The Peña Nieto administration is buying 26 Black Hawks from the U.S. government, costing at least $25 million dollars apiece. By setting up the helicopter purchase as a government-to-government deal, intermediaries are eliminated and with them the possibility of kickbacks. It also strengthens the relationship between the two countries’ militaries.
The arrival of the first six Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters for the Mexican Air Force (FAM) in December 2015 went almost unnoticed by the national media. These were the first of 26 Black Hawks procured for the Mexican military during the Peña Nieto administration under a U.S. government-managed contract intended to increase military-to-military cooperation and negate the possibility of kickbacks.
An initial order of 18 helicopters for the FAM was placed in April 2014 and was followed by orders of five in June 2014 and three more in March 2015 for the Navy. Drawing from information published by the U.S. Department of Defense, each helicopter is priced at around $25-27 million dollars.
Their selection by both the Defense (Sedena) and Navy (Semar) secretariats continues a still unwritten defense procurement policy that has seen the selection of similar types of equipment for almost a decade now. Would it be useful to actually draft such a policy or would that impact the relatively good inter-secretarial cooperation between Mexico’s two defense institutions? Maybe the current status is as good as it gets.
The latest digital and networked Black Hawk in the BH family tree, the UH-60M “Mike” version is not entirely new to Mexican skies: The U.S. government donated six to the Federal Police in 2010-2011 and three to the Navy in September 2011 as part of the U.S.-funded Mérida Initiative. The Navy’s Black Hawks proved their worth by taking part in an operation against a Los Zetas training camp just days after delivery.
At the state level, Jalisco bought a single S-70i version for its police in 2011. This is a special breed of Black Hawk that came from Sikorsky’s second production line in Poland. These new generation Black Hawks joined a stable of seven and six earlier UH-60L “Lima” versions acquired by the Federal Police in 2007-2009 and the FAM as far back as 1991.
The new orders are of note because they mark a return to mostly U.S. equipment and will begin to replace a large number of Russian helicopters acquired in multiple batches since the mid-1990s.
While the Russian Mi-17 proved to be a rugged workhorse with relatively low acquisition costs, its operational availability decreased drastically as it aged and its maintenance costs increased.
Less than one-third of the 67 Mi helicopters acquired between 1995 and 2013 remain in service. In sharp contrast, the economic life expectancy of the UH-60M has now been extended from 20 to 25 years and its service life in Mexico will likely last even longer.
As an example, all six UH-60L early versions acquired by the FAM in 1991-1994 remain in operation and only a single Black Hawk has ever been lost in an accident – a Federal Police UH-60L (PF-106) which crashed in Atoyac de Álvarez, Guerrero, while conducting a rescue operation following tropical storm Manuel.
But maybe more interesting is the fact that the UH-60M Black Hawks were acquired through a government-to-government transaction designated as a Foreign Military Sale (FMS). FMS is meant to strengthen international relations, as the U.S. government assumes responsibility for dealing with the contractor and delivers the equipment along with training and logistics support to the buying partner.
The overall value of Sedena’s Black Hawk order increases to $584 million dollars once supporting infrastructure, spare parts, logistics and training are included, making it the largest contract to date between Sedena and the Department of Defense.
This is a significant departure from past Mexican procurement practices and is also an indication that the Sedena and Semar leadership used this particular type of engagement to 1) increase direct ties with the U.S. military and 2) reduce the risk for corruption in large-scale contracts.
FMS is governed by the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, which specifically eliminates the payment of fees to agents that may attempt to facilitate government contracts via improper influence. Defense procurement is an area that will always require clear understanding, extra oversight and specific policy making.