A rumour surfaced from Russia that Zimbabwe is negotiating for helicopters. There was no detail to identify the choppers. Yes, some media houses went on to speculate and printed photos of anything from Mil-8s to Mil-28s. Some ranted on about “gunships similar to ones supplied to Syria” in a vein and pathetic effort to put Zimbabwe and Syria in the same bracket.
The AFZ is indeed due for re-equipping. The F-7s are over 25 years old, and it is about 10 years since they were overhauled/rebuilt/upgraded. Besides the likelihood of limited airframe life left, they could do with being secondary role fighters in light of regional fighter acquisitions/developments. However, with the dependable Chinese support, these should not be a problem to keep flying.
For gunships, the AFZ acquired at least 6 Mil-35s before the DRC war in 1998. The type would come with at least 7,500 hours on the engine and a lot more on the airframe. If they clock 150 hours per year, they should have over 50 years of life. There is still a lot of life in these gunships. The AFZ Hind’s weapon systems, avionics and engines were upgraded during the DRC war to very capable standards. AFZ’s Mil-35s are unlikely to be in need of replacement … … therefore the AFZ is unlikely to be shopping for gunships. Zimbabwe is also not under sanctions from Russia, so serviceability of these should not be an issue.
However looking at the light and medium utility helicopters tells a different story. The AFZ operates SA-316B Alouette-3s and their newest lot were six that were delivered from France in 1988. These would be approaching 25 years old assuming they were delivered new or at least with zero hours on them. They also operate the Augusta Bell AB-412s, with ten delivered from Italy in 1986. For these Western supplied helicopters, we have two factors: (1) they have used a lot of their life and (2) spares need to come from either Europe or the USA and we are under sanctions. I see these as the likely helicopters to be replaced.
For a while I have been expecting these helicopters to be replaced together with the CASA-212s.
I will use the AB-412 as the benchmark. I was expecting the Chinese Z-9 helicopters – so the talk of a Russian deal is a surprise. The Z-9s have received good reviews from the Kenyans who are using them operationally in Somalia. Namibia have just received a few too – but I expect they well order a few more as budgets allow and they gain experience in the type. The Z-9 can carry 14 passengers and can be equipped with a wide selection of sensors and weapons including anti-tank missiles. I would have put my money on this being the next utility chopper for the AFZ.
Now that the rumour mill is saying Russian, what are we likely to be receiving? Russia offers the Kamov Ka-60 and the Kazan Ansat which would have more or less the same capacity as the AB-412. However these are still too new and too few in service. While the Ka-60 compares favourably to the AB-412 for armament options, it still has less teeth than the Z-9.
The other Russian option is the Mil-8/Mil-17 Hip, although this has twice the capacity of AB-412, but that is not a bad thing. This has a long service history worldwide and the AFZ already operates at least 2 or 3 examples. Several air forces in the region operate the type and Botswana has been considering getting some. The type has can also be armed upto anti-tank capabilities and a selection of sensors is also available. The Mil-35s were derived from the Mil-8 so the two have many parts in common and also the weapon systems. This will make induction and operation easier (training and skills) and cheaper (spares, ground equipment and weapons).
I don’t want to wait and see. I don’t have the patience virtue. I hope my waiting, and hence suffering, will not be long.