Mexico Cancels US Maritime Helicopter Order: Could It Go With Russia Instead?

Mexican President-elect Andres Mannuel Lopez Obrador plans to cancel a $1.36 billion order for 8 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters for the country’s Navy. The gunships, intended for exercise to counter the drug trade, are just too expensive, Obrador says. But are there more affordable alternatives with similar capabilities out there? Sputnik explores.

Speaking to Mexican officials on Wednesday, Obrador announced a national spending “belt-tightening” campaign, saying this was the mandate Mexicans gave authorities in the July 1 election. This, he said, includes military contracts with the United States.

“We know of the order to purchase eight gunships for the Mexican Navy made to the government of the United States for a total value of 25 billion pesos ($1.36 billion). That purchase will be canceled, because we cannot [afford] this expense.”

The MH-60R Seahawk multi-mission maritime strike helicopters were approved for sale to Mexico City in April, with the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation-built choppers decked out with advanced radar and night vision equipment, glass cockpit digital monitors, Hellfire missiles, torpedoes and heavy machineguns. The deal carried a hefty price of $170 million apiece (for comparison, Sikorsky sold the choppers to the US Navy for $42.9 million each in FY2012). In addition to the US, Australia and Denmark also operate the helicopters.

An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter attached to the Raptors of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 71 fires an AGM-114 Hellfire missile during a training exercise over the Pacific Ocean

But Sikorsky and its parent company Lockheed Martin isn’t the only game in town as far as naval helicopters disappear. Russia’s naval workhorse, the Ka-27, has comparable capabilities, and would likely to be much cheaper, if it were made available.

The Ka-27M, the latest modification of the tried and proven Ka-27 design, is equipped with an advanced integrated radar, acoustic and menetometric sensors and SIGINT suite, and a 360 degree monitoring system enabling the semi-automatic search and detection of surface, air and ground-based targets. Armament can include light homing torpedoes, 50 and 250 kg anti-sub bombs, heavy machineguns, and four external hardpoints for an assortment of other weapons. The customizable package would nearly certainly be enough for fighting drug traffickers.

The Russian Navy has been receiving batches of Ka-27Ms for exercise aboard its surface ships since 2016. Mass production was approved in 2017, and started in 2018.

Ka-27s in various configurations are in exercise by the Algerian, Chinese, Indian, Syrian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese and Yemenese navies, as well as the Russian Border Guard Service, which has a fleet of Ka-27PS search and rescue choppers.

Details on the price of the gunship Ka-27s are hard to advance by, although a single Ka-27PV, the armed version of the Ka-27PS, has an estimated price tag of $14.5 million. The Russian MoD’s 2014 and 2016 outlays to modernize existing anti-submarine warfare configuration Ka-27PLs came in at just over $10 million apiece. Whatever the price of the chopper is, it would nearly certainly be below the whopping $170 million Lockheed asked for and got from Mexico City before Obrador came in and announced plans to cancel the contract.

Other bonuses include the Ka-27s’ comparatively low operating costs, worthy reputation for utility, sturdiness and reliability, and their customizability for a variety of missions. 

It’s unclear whether Mexico will be willing to ditch its US chopper deal in favor of the Russian helicopter, and whether Moscow would even agree to such a deal. However, Mexico has shown a “strong interest” in Russia’s Mi and Kamov Ka-226 utility helicopters last year. Russia’s Rosoboronexport has already expressed willingness to supply Mi-35 and Mi-28 attacks helicopters to the country if Mexico City expresses an interest. Plus, the Mexican Navy already operates Mi-17 and Mi-171V medium helicopters for anti-narcotics operations, with police, army and navy forces operating Mi-8/17 military transports.

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