Kenya getting 16 helicopters, other military support from US after historic meeting

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The United States has revealed plans to transfer eight UH-1 ‘Huey’ and eight MD500 helicopters to Kenya along with 150 armoured vehicles to improve regional security following a historic visit by Kenyan President William Ruto to the United States.

At the end of May, President Joe Biden welcomed Ruto to the White House to strengthen ties between the two countries and mark 60 years of official US-Kenya partnership. The meeting covered democracy, human rights, healthcare, climate solutions, trade and investment as well as peace and security cooperation.

In terms of defence cooperation, the White House said Kenya is scheduled to receive eight Hueys and eight MD500s between late 2024 and mid-2025 to bolster its ability to provide regional peace and security and participate in peacekeeping missions.

A Kenya air force UH-1 Huey takes off during African Partnership Flight Kenya 2019.

On the landward side, Kenya selected approximately 150 M1117 4×4 Armoured Security Vehicles from US Excess Defence Article stocks, which are projected to arrive in Kenya September 2024.

Moreover, the White House announced plans to upgrade Manda Bay airfield in northern Kenya, with US and Kenyan officials set to sign a memorandum of understanding for the construction of a 10 000 foot runway, as the base currently lacks adequate infrastructure. Kenya is also in the process of joining Operation ‘Gallant Phoenix’, a US-led multinational initiative based in Jordan aimed at sharing information on terrorist threats, further strengthening counter-terrorism cooperation between the two countries.

Biden also informed Congress he intends to designate Kenya as a Major Non-NATO Ally. “This designation is granted by the United States to countries with close and strategic working relationships with the US military and defence civilians. The United States has a deep respect for Kenya’s contributions to global peace and security. This is the first designation of a sub-Saharan Africa nation as a Major Non-NATO Ally,” the White House said.

The USA has provided to Kenya over $230 million in civilian security and defence sector funding since 2020, including assistance from the Massachusetts National Guard under the State Partnership Programme, alongside ongoing advisory and training efforts for Kenyan pilots, logistics personnel, and the Kenya Defence Forces’ Disaster Response Battalion.

Ruto’s state visit to the US on 20 May coincided with the deployment of an advanced party of Kenyan police to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, with approximately 200 personnel scheduled for deployment by 31 May as part of a Multinational Security Support Mission (MSSM) aimed at aiding Haitian security forces against pervasive gang activity. Like Haiti, the African country is no stranger to internal struggle, as it faces difficulties in securing its northern regions from Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen militants operating from Somalia. Terrorists frequently attack security forces and civilians along the border with Somalia.

Since Kenya gained independence from the United Kingdom in December 1963, the United States has maintained diplomatic relations. When Barack Obama was elected at the end of 2008, people in Nairobi were celebrating the arrival in power of an “American Luo President”, an allusion to the Kenyan origins of his paternal family. However, bilateral relations were not easy with Obama himself describing the country as “riddled with corruption” in 2006. After that President Kenyatta’s indictment by the ICC for crimes against humanity also froze the relationship. Eventually, in 2015, the US President did make a hi-profile visit, paving the way to better cooperation

In addition to the MD500s and UH-1s from the United States, Kenya is due to receive 16 ex Republic of Korea Army MD500MD Defender helicopters, which were pledged by South Korea in 2021, during the UN peacekeeping forum in Seoul. The aircraft will be used to equip a new unit being formed to support United Nations peacekeeping missions.

In December 2023, the first six of the 16 donated MD500s were shipped from the Korean Army Logistics Command’s general maintenance depot in Jinhae to the US for repairs and maintenance before delivery to Kenya under US State Department auspices.

Korean Air’s aerospace division built some 280 MD500s under license between 1976 and 1984, and these are now being replaced in Korean service by the indigenous LUH-1 Surion.

Kenya’s military already operates the MD500, with 40 delivered by the United States between 1980 and 1985, along with 2 100 TOW anti-tank missiles. These were recently augmented by six new MD530Fs delivered from the US in December 2019. They were acquired to assist with operations in support of the AMISOM mission in Somalia.

Kenya is also a UH-1 operator, having acquired eight Huey IIs from the United States in 2016/17. In September 2017 the US Department of Defence announced that it had awarded Bell Helicopter a foreign military sales contract worth $52.1 million for the supply of an initial five Huey II helicopters and spares for Kenya.