At Hearing, Dunford Highlights Plans for Afghan Black Hawk Gunship Variant

After a visit to Afghanistan, which saw a particularly brazen Taliban attack on Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford went to Capitol Hill to talk to Senators about the state of America’s longest war. Among other things, America’s top uniformed military officer discussed efforts to improve the capability of Afghanistan’s military, specifically noting plans to deliver a gunship version of the UH-60 Black Hawk to the country’s air force.

On Sept. 18, 2017, two UH-60A+ Black Hawks, the first of nearly 160 aircraft the United States plans to deliver to the Afghan Air Force, arrived a Kandahar Air Field on board a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane. The entire fleet will eventually incorporate almost 60 aircraft equipped with forward firing weaponry for close air support missions.

“Longterm, and that’s about six or seven years from now, we’ll completely have transformed the Afghan Air Force,” General Dunford said in response to a question from Senator Deb Fischer, a Republic from Nebraska, during the hearing on Oct. 3, 2017. “A key piece of that is the transition from Mi-17 helicopters to UH-60 helicopters, which includes an attack variant.”

Dunford did not offer any new details about when the first of these variants would arrive or what the configuration itself would entail. At present, the Afghan Air Force relies in large part on a fleet of less than 50 Russian-made Mi-17V1 and V5 Hip helicopters.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford., CQ Roll Call via AP

You can watch the entire exchange below. Senator Fischer’s question about the Afghan Air Force begins at 54:10 if the player does not immediately forward you to that point.

Designed from the outset as an assault transport, Afghanistan’s Hips can and have carried 23mm cannon pods and 57mm unguided rockets in order to provide fire support to troops on the ground. In 2015, the country’s air arm also began to receive MD Helicopter 530F light attack choppers, which can carry either a pair of .50 caliber machine guns or two seven-shot 70mm rocket pods.

Those helicopters have since proven to be a controversial addition, as we at The War Zone have explained previously in depth. A very limited number of iconic Soviet-era Mi-35 Hind gunships have been in and out of service for years, as well.

In principle, an armed version of the UH-60 could provide a significant boost in capability for the Afghan Air Force, especially if the armament package came combined with electro-optical and infrared sensors that allowed crews to operate and effectively engage enemy forces at night. The ability to take on the Taliban and other militants after dark, when they have the most freedom to move without Afghan or coalition forces spotting them, has long been critical to keeping those forces at bay.

A US Army UH-60M Black Hawk commander’s variant with a sensor turret under the nose., US Army

And while we don’t know the exact configuration the Afghans will get, we do have some hints as to what the aircraft might look like in the end. A number of countries, including the United States, already employ armed attack versions of the Black Hawk.

One such configuration is the Colombian Air Force’s AH-60L, also called the Arpia, which means harpy in Spanish. The latest version, the Arpia III, features a nose-mounted radar to assist with low-level flight with a sensor turret underneath. Stub wings on either side carry 70mm rocket pods and .50 caliber GAU-19 three-barrel rotary machine guns, with additional machine guns fitted in the main cabin doors.

A Colombia Air Force AH-60L Arpia III., Pablo Andrés Ortega Chávez via Wikimedia

The U.S. Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment has used its own similar set up for years now. These specially arranged MH-60L and MH-60M Black Hawks are known as Direct Action Penetators, or DAPs, and again have a terrain following radar, sensor turret with day- and night-vision cameras, and small wings for ordnance.

The DAPs are able to carry a mixture of 70mm rockets, Hellfire missiles, GAU-19/Bs, and 30mm M230 cannons. The last weapon is the same gun found on the AH-64 Apache gunship. In addition, each one of these helicopters has a pair of Miniguns that can be locked in a forward-firing mode to add to the firepower.

In September 2017, the Army received the first set of all new lightweight wings for the 160th’s MH-60Ms, called the Multi-Station Lightweight Armament Support Structure (MLASS). The manufacturer, Unitech Composites, says the new units are 270 pounds lighter than the older sponsons and easier for troops to install and remove as necessary. They can still carry all of the same weapons as before and fit any UH-60A, L, or M derivative.

An MH-60M Black Hawk with the MLASS wing set., United Composites

Black Hawk maker Sikorsky, now part of Lockheed Martin, has offered its own, from factory UH-60 gunship, known as the “Battlehawk,” as well as offering the components as a kit for existing helicopters. The Connecticut-based firm demonstrated this configuration to the Australian and Israeli militaries, with the latter also experimenting with an underbelly 20mm cannon installation.

In 2011, the United Arab Emirates put in an order for a number of these conversions to expand the capabilities of its Black Hawk fleet. Again, this offering includes an additional sensor package to go along with the added armament.

Of course, any “AH-60” the Afghan Air Force receives could easily run into the same problems we at The War Zone have outlined repeatedly. In September 2017, I wrote:

It’s hard to imagine the Afghan UH-60 fleet will be able to match that level of independent operation any time soon and the transition could throw the relative stability of the “advanced” Mi-17 program into disarray. Captain Salvin told Military Times that the U.S. military plans to provide training more than 60 future UH-60 pilots in both Afghanistan and the United States, starting between October and November.

But it’s not at all clear where these aviators would come from and Salvin suggested this would be separate for transition training for existing Hip crews. As of July 2017, the Afghan Air Force had 82 Hip pilots in total, including 39 co-pilots and 11 instructors, according to a quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a top U.S. government watchdog.

If the U.S. military plans to pull a significant number of Mi-17 pilots and crews off the line for these training courses, it will have to fill in the obvious and immediate gap with American aircraft or contractors, or otherwise accept that the Afghan military will have a significant shortfall in air mobility capability. SIGAR said in its July 2017 quarterly report that the Hips had flown 50 percent of all Afghan Air Force missions in the preceding four months despite reportedly having the lowest operational readiness rate of any of the service’s airframes. American officials blamed the low availability on the age of the aircraft, but it seems very likely that this heavily utilization was a significant factor, as well.

At the October 2017 hearing, Dunford obviously remained optimistic. As he noted, the delivery of the UH-60s was an essential part of the overall plan to modernize the Afghan Air Force.

“It’s [the Afghan Air Force] come a long way over the past two, two and half years,” he added in his response to Senator Fischer’s query. “And again, over the next six or seven years, we expect the Afghan Air Force to be able to provide the support the Afghans need.”

At present, the expectation is that a significant amount of that support will come from these future UH-60 gunships.

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