ergonomics seem not to have merited any serious consideration, in contrast to the Black Hawk. However, as a sturdy and proven platform, the Mi-17 offers the Jandarma an affordable workhorse. It can handle some tasks where agility and speed are not vital at cheaper operating costs than those of the Black Hawk. Since the arrival of the Mi-17s, the Jandarma can now assign more Black Hawks to more high priority tasks such as front line unit support, vertical replenishment (vertrep) for remote units, etc.
The Mi-17V’s large interior can accommodate light tactical wheeled vehicles such as Jeeps or Land Rovers which can quickly be loaded through a rear-loading ramp. Jandarma pilots are generally satisfied by the Mi-17’s performance and the Hip is particularly appreciated for its avionics suite which includes auto pilot, emergency information reporting system, flight data recorder (FDR), weather radar and a Doppler radar. The last two are features that many current Western-built helicopters lack. The two radars provide the Mi-17 crews with an invaluable navigation asset. Another popular feature is the armour protection around the cockpit. Jandarma Mi-17s are tasked with vertrep, search and rescue (SAR), supplies and personnel transport, fire-fighting, VIP transport and recce/observation.
Fourteen Jandarma Mi-17Vs are in standard utility configuration, two are configured as air ambulances, whereas three are equipped with rocket pods for air assault. The air ambulance Hips are the first of their kind to serve with Turkish armed forces and are modified and equipped to handle emergency aid, intensive care and surgical interventions on board. Jandarma Hips wear typical Russian tactical camouflage with two tones of brown and a shade of field green. The undersides are painted in medium grey. The Hips are numbered in the J792M01 to J792M19 range. Helicopters serialled J792M03 and J792M18 are air ambulances whereas the three armed assault Hips carry military numbers J792M06, J792M11 and J792M19.