Russian Credit Line – Exclusively for Military Hardware | Daily News
Sri Lanka Air Force tells DAILY NEWS

Russian Credit Line – Exclusively for Military Hardware

Cannot be repurposed for purchasing other goods

The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) in its response to concerns raised by the Opposition on the Government’s move to purchase new helicopters from Russia amidst the COVID pandemic, said the purchase was on a Government-to-Government basis via a Line of Credit offered to Sri Lanka to purchase military hardware from Russia which is still being negotiated over several years.

Speaking to the Daily News, Air Force Spokesman Group Captain Dushan Wijesinghe pointed out that the Line of Credit given by Russia was specifically for purchasing of military hardware for the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and was not available to purchase medical supplies or any other kind of supplies or goods.

He added that the new helicopters were needed to replace aircraft deployed to Africa on United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping commitments which are in need of overhaul.

Group Captain Wijesinghe explained that Russia had offered Sri Lanka a US$ 300 million Credit Line, from which 14 Mi-171E and Mi-171Sh helicopters were bought down in 2010 at a cost of US$ 165 million some of which are currently being used for UN operations. He said that there was a balance of US$ 135 million which lapsed in 2015, but it was renewed by Russia to allow Sri Lanka to purchase a Gepard 5.1 Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) for the Sri Lanka Navy. However, since the Navy had found a less costly alternative, Russia had agreed to allow that amount to purchase Mi-17 helicopters.

However, the process came to a standstill with the change of Government.

Then, in 2017, the Defence Ministry had requested the Air Force to tender proposals for their requirements. The SLAF had informed that they wanted to purchase four more Mi-17 helicopters to be deployed in United Nations assignments.

“In March 2020, on the instructions of the Defence Ministry, we proposed to give us four Mi-17 helicopters which cost approximately US$ 60 million from the US$ 135 million. The Army and the Navy too had requested military equipment on this Credit Line to be used for their contingents in Mali. Then, Russia had said that they would consider the four helicopters and certain items requested by the Army and the Navy. They had said that the helicopters could be given to Sri Lanka within around two years,” the Air Force Spokesman said.

That is where the process is currently at. Russia would consider the specifications forwarded by Sri Lanka and contact their several manufacturers and call for tenders. Then Sri Lanka would submit the quotations to the local tender board for consideration. Thereafter, if the Russian manufacturers meet the specifications of the Air Force, these helicopters would be purchased.

It is mandatory in terms of UN rules that the Forces joining UN Peacekeeping missions in trouble spots around the world undertake assignments with their own equipment.

Sri Lanka joined the UN Peacekeeping operations in 2014 and since then up to date, our country has earned approximately US$ 112 million (around Rs. 22,400 million) through these Peacekeeping missions.

The SLAF, therefore, is confident that Sri Lanka will be able to repay the loan with the foreign exchange earned by contributing to the UN operations.

He said the SLAF has been attached to the UN Peacekeeping missions since 2014, with two Air Force Squadrons assigned to Peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR).

However, the Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, addressing Parliament recently, said that the Government must get its priorities correct and halt the order placed for the purchase of new helicopters from Russia, perhaps on the belief that the Sri Lankan Government was preparing to invest in helicopters at a time when the country is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking during an Adjournment Debate in Parliament, he said that the Government should not waste funds on purchasing new helicopters at a time when the country was facing a new wave of COVID-19.

Currently, the SLAF has deployed six Mi-17 series helicopters on UN Peacekeeping missions, some of which are nearing the end of their service life and will soon require overhaul.

He said Sri Lanka is required to uphold the commitments made to UN missions and it is mandatory to provide replacement aircraft for their missions if the ones in the line of duty are not airworthy. The SLAF has deployed helicopters and troops for Peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Group Captain Wijesinghe said that three helicopters each in South Sudan and the Central African Republic are in urgent need of overhaul with two helicopters nearing the end of airworthiness.

He noted that Sri Lanka had signed several MoUs with Russia for military and technical cooperation. In 2018, a four-member defence delegation from Sri Lanka visited Russia for the signing of the Working Group Terms of Reference document between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation of the Russian Federation (FSMTC) and the Agreement on Military Technical Cooperation between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Russian Federation on September 3, 2018, at the FSMTC and the Defence Ministry of Russia respectively.

There is no doubt that the Air Force needs to upgrade and purchase equipment. However, the issue that has been created is that this purchase is going to be made at a time when the country is struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, it is the responsibility of politicians on all sides too to verify the truth before creating an unnecessary pandemonium in society. Creating such wrong notions could tarnish the credibility of the Air Force and bring it to disrepute among the people.

The Mi-17 helicopters were first given to the Sri Lanka Air Force in 1993. At present, the Sri Lanka Air Force has 21 Mi-17 helicopters, of which about 10 are in operation while the rest need repairs. These helicopters come with a certain period of airworthiness. Once an aircraft reaches the end of its airworthiness, it needs to be sent to the mother company for an overhaul or be replaced altogether.

The aircraft that are currently being used by the Air Force are being used for various purposes. While six Mi-17 helicopters are being deployed for UN missions, four are being used for various purposes in Sri Lanka including for training of pilots, in emergency response activities during disasters and firefighting operations. The most recent event was the fire which engulfed the New Diamond ship off the Sri Lankan coastline, where these aircraft were deployed to douse the fire onboard the oil tanker.

Meanwhile, despite the Opposition Leader’s concerns raised in Parliament, the UNP has extended their support to the Sri Lanka Air Force on their Peacekeeping missions.

However, in a letter to the Air Force, the UNP had said that taking into account the present COVID-19 crisis, and the need for additional financial resources, the purchase of the helicopters should only be made utilising the Russian Export Credit Line for Arms Purchases with a grace period and long term repayment.

“Meanwhile, as per Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana’s vision for the upgrading of the Sri Lanka Air Force, three transport planes which had been sent to Ukraine for repair are scheduled to arrive in the country shortly. Another two Mi-17 helicopters which had also been sent for overhaul are also expected to arrive shortly and even the Israeli-built Kfir upgrading process is also almost finalised,” the Air Force Spokesman added. He said that once these aircraft join the current inventory, it would boost the airpower capabilities of the Air Force for local and peacekeeping operations.

In addition, the Sri Lanka Air Force also has the capability of overhauling some of its Chinese-built aircraft at its own facility located in Katunayake. The Aircraft Overhaul Wing has to date overhauled many aircraft such as Y-12, PT-6, K-8, F-7 BS and F-7 GS during the last five years. The Wing was established at the beginning of 2016 with the technical assistance of the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation (CATIC) under the guidance of Chinese aircraft specialists. However, the Spokesman said that as per the Russian-built Mi-17 aircraft, there are too many variants which make it difficult for these to be overhauled locally. Hence the need to ferry them abroad for repairs and overhauls.