Politicians have allowed good old animosities and pointless diplomatic foot-stamping get in the way of good decision making that is in the long-term interest of the United States. As the Russian government continues its support of the collapsing leadership of Syria’s President Bashar al Assad, and tries to supply new and/or repaired helicopters to its forces (the ship, the Alaed carrying them was turned back twice, in June then July), so the House of Representatives decided overwhelmingly by 407-5 votes in July to halt the $171-million purchase of Russian-made Mi-17s for the Afghan Air Force. The completion deadline was Dec. 31, 2016.
|Afghan soldiers boarding an Afghan Air Force Mi-17 during a training exercise in Herat Province.
The passing of the bill confirmed the “break contract” stance to halt the process of taking up further options for the purchase of another 10 Mi-17s from Russian state arms export company Rosoboronexport. However, the folly of this act means that it this simply derails an ongoing process started in May 2011 with a $367-million deal for delivery of 21 Mi-17V5s to the Afghan military. An additional two Mi-17s were bought for spares this summer at a cost of $46 million.
The architect of this counter-productive bill, Senator John Cornyn, pointed out: “There has never been a competition for supplying rotorcraft for the Afghan National Security Forces. Had there been one, I’m confident American firms would have done exceptionally well.”
Last year however, the Chief of Staff of the Afghan Army Abdul Wahhab Wardak said that the choice of the Mi-17 supported a type better suited by way of simplicity to Afghan aircrew and technical staff, and through experience that it was more suited to conditions in Afghanistan.
Would any western helicopter manufacturer be interested in supplying, and more importantly supporting, a fleet of aircraft over time at a price that could compete with the Russian-made Mi-17s? The western trend has been to increase the sophistication of their systems—not build them to be the equivalent of the AK-47. Not only have the Afghan military operated Mi-17s since the 1980s, well before U.S. forces were in Afghanistan, but the process of supplying them with Mi-17 helicopters by the U.S. Army under the Non Standard Rotary Wing program is well under way. In addition, U.S. Army personnel are instructing Afghan trainee pilots to be able to fly the Mi-17 when they gain their wings. The Mi-17 is the right aircraft for Afghanistan on many levels and, if being supported for any time by the American taxpayer, is the cheapest option in the long term by far. It is also the helicopter that the Afghans stand a chance of maintaining after American and other International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) have taken their helicopters home when the drawdown is complete around 2015.
Make no mistake, air power and helicopter support, be it kinetic or logistical, has been a key factor in holding back the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Afghan National Army will be hard pressed already to continue the counter-insurgency campaign without the high-tech, long reaching ISAF forces. If they can’t operate and re-supply from the air, then all of the rural areas that have been so hard won with ISAF and Afghan lives will be quickly vulnerable once again. Road transport becomes vulnerable to Improvised Explosive Devices and other forms of attack; the task to keep these routes open becomes harder and an army barely trained to acceptable standards in most cases will see a crumbling of morale followed by defections. Then it doesn’t take too much imagination for the collapse of central government which would leave us all back to the day before 9/11.