Those of you who have been watching the coverage of the rescue and recovery operations in Sichuan may have caught a glimpse of a familiar aircraft bearing unfamiliar colors: Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters sporting People’s Liberation Army markings.
One person I mentioned this to remarked that they had not realized that U.S. assistance to China after the earthquake included helicopters. In truth, it didn’t. The planeloads of supplies and equipment delivered by the C-17s of the US Air Force included a lot of gear, even a fully-equipped urban search and rescue vehicle courtesy of FEMA and the Los Angeles County Fire Department. But no helicopters.
The Black Hawks – identical in many respects to those flown by the US military around the world – are a relic the 1980s, a time when it was politically correct to see the PLA and the US armed forces as potential allies. Despite consistent efforts on the part of Sikorsky, its parent United Technologies, and others, further sales have been politically impossible since 1989.
I am among those who believe that the calculus of global security changed significantly on September 11, 2001, and that in the kinds of non-traditional conflicts that look set to define military operations in the 21st century, the U.S. (as traditionally strong maritime power) and China (as a traditionally land power) are natural allies. It simply requires both sides to move beyond their doctrinal beliefs that the most likely next enemy is the big kid on the other side of the pond.
But I am in the minority, and so the Chinese Black Hawks will be departing the skies soon as their airframes reach the end of their effective lives and they are replaced by comparable (albeit larger) Russian-designed Mil Mi-17s produced in China under license.
In the meantime, it is somehow gratifying to watch them at work, saving lives on hillsides, valleys, and floodplains across the earthquake zone.