Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Defense Chief Says Purchase of 8 Sokol Choppers from Poland is Last

MANILA, Philippines—”Of what use is a combat helicopter if you cannot use its machine gun?” President Aquino asked in his State of the Nation Address on Monday.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the purchase of eight Sokol helicopters from Poland would be the last by the Department of National Defense (DND) since they could not be used in combat, after all.

“I understand helicopters because I’m a combat officer. The first thing I noticed was, why do you have to remove the machine gun before you can get inside it? The entrance is too narrow, it’s all wrong,” said Gazmin, a former Army Special Forces commander.

The P2.8-billion deal with Augusta PZL Swidnik of Italy and Poland for eight Sokol helicopters had been signed, sealed and delivered when he assumed office in July 2010, Gazmin said.

“We just had to make the payment,” he said.

The eight Sokol (Falcon in Polish) helicopters were delivered in two batches in 2012.

The contract was finalized during the last months of the Arroyo administration when Norberto Gonzales, the national security adviser, was also defense secretary.

When the first batch of four choppers arrived in March 2012, the PAF hailed the addition to their depleted air assets.

The Sokols were supposed to replace the Vietnam-vintage UH-1H Huey helicopters the PAF used in search and rescue, medical evacuation and combat utility missions.

But in his Sona on Monday, President Aquino said the helicopters could not be used to ferry soldiers to combat zones because the machine guns were mounted at the door, blocking entry and exit.

“If you are a soldier entering the fray at the height of battle, of what use is a machine gun that is set aside and unable to fire? Did no one think about this before the contracts were signed? Why was this even approved in the first place?” Aquino said.

Gazmin said he had not made up his mind whether or not to order an investigation and go after those responsible for the purchase of the Sokols even if these did not meet the PAF’s requirements.

“We’ll study that. I cannot answer that question yet,” he said.

He said the helicopters would be used in search and rescue missions and the DND would proceed with the acquisition of attack helicopters. “But no longer the Sokol. We are looking at other brands of aircraft and helicopters.”

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