As First UH-60s Arrive, US Plan to Dump Afghan Mi-17s Is Still Problematic

The first two Black Hawks have touched down in Afghanistan, but its unclear when they'll be operational.

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The United States has delivered the first UH-60 Black Hawks for Afghanistan’s Air Force as part of a transition away from its Mi-17V1 and V5 Hips. At the same time, the NATO-led assistance mission has acknowledged the Afghans have extensive experience with the Russian-made helicopters, suggesting the addition of the new American-supplied aircraft could easily have a negative impact on their ability to conduct operations without outside support.

On Sept. 18, 2017, the U.S. Air Force unloaded the first two UH-60A+ Black Hawks in Afghan Air Force markings at Kandahar Air Field. According to Military Times, U.S. Navy Captain William Salvin, a spokesman for the NATO-run Resolute Support Mission, said another pair would arrive by the end of the week. The United States plans to deliver a total of nearly 160 of the helicopters over the next four to six years as part of a broad modernization program known as the Afghan Aviation Transition Plan (AATP).

“Transitioning to U.S. air frames will provide a more sustainable fleet and enhance Afghanistan’s ability to operate independently of coalition forces,” according to a video the Resolute Support Mission’s Train Advise Assist Command-Air (TAAC-Air) released earlier in September 2017. “The future of Afghan rotary wing operations: the UH-60 Black Hawk.”

There is no debate about the Afghan military’s need for more air mobility to be able to adequately respond to the threats of various terrorist and insurgent groups. Much of the country, which is roughly the size of the state of Texas, is difficult for troops on the ground to access even in lightweight vehicles. Mountains, deserts and other terrain can easily slow operations in a country with limited road infrastructure.

As such, helicopters and other air support have long been essential for coalition and Afghan missions, providing the speed necessary to respond on short notice to rapidly developing situations and the flexibility to establish and maintain forward bases in otherwise inhospitable areas. It’s also true that the Afghan Air Force simply doesn’t have enough Mi-17s to meet this demand.

The U.S. military’s logic is that, given logistical and political realities, it is easier for it to support and work with an Afghan Air Force that flies the same aircraft that it does. But as we at The War Zone have explained in detail before, the Black Hawk is a significantly more complicated helicopter, with less carrying capacity compared to the Hip, and one that the Afghans have little to no functional experience flying or maintaining.

In May 2017, when U.S. and Afghan officials first revealed this part of the AATP, I wrote:

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.

It is worth noting that the United States has put Afghan military and police personnel through UH-60 maintenance courses in the past. This appears to have been mainly to give them basic skill sets, though, since neither organization has had any Black Hawks before now.

And in the same presentation where it extolled the bright future of an Afghan Air Force flying the UH-60, TAAC-Air seemed to concede and even highlight many of these basic points. Not only is the Mi-17 fleet the backbone of the force, it’s one of their “most advanced programs.”

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A TAAC-Air advisor watches US Air Force personnel unload on of the first two Afghan Air Force UH-60s at Kandahar Air Field on Sept. 18, 2017.

“Afghan crews plan, manage, and execute all aspects of routine flying and maintenance operations [on the Hip], while experienced air advisors offer assistance and work hand-in-hand with mission leads,” the video noted. “The aircraft fly more than 40 hours per month and require maintenance every 25 hours – with major maintenance inspections every 100 hours.”

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.

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An Afghan Air Force Mi-17.

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.

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An Afghan Air Force mechanic works on an Mi-17.

There’s also no indication of how long the training programs will last and how long it will be before the Afghans can routinely conduct missions and necessary repairs independent of coalition advisers and contractor support with the UH-60. We do know that it took years for both the Afghan military and police to reach their existing proficiency with the Mi-17, despite it being a significantly simpler aircraft and there being an existing Soviet-trained experience base.

Thanks to a U.S. Army accident investigation report into the crash of Mi-8MTV-1 helicopter – another designation for the Mi-17V1 – in April 2012 in Kabul, which we obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, we have gotten a deeper look into some of those past operations. In this case, the aircraft ostensibly belonged to the Afghan Ministry of Interior’s Afghan Interdiction Unit, a counter-narcotics aviation element receiving support from American and British military advisers and private contractors.

US Army via FOIA

A grainy photo of the AIU's crashed Mi-8MTV-1 in Kabul in April 2012.

During the accident, which occurred during a dual training and reconnaissance mission, a Northrop Grumman contractor was the pilot-in-command, with a member of the AIU as the co-pilot. Massive private military company DynCorp, which recently argued for an increase in contractor support in Afghanistan alongside infamous mercenary Erik Prince, was providing maintenance for the helicopters. At this time, the AIU had been reportedly conducting “Afghan-only” operations for nearly two years.

It seems reasonable to expect the Afghan Air Force’s UH-60 units will operate with a similar arrangement as they begin operations with the type. With the Afghan’s long standing political and societal issues, which some have described in the past as “The Afghan Condition,” the complete transition process could realistically take years to complete.

This again, was something TAAC-Air seemed to accept in its presentation on the Hip. “Until the transition is complete, Afghan Air Force maintainers will keep the Mi-17 fit for flight.”

Whether there will be enough personnel to adequately support the Mi-17 and UH-60 programs simultaneously remains to be seen.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com