Afghanistan Is Getting More Ill-Suited Attack Choppers it May Not Even Be Able to Fly

The country's air force is getting dozens more MD 530Fs, but doesn't even have enough pilots for its existing fleet.

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The U.S. Army signed a deal to buy as many 150 MD 530F light attack helicopters, as well as a host of related mission equipment, specifically for American allies and partners, over the next five years. The first deliveries will go to Afghanistan, where some officials have previously criticized the tiny gunship’s performance in the country and which simply may not have the manpower to effectively make use of them at all.

On Sept. 5, 2017, the Pentagon announced the Army’s contract award to MD Helicopters, worth almost $1.4 billion, in its daily contracting press release. This initial notice suggested that all the helicopters were bound for Afghanistan, but the Arizona-headquartered manufacturer said the purchases would be for any qualifying foreign partner, which the service also later confirmed to IHS Jane’s.

“This Contract is … a testament to the effective, efficient role the MD 530 Armed Scout Attack Helicopters play in the global fight against terror,” MD Helicopters Lynn Tilton said in a statement. “The MD 530F Cayuse Warrior has been a proven performer in support of ground operations and in the execution of close air support interactions since it first arrived in Kabul.”

MD Helicopters says the first 30 aircraft – a fifth of the estimated total under the deal with the Army – will go to Afghanistan to join the aircraft already flying there against the Taliban and other insurgents and terrorists. The company will outfit these new helicopters with digital “glass” cockpits, auxiliary fuel tanks, tactical radios, and weapon mounts able to carry either forward firing .50 caliber machine gun pods or 70mm rockets, among other mission equipment.

The U.S. military had already planned to help deliver these aircraft as part of the existing Afghan Aviation Transition Plan (AATP) modernization effort, which began during President Barack Obama’s administration and is not linked to President Donald Trump’s 2017 Afghanistan and South Asia policy announcement. For more than two years, the MD 530F has been an important part of American-supported plans to help Afghanistan’s military operate independently of foreign support.

However, the small helicopters, derived from the iconic Vietnam-era OH-6A Cayuse scout helicopter and similar to the AH-6 and MH-6 Little Birds that American special operators use, already have a complicated history in Afghanistan’s air force. In 2014, the U.S. military first decided to facilitate the delivery of a dozen armed MD 530Fs to Afghanistan bolster the capabilities of the country’s air force, which at the time was relying entirely on armed Mi-8 and -17 series assault transports and a handful of aging Mi-35 Hind gunships to provide close air support for troops on the ground. The plan was to also arm and armor five more MD 530Fs the Afghans already had, but were using as trainers, as well as supply a separate fleet of A-29 light attack aircraft.

The initial batch of six helicopter arrived in Kabul in March 2015, but in the rush to get them into action they arrived without any sighting equipment or the ability to fire rockets. Afghan pilots initially flew missions only with the .50 caliber gun pods, aiming the weapons using crude crosshairs they applied directly to the gunship’s front windshield with a grease pencil.

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The first batch of armed 530Fs arrives in Afghanistan 2015.

It was an inauspicious beginning that prompted severe and public criticism from Afghanistan’s military establishment. On top of that, the issues magnified those officials’ views that the smaller and lighter armed and armored helicopters were an especially poor substitute for the Russian-made designs they were much more familiar with.

“This plane is a total mess,” Afghan Air Force Colonel Qalandar Shah Qalandari told The New York Times 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,” he 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.”

Qalandari, a Soviet-trained officer who was Afghanistan’s most highly decorated pilot at the time, argued in favor of more Hinds while also criticizing other American-funded purchases for the country’s Air Force. His complaints about the helicopter’s performance in Afghanistan were not unreasonable.

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An Afghan Air Force Mi-35 Hind during operations in 2013.

Much of the country is mountainous and during the summer temperatures in some regions can get extremely high. More so than fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters are particularly sensitive to the density of the air and these so-called “hot-and-high” conditions can severely curtail how much weight they can carry, which in turns limits their overall range and capabilities.

Qalandari told The New York Times that an MD 530F with a full load of ammunition couldn’t reliably or safely get to an altitude of 7,000 or 8,000 feet above sea level during the summer months. Kabul is already at an elevation of approximately 6,000 feet, which meant that the helicopters couldn’t fly over the mountain ranges that surrounded the capital city.

“When my pilots fly in this, only God and I know what they’re going through,” he added. “And I don’t know whether they’ll make it back.”

The Afghan Air Force’s work-around in many cases has been to fly the helicopters to forward sites inside its C-130 cargo planes. Still, with only machine guns, pilots had to get within relatively close range of their targets to even have a chance of hitting anything.

The MD 530Fs eventually got reflector gun sights and rockets, but lack the ability to employ laser guided version or an other precision guided munitions that would limit the vulnerability of the aircraft and otherwise expand its capabilities. And while the MD 530F’s armament system can accommodate multiple types of weapons at a time, Afghanistan’s helicopters only appear to fly missions with two machine gun pods or two seven-tube rocket pods, likely to keep the overall weight down.

Without even a basic infrared camera or similar sensor, crews would have to rely on night vision googles to fly at night and find their targets, again hampering the ability of the helicopters to attack insurgents when they are most active. Coalition air power has long used its ability to operate after the sun goes down to help keep the Taliban and other militants at bay.

One option might have been to send Afghanistan now surplus OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, which have sensors and the ability to employ precision guided munitions, in lieu of the MD 530Fs. However, the U.S. Army's decision to retire the type came after plans were already in place to provide the Afghan Air Force with Cayuse Warriors and it is possible American advisors were loathe to add another type of aircraft into the mix.

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From the information available, it’s hard to assess how effective the helicopters have been in combat overall, though. On Aug. 29, 2017, Afghanistan’s Tolo News reported that the country’s air force had flown 120 air strikes in the preceding 24 hours as part of surge in operations, but did not say whether any MD 530Fs took part in the missions.

It’s not always easy to know how many of the helicopters are still flying As of July 2017, insurgents had shot down two and another was out of service due to a hard landing, according to a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The U.S. government watchdog, which keeps track of military and other support to the country, said for some inexplicable reason no one had yet stricken the two crashed aircraft from the official inventory lists.

After the Qalandari’s interview, American officials defended the MD 530Fs, as well as the other aircraft, saying that were best suited for both the country’s needs and what it could realistically operate and maintain, something we at The War Zone have addressed before regarding Afghanistan’s air force in general. What they declined to mention, though, was the increasing difficultly the United States was having in purchasing Russian helicopter types in light of heightened tensions with the Kremlin and economic sanctions over its activities in Ukraine, including the outright seizure of the Crimea region.

But the overall utility of the aircraft may be limited due to the chronic problems Afghanistan’s military had and still does with regards to keeping its more advanced equipment, including aircraft and helicopters, operational. This is in no small part due to persistent shortages of trained personnel and other resources, as well as endemic corruption and other political factors. So, it’s hard to understand how the country expects to absorb another 30 aircraft on top of the 25 it already has, either.

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An Afghan Air Force MD 530F flies over the service's ramp at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.

According to one of the Pentagon’s routine reports to Congress in of June 2017 the Afghan Air Force only had 20 fully qualified air crews – a pilot and a co-pilot – for its entire existing fleet of MD 530Fs. The next month, SIGAR reported that there were 58 pilots qualified to fly the helicopters, along with another 16 who had yet to receive their full certifications. At that time, the country’s air arm had approximately 215 fully qualified pilots in total.

Private contractors were responsible for the bulk of the maintenance duties to keep the helicopters operational. The U.S. military had no formal timeline for when they expected that to change.

“Full aircrew manning is forecasted to be achieved by 2018,” the Pentagon explained in its June 2017 report. “Although this is important progress in the transition to a self-sustaining MD-530 fleet, maintenance capability will likely take longer than aircrew capability to develop fully.”

Doubling the fleet now will only put more pressure on both of these training pipelines and there’s are systemic issues that limit the ability for Afghanistan’s military to realistically ramp up those processes, namely persistently high illiteracy rates. It was one of the issues infamous military contractor Erik Prince cited in his proposal to provide Afghanistan with a new, privately operated air force.

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These underlying problems are so severe that U.S. Army Major General Mark Quantock once described them collectively as the “Afghan Condition.” He made the comments while serving as the top intelligence officer for the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan.

“Quantock used the term ‘Afghan Condition’ to describe circumstances in Afghanistan culture that restrict or limit their progress,” according to a Department of Defense Inspector General report regarding the training of Afghan intelligence personnel. “The Afghan condition includes high illiteracy rates, internal language barriers, gender inequality, tribal or family influences, corruption, and security concerns.”

We obtained a highly redacted copy of this classified review via the Freedom of Information Act. The public affairs office for the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission did not respond to a query about whether or not it considered this assessment, which Quantock made in 2015 or 2016, to still be valid. The major general went on to become the top intelligence officer for U.S. Central Command.

In his policy announcement in August 2017, President Trump insisted that the United States would continue its support for the Afghan military, but that it was not a blank check, which previous administrations had also insisted was the case. Afghanistan had to show it was willing to carry its own burdens and able to make “real progress.”

Whether the Afghan air force can make good use of new 530Fs will be a good indication of the state of the country’s military overall and offer a test of the Trump administration’s resolve to hold limit further support if they can’t perform.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com