Published in Nacional number 719, 2009-08-25

Autor: Eduard Šoštarić


Army Flushes Money Down Drain While Helicopters Grounded

Of the ten Russian helicopters Mi-171Sh owned by the Croatian Air Force, only four are in use and it is suspected that they are intentionally poorly maintained to ensure higher fees for Russian mechanics for repairs and spare parts.

KOSOVO MISSION Croatian helicopters take off for NATO KFOR missionKOSOVO MISSION Croatian helicopters take off for NATO KFOR missionThe state of the recently purchased ten Mi-171Sh military transport helicopters is catastrophic and it coincides with the expiration of the warranty provided by their Russian maker. Currently, only four are in full operating condition, two are flying as part of the KFOR mission in Kosovo and two are in Croatia, a highly positioned source within the Ministry of Defence tells Nacional. Asked by Nacional about the state of the Mi-171Sh helicopters, the Ministry of Defence said that the condition of Air Force technology was confidential. We were surprised because once at a news conference the Deputy Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Slavko Baric spoke quite openly about the number of fully operational MiG-21 fighter jets on that particular day.

Our source tells us that there are several reasons for this state of affairs, but that it is quite certain that it is not the producer's fault. The initial reason could be that Croatian Air Force personnel did not properly maintain the helicopters, which can no longer be a coincidence because it has already been confirmed that they did a terribly poor maintenance job on fire-fighting aircraft that have top priority maintenance status at military bases. Croatian Air Force personnel were exclusively responsible for the maintenance of the newly purchased helicopters.

What is even worse, the purchase contract for the ten Mi-171Sh helicopters, worth 65 million US dollars, also includes the purchase of spare parts for the helicopters - a so-called technical dispensary. The spare parts from the technical dispensary could be replaced without an additional fee during the warranty period, which means the Ministry of Defence would not have to pay the Russian maker for the parts until the warranty expired. After the warranty expires, Croatia is obligated to purchase all the remaining unused spare parts at market value.

Simply put, it was in someone's interest that as many spare parts as possible remain unused in the dispensary costing Croatian taxpayers even more money. They were not being used to repair the helicopters, which is why they were in increasing states of disrepair. It became clear at the Defence Ministry that the increasingly frequent grounding of the new helicopters was linked to the fact that if the helicopters were properly maintained all the spare parts would be used up during the warranty period and the Russian side would receive less money, which was evidently not in the interest of someone in the procurement chain or someone within the ministry. Also, a large number of spare parts necessary for Mi-171Sh maintenance which are part of the dispensary and for which a purchase order has already been placed can be obtained in Croatia, and there is no economic reasoning in these times of crisis to flush money down the drain. What is most disturbing, the price of the tools and equipment needed for the maintenance of new helicopters, compared with their market price or the price of those items purchased earlier, are unbelievable. The price of a ladder, according to the contract, is 70,000 kuna and a regular 20-litre aluminium tank is 4,000 kuna. Even if the exchange rate between the clearing dollar and the U.S. dollar was 1:0.65, the prices are still such that the State Attorney's Office should look into it, however, everything is in the hands of Defence Minister Branko Vukelic.

AIR FORCE PILOTS AND MECHANICS on the landing pad with the Mi-171ShAIR FORCE PILOTS AND MECHANICS on the landing pad with the Mi-171ShThe way in which the spare parts are being used to someone's advantage can be explained with a clear example. The Ministry of Defence's spare parts dispensary also includes a machine which performs diagnostics on so-called RD's which can be described as the helicopter's start-up motor. The diagnostics machine is worth several tens of thousands of US dollars. The diagnostics machine remains unused and there is no on that has been trained to use it. On the other hand, two Mi-8 helicopters are grounded and in need of repair due to the poor organization of refurbishing RD motors which arrived in disrepair from Azerbaijan. Instead of running their diagnostics on the machine to resolve any second-guessing about their state, the diagnostics machine remains untouched while two helicopters remained out of commission for two years. However, all of the above which deals with irregularities in aircraft maintenance has been going on for years and there seems to be no end in sight, because ministers come and go and "expert" teams remain in charge. Minister Branko Vukelic showed some promise that he could put an end to this, but has so far done nothing of the kind. It is no secret that six months ago the British, in talks with Croatian military officers, asked if Croatia might send two military helicopters to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, because they are badly needed there. In exchange, Great Britain would lobby for moving the maintenance of nearly all Russian-made helicopters to Croatia. However, it appears the British may have figured out that something odd is going on in Croatia with aircraft maintenance, and the contract was instead awarded just over a month ago to the Czech Republic.

CROATIAN PILOTS serving in NATO mission in full battle gearCROATIAN PILOTS serving in NATO mission in full battle gearThe purchase of ten Mi-171Sh helicopters was agreed as part of the payment of Russia's clearing debt. Finance Minister Ivan Suker signed an agreement in Moscow in 2006 between the governments of Croatia and the Russian Federation regulating the financial obligations of the former USSR towards the Republic of Croatia. Croatia also agreed that the former USSR's debt, amounting to 185.7 million US dollars, would be repaid in goods and services in yearly instalments of 37.1 million US dollars over a five-year period. The goods and services in question include parts for the Sisak Thermal Power Station, the all purpose Mi-171Sh helicopters and funds for laying the groundwork for the gas pipeline from Hungary to Donji Miholjac. The ten brand new Russian-made Mi-171Sh helicopters produced in Ulan-Ude worth 65 million US dollars are part of the Croatian Army's helicopter transport squadron. The price of the basic model of the Mi-171Sh is around 4 million dollars, but with additional special equipment and other extras, the price climbed to at total of 65 million. The technical dispensary is also part of the reason for the price increase. Because the Mi-171Sh is a modern version of the Mi-8 helicopter, which has been used by the Croatian Air Force since its inception, the transition to the modern version was not difficult. At the time, it was said that the Air Force had resolved all its helicopter needs for the next 15 years, that is, that the Air Force's transport and multi-purpose helicopters were the most up-to-date part of its military arsenal, but judging by their current state, it is clear that it is in someone's interest to keep as many of them as possible grounded. The state of the new helicopters is not the only worrisome information coming from the Croatian Air Force. Sitting pretty in their office chairs at the Ministry of Defence, the Office of the Chiefs of Staff and the Air Force High Command, a large number of personnel, who are not pilots, take home an aviation bonus on top of their monthly salary. As Croatia finds itself in the midst of an economic crisis, these are matter that must be looked into. Guidelines for salary bonuses do not proscribe the minimum number of flight hours personnel must log in order to receive their bonus.

This is not stated in the Guidelines because the rules were written by the very people who sit in those command positions and do not fly. The Ministry of Defence told us that the minimum number of flight hours is determined by yearly orders for each pilot and this information is, of course, confidential. The Ministry also confirmed that the flight bonus is not only received by pilots in flight squadrons but also by "pilots" who work in the institutions mentioned above. However, we did not receive an answer as to how many military pilots there are who receive the bonus - because that too is confidential. We would probably discover that Croatia has three times as many grounded pilots as those who actually fly.

PILOTS AND MECHANICS training for the KFOR missionPILOTS AND MECHANICS training for the KFOR missionAn anonymous source reported in 2005 that high-ranking officers were receiving flight bonuses despite the fact that they were not flying. Some of them violated the rules of service because they did not fly an annual minimum to qualify for the bonus. Additionally, these officers were not demoted as pilots after they exceeded the hour limit which allows a pilot to maintain the status of professional fighting capability, which is the basis for qualifying for the flight bonus.

At the time, a certified court expert who was working on a case in which 200 military pilots were suing the Ministry of Defence was thrown off the 91st Air Force Base by its commander and was unable to complete his work.

Defective helicopters preventing Croatian Army from taking part in NATO missions

■ Croatia received ten brand new transport helicopters from Russia as part of the repayment of its clearing debt. The maker also guaranteed free repairs and spare parts during the warranty period, however, that option was not exercised although six of those helicopters are currently not in flying condition. Of those that are still in use, two are serving in the KFOR mission in Kosovo. Because of their state of disrepair, the remaining helicopters could not be sent to Afghanistan, despite the fact that Great Britain asked the Croatian Air Force if it could send them. In exchange, Croatia was offered a deal to become the service base for NATO's Russian helicopters. The job was later awarded to the Czech Republic.

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