Why did China buy Russian Mi-171sh helicopter when it has Z-10?

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could receive the new Russian helicopter gunships, Mi-171Sh. A CGTV program, China displayed visuals of a Russian helicopter factory with Mi-171Sh helicopters that were painted with PLA colour scheme and markings. 

Russian Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant (UUAP) was featured on the program that manufactures the Mi-171 line of helicopters. China last took delivery of a batch of Mi-171sh helicopters in 2014, when its contract with Russian military tech exporter Rosoboronexport for 165 of the Mi-171sh ended. Beijing already possesses various versions of the Mi-17s.

Russia recently delivered Mi-171sh helicopters to PLA.

Mi-171Sh’s NATO reporting name – “Hip” is an assault version helicopter specifically designed to carry out combat missions. The helicopters are capable of operating in all weather conditions and are updated with new avionics armed with a Shturm-V  guided missile system. The missile system is capable of destroying battle tanks. 

PLA deployed Mi-171sh in Galwan Valley.

The report further suggests that the helicopters might be intended for a “special unit” since the marking and the colour scheme on the chopper are unlike the ones usually seen on PLA hardware. The light grey colour resembles the PLA Navy fleet however, there are no maritime modifications for Mi-171Sh displayed nor the chopper can work on highly corrosive sea platforms.

It is important to note that the Chinese forces are locked in a standoff with India on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with both the sides beefing up its security despite the efforts to disengage. The tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours soared when the two sides got into a brutal clash in June that resulted in 20 Indian casualties and an unconfirmed number on the Chinese side.

The author of the report suggests that the Mi-171Sh might offer a high-altitude capability that PLA’s indigenous helicopters currently lack to counter India’s US-origin choppers. The Z-10 failed several high altitude tests during a trial in Pakistan in 2017 for Pakistan Army which prompted Pakistan to order Turkish T-129 Atak helicopter.

Last year, China received the delivery of the Mi-171 helicopter with VK-2500 engines. The order was placed for 12 helicopters. “In December 2018, demo flights of the Mi-171 helicopter with VK-2500 engines were made in high mountains, in the region of the Chinese city of Lijiang.

While the new version of the helicopter Mi-171Sh-VN supports increased thrust-to-weight ratio over which can fly at higher altitudes under challenging climatic conditions, there’s no confirmation whether the helicopters in the Chinese TV programme are the same version.

Although it is unclear why the PLA needed these combat helicopters, analysts are speculating the reasons. Sputnik quoting Chinese military aerospace observer Andreas Rupprecht suggested that this might be a stop-gap solution until the indigenous helicopters are ready.

However, Thomas Newdick of The Drive suggests that the “PLA leadership considers that Russian equipment is still superior for this kind of work, at least in some respects, compared with the latest indigenous Z-10 helicopter.”

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