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A New Platform and New Plan for the Afghan Air Force
Abdul Rahman Rahmani and John McCain
The Afghan Air Force (AAF) was founded by King Amanullah Khan in 1924. It was funded by Italy at the time, but after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, Russia provided arms, training and funding to the AAF. By April 2017, despite money and training from the United States, “The AAF had 46 Mi-17s in total, of which 18 were not flyable either due to scheduled overhauls or major repairs,” noted the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan in its recent report. The report stressed that the Mi-17s are "in a state of steady decline due to higher-than-anticipated utilization rates and accelerating attrition." Therefore, a necessity to update the now tired Russian helicopter fleet in Afghanistan is required. According to a report by Foreign Policy, “The latest [US Department of Defense] plan for the nascent Afghan Air Force calls for it to grow from its current fleet of 124 aircraft up to 259, and from 8,000 personnel to 12,000.” If implemented, this plan would replace the current Russian fleet with American aircraft, the bulk of which would be UH-60 Blackhawks. This would be a boon for the AAF, since this plan provides enhanced capabilities from the combat, maintenance, and training perspectives that will positively affect Afghan security forces at the tactical level of the war, with the hopes of aggregating tactical successes into overall strategic gains.
From the combat and operational perspectives, when comparing the capabilities of Blackhawks and Mi-17s, among several different factors, three key elements should be considered: speed, maneuver, and lethality. First, Blackhawks are faster than Mi-17s; therefore, they can provide increased speed for missions that will help security forces pursue and capture targets before they escape. Moreover, the faster an aircraft is on the battlefield, the more survivable it is against small arms. Second, Blackhawks are lighter and smaller than Mi-17s, and therefore, more maneuverable. This smaller size and greater maneuverability combination translates to enhanced survivability in combat. I distinctly remember a night mission during an operation in Helmand province. At the time, I could hear the Taliban talking on the radio. When they heard the sound of helicopter’s rotors, one of them asked the other, “Are those American aircraft?” After a pause, the next guy replied, “No these are Zarangs!” making reference to Afghan three-wheeled motorbikes that transport people and goods in Afghan bazaars. The Taliban had nicknamed our Mi-17s ‘Zarang’ because they considered them lightly defended targets, and not an object to be feared. Later, I discovered that the Taliban were, in fact, scared of American Blackhawks because they were more maneuverable and acted more aggressively when operating against insurgents. While very few Mi-17 helicopters have been designated gunships, out of 159 Blackhawks 60 would be designated gunships which will bring maneuver, firepower, and enable more and aggressive tactics allowing the AAF to destroy the Taliban elements on the battlefield, limiting their operational and tactical space.
From the maintenance perspective, the US would provide the majority of aircraft parts to the AAF faster from Bagram and Kadahar, as opposed to Mi-17 parts which were not only exceedingly expensive but also required more time and negotiations to be made with the Russian government, an unreliable broker, at best. The result placed Mi-17s in the “…state of steady decline,” situation. For example, according to SIGAR, “Out of unavailable Mi-17s, six of them are in overhaul, four are in heavy repair, and six have expired.” If this situation remains, by the middle of 2018, AAF would be out of Mi-17 helicopters. Unlike Mi-17s which steadily ‘decline’ this plan will provide overhaul inspections to the American aircraft quicker than the past because the Afghan government had to send the Russian aircraft to countries like Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia for overhaul inspections, while Blackhawks can be inspected inside Afghanistan, by American and Afghan trained maintenance personnel. Also, a less apparent disadvantage, translating Russian publications to English and then to Dari or Pashtu was time and energy intensive, which negatively affected maintenance efforts, and leads to misunderstanding.
Last but still very important, from a joint operational perspective, currently, the AAF relies on American air support through the use of AC-130s and Apaches during night missions. Often, communications equipment installed in Russian helicopters is incompatible with their American counterparts, especially where secure communications are concerned. Blackhawks will provide seamless and secure communication during operations, eliminating the requirement for cumbersome workarounds. Clear and concise communications, unimpeded by interoperability issues, are critical for future successes in the war for Afghanistan.
A logical counterargument to this plan is that AAF pilots and maintainers are already familiar with and used to the Mi-17, and re-training would require significant time and effort, two limited components in this war. This is a case that can be made, albeit a flimsy and shortsighted one. However, the AAF needs a plan that will guarantee sustainability of its rotary-wing fleet and; therefore, it cannot rely on an aging Russian aircraft forever. Moreover, Afghanistan needs a new, elite corps of military officers, divorced from legacy Russian equipment and doctrine, to lead its military in the future, because victory in this war depends on the young generation of Afghans. The US and Afghan government can train this new generation inside Afghanistan, at bases like Shindand, Kandahar, and Kabul International Airport, without having to send them to the US and Europe, where many of them flee or seek asylum, which further delays the training cycle and disrupts the military education system. Training pilots and maintainers on Mi-17s did not previously have the flexibility of using Afghan military bases. Also, future training of Blackhawk crews can be conducted easier than Mi-17s, because most American rotary wing pilots, from the U.S. Navy, Army, and Air Force, are familiar with Blackhawks and do not need to be sent to Ukraine or Czech Republic for specific aircraft familiarization training. Unlike the Mi-17 helicopters translated publications, this plan will facilitate availability of original English publications to the pilots and maintainers without having to rely on third-hand translated versions.
In conclusion, the new U.S. aviation plan for Afghanistan is a game changer, which can restore passion and eagerness within AAF personnel. In order to create the conditions conducive to sustaining a winning outcome on the battlefield it is imperative to bring enhanced speed, maneuver, and lethality to friendly forces and destruction to the enemy on the battlefield. These objectives can be achieved when replacement parts are provided faster to the aircraft and overhaul inspections occur quicker inside Afghanistan, when training is provided on Afghan soil and the publications do not need to be translated into three different languages. Finally, if the author can address the most pressing concern to the AAF, it is that this plan should be implemented as soon as possible, and first replace those aircraft operating in the Special Mission Wing (SMW) of the AAF. Currently, the Afghan Special Forces (ASF) are conducting 70% of the combat operations in Afghanistan, which almost exclusively rely on the SMW. With new aircraft, at-home training, maintenance practices, and a new generation of eager pilots and aircrew, it will be possible to begin to turn the tide at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of the Afghan war.