A U.S. Army UH-60Q Dustoff helicopter lands at Qayyarah West Airfield, Iraq, Nov. 19, 2016. Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force, Senior Airman Jordan Castelan
The U.S. Defense Dept. plans to upgrade more than 50 surplus Army UH-60As for shipment to Afghanistan’s military as replacements for aged and overused Mi-17s that America helped buy for operations there.
The plan, revealed by U.S. Richard Blumenthal (Democrat of Connecticut) and confirmed to R&WI by the Pentagon, calls for refurbishing 53 Sikorsky UH-60As divested from the U.S. Army inventory within about two years. The Sikorsky aircraft would be modified to a UH-60A+ configuration, which the Pentagon said “is suitable for the challenging Afghanistan environment” that includes high altitudes and hot temperatures.
The plan, which is contingent on Congress funding it, also calls for procuring 30 additional armed MD Helicopters MD-530s and six Embraer A-29 and Cessna AC-208 fixed-wing attack aircraft. The Defense Dept. “will seek funding for additional UH-60s and AC-208s in future fiscal years,” it said.
The U.S. decision back in 2005 to procure the Mil utility helicopters for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces has irked American lawmakers ever since. Their opposition intensified after Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea and its more recent support of the Assad government in Syria.
“I’ll never understand why the U.S. government sent taxpayer money to Russia for helicopters in Afghanistan while Russia was supporting the Assad regime in Syria and invading eastern Ukraine,” said Connecticut’s other senator, Democratic Party member Chris Murphy, in announcing the plan with Blumenthal. “When the Pentagon buys helicopters, they should be made in America.”
The 2005 decision came at a time when Afghanistan needed vertical lift but U.S. helicopters were in high demand for combat operations there, in Iraq, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. It enabled training of Afghan pilots and supporting helicopters outside the UH-60 pipelines.
But the Russian Helicopters Mi-17s proved more costly and difficult to support, especially after President Barack Obama in 2014 banned U.S. businesses from dealing with Russian arms makers. Those difficulties have been aggravated by the Mi-17s’ heavy use in Afghanistan and their ongoing losses there due to crashes and Taliban attacks.
“The size of the Afghan aviation fleet is not adequate to meet its lift and close air support requirements, and overuse and attrition are steadily diminishing the already undersized Mi-17 fleet,” the Pentagon said.
One factor in shifting to Black Hawk, in addition to political pressure for Sikorsky purchases as the U.S. ramps down H-60 acquisitions, was the growing ability of Afghanistan to produce pilots.
“Time has proven that Afghanistan is capable of generating pilots and there are now enough Afghan pilots to operate their fleet,” the Pentagon said, “but the demand for aviation support has grown rapidly as the Afghans have taken full responsibility for security.”
Transitioning the Afghans to Black Hawks should improve interoperability with U.S. forces and advisors in the country.
The Defense Dept. has requested initial funding of $814.5 million for the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund as part of the Fiscal Year 2017 budget amendment, it said.