The United States is moving ahead with a plan, known as the Afghan Aviation Transition Plan (AATP), to help replace the bulk of the Afghan Air Force’s helicopters with the UH-60 Black Hawk. Unfortunately, while Afghanistan’s military is in dire need of additional choppers, it’s not clear whether provide them with the American-made aircraft is a good choice.
In May 2017, both U.S. and Afghan officials confirmed to Military Times that the Pentagon was looking to provide as many as 159 Black Hawks to replace Afghanistan’s existing Russian-made Mi-17V1 and V5 Hip helicopters over the next four to six years. In November 2016, the Pentagon submitted a budget proposal that included a request for funds for the first 53 upgraded UH-60s for Afghanistan.
Speaking about the situation broadly, “offensive capability is what will break the stalemate in Afghanistan,” U.S. Army John Nicholson, in charge of all American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, had told American legislators on Feb. 9, 2017. “The key offensive capabilities for the Afghan security forces are their special forces and their Air Force.”
Both of these points are true. In March 2017, Reuters reported that Afghanistan’s special operations forces were responsible for approximately 70 percent of the country’s combat operations. And air mobility and close air support has been vital to the operations of both the American-led coalition and Afghan security forces in general, which often have to quickly respond to fleeting militant attacks across a country nearly the size of Texas.
To compound matters, despite years of foreign investment, Afghanistan’s road infrastructure remains relatively limited, and what does exist can often be treacherous because of the ever present threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This makes resupply of often remote forward bases by air an important consideration, too.
“Making up just less than half of total AAF [Afghan Air Force] aircraft, the Mi-17 is considered the “workhorse” of the AAF,” the Pentagon noted in an annual review of military activities in the country in December 2016. “The AAF is capable of deploying and operating Mi-17s throughout the country.”
But as essential as the helicopter have been, there just aren’t enough of them to go around. As of November 2016, Afghanistan’s air arm had 47 Mi-17s to serve a national army of more than 160,000 troops. By comparison, each one of the U.S. Army’s Black Hawk-equipped assault aviation battalions has 30 choppers. And not all of the Afghan Hips are operational. By April 2017, the Afghan Air Force had a 46 Mi-17s in total, of which 18 were not flyable either due to scheduled overhauls or major repairs, according to a quarterly report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
On top of that, the United States had hired contractors to help keep them flying because of the heavy wear and tear from near constant sorties. Much of the “heavy maintenance” occurred outside of the country, further reducing the number of available helicopters at any one time.
“At the current attrition and flying hour rates, the number of AAF Mi-17s available for 2017 will be significantly diminished,” the Pentagon’s 2016 report continued. “The Mi-17 fleet will become unsustainable by mid-2018, virtually eliminating the AAFs vertical transport and lift capability.”
As the U.S. government began working to rebuild Afghanistan’s military in the early 2000s, the Pentagon had been inclined to simply buy more Hips to fill out the AAF and improve its capabilities. Kabul’s existing aviators, many of which had received their training from the Soviet Union, were familiar with the helicopters, which performed well in the country’s “hot-and-high” environment. Rotary wing aircraft in general are sensitive to any changes in the density of the air, such as hot and humid weather and thinning air at high altitudes. Rapid changes can prevent a chopper from getting sufficient lift and lead to catastrophic accidents.
Unfortunately, this steadily became an untenable political proposition. American legislators wondered why U.S. military aid was going to foreign companies at all and to Russia in particular. At issue initially was Moscow’s history of supplying weapons to regimes the U.S. government considered hostile to the American interests, such as Iran and Venezuela. Kremlin aid to Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad after he began a brutal crackdown of his own people in 2012 only prompted further calls to cancel deals for more Russian helicopters.
In July 2013, a group of 80 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel demanding to know why the Pentagon was still buying Mi-17s through the Kremlin arms broker, Rosoboronexport. “Even as Rosoboronexport was providing weapons to the Syrian regime last year, DOD entered into no-bid contracts to purchase Mi-17 helicopters … from the firm,” their letter noted.
The matter came to a head when the Kremlin’s forces invaded Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, subsequently becoming significantly involved in their neighbor’s civil conflict. Sanctions effectively halted future weapons deals regardless of their merits. By the end of 2016, the United States had already come to rely on Warsaw Pact members turned NATO allies with previous experience with the Mi-17 – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia – to conduct major repairs on the Afghan Hip fleet. In April 2017, General Nicholson declined to refute reports that Russia was actively supporting Taliban militants in April 2017, suggesting the U.S. government’s position wasn’t likely to change any time soon.
The United States hopes to finally alleviate these issues for good by swapping out the Hips for U.S.-made Black Hawks. In theory, the plan makes perfect sense since the Pentagon has easy access to excess UH-60s and no trouble accessing the necessary support systems and supply chains to train Afghan aviators to fly them and keep the aircraft airworthy. It’s not clear if or how the new plan will impact the separate Special Mission Wing, part of the Afghan National Army’s Special Operations Command, which had another 28 Hips on hand as of December 2016, according to the Pentagon.
“We are in the midst of an insurgency where the enemy is getting tacit support from neighboring countries,” Ahmad Shah Katawazai, the defense liaison and resident security expert at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., told Military Times. “Our security forces are under immense pressure as they are fighting each day, on several fronts, with more than 20 terrorist organizations.”
However, there are immediate concerns about how well the Black Hawks can take over for the Mi-17s in Afghanistan’s rugged environment. The U.S. military has already conceded that the 1980s-era UH-60As destined for the AAF will need new engines. American officials have not specified what powerplants it will install for these modified UH-60A+ helicopters, but they “will be able to perform almost all of the same missions that the current Mi-17 fleet has been conducting in terms of number of people and cargo typically carried,” Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump told Military Times. The most likely choice would be the General Electric T-700-GE-701C, which is found on the U.S. Army’s more recent UH-60Ls and Ms, as well as the up-coming UH-60V.
The bigger issue may be that the Mi-17 and UH-60 are not analogous in general, let alone in how the AAF has been employing them, which could provoke a need for the AAF to completely reorient its doctrine and tactics to suit the new helicopter. The Hip is a significantly larger and more powerful helicopter at base, able to carry nearly 9,000 pounds of cargo internally depending on the weather and other factors. A large rear door – a ramp or a clamshell design depending on the specific variant – makes it easy for crews to load larger individual items, too. The Black Hawks cabin is much smaller and can only load some 2,600 pounds of cargo through slide doors on the side of the fuselage.
And then there are the armament options. While the Black Hawk can carry rockets and missiles on special stub wings, these severely limit the helicopter’s ability to perform as a transport. Of the 159 the United States plans to deliver, nearly 60 will reportedly be in a dedicated gunship configuration. On the other hand, the Russians designed the Mi-17 from the outset as an armed troop carrier, with the necessary power to lug both passengers and weapons on up to six pylons. Both helicopters can mount machine guns at windows along the sides of the main cabin and have other self-defense features like decoy flares.
This shouldn't necessarily matter, since “very few of these aircraft have been outfitted with rockets,” Stump told Military Times. The Mi-17’s “primary role is to perform lift, air assaults and medevac [medical evacuation] missions rather than aerial fires missions.” The official reporting heavily contradicts this claim. Between June 1 and Nov. 30, 2016, rocket- and cannon-armed Mi-17s performed more than 80 percent of all AAF close air support missions in support of Afghan troops, according to the review the Pentagon published the following month.
And there's already evidence of new aircraft prompting significant changes in how the AAF fights and causing disruptions both in its operations and morale as a result. In 2015, reports emerged in domestic and international press outlets that Afghanistan’s fliers were not particularly happy with the new MD 530F gunships, which the United States had supplied in attempt to finally retire the country’s aging, but iconic Mi-35 Hinds and get the Hips back to transporting troops.
“This plane [the MD 530F] is a total mess,” AAF Colonel Qalandar Shah Qalandari, the country’s most decorated pilot, told the New York Times in a damning interview in September 2015. “To be honest, I don’t know why we have this plane here.”
“It’s unsafe to fly, the engine is too weak, the tail rotor is defective and it’s not armored,” the aviator, who had experience flying Mi-17s and -35s, continued. “If we go down after the enemy we’re going to have enemy return fire, which we can’t survive. If we go up higher, we can’t visually target the enemy.”
The biggest issue was that the MD 530Fs initially arrived only able to carry two gun pods, each with a single .50 caliber machine gun, and no gun sights at all. The United States subsequently delivered 70mm rocket pods and sighting gear for the diminutive helicopters, similar to the AH-6 and MH-6 Little Birds U.S. special operators fly.
Still, a pair of rocket or gun pods isn’t a real substitute for the much more extensive weapons loadout on the Hinds and Hips. The Pentagon seemed to realize this, and the Black Hawks are only one part of the AATP, which includes additional MD 530Fs, as well as armed Cessna AC-208 Caravans and A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft.
All of these could help relieve the Mi-17s of their important fire support mission, but only if they're available. Training and logistical concerns could easily render the whole moot. The AAF already lacks enough aircrews for all its aircraft and relied heavily on foreign to keep most of them functional.
By the end of 2016, the Pentagon found there were only 36 qualified aircrews for the fleet of 47 Hips. This worked out in a way, since less than 30 of them were operable, but it meant that even if more Mi-17s came online, there wouldn’t be anyone to fly them. Also problematic was that of the 68 pilots who were qualified to fly the choppers as of April 2017, 35 were instructors nominally focused on training new aviators rather than combat operations. This isn’t a new concern. In 2013, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) questioned whether it was prudent to spend hundreds of millions on additional Mi-17s for Special Mission Wing. At the time, even this better staffed specialized aviation unit had more choppers than crews.
Even more worrisome, it seems debatable that the force could rapidly integrate an entirely new type of helicopter, and more complicated one at that, without significant assistance – or an upsurge in potentially deadly accidents. In December 2016, Afghan General Mohayedin Ghori, head of the country’s 207th Corps, died when the Hip he was riding in crashed near the town Muri Chaq in Badghis Province. The incident was reportedly the result of poor maintenance.
The UH-60 is significantly more complex and maintenance intensive than the Mi-17 and the existing corps of Afghan flight and ground crews have no experience with any version of the aircraft. By comparison, the AAF as an institution has decades of time with the Hips, which could only have benefited existing personnel and new trainees. To fly and repair Black Hawks, the force would need all-new training. In the meantime, contractors would need to continue running things to avoid a dangerous slip in operational capabilities.
“Logistical sustainment will make or break the AAF in the long-run,” the Pentagon concluded in another report it published in June 2016. For the new U.S.-supported Afghan aviation plan to truly work, the UH-60s, along with the other additional aircraft, will have to ease those issues without simply creating new problems.
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