Mi-17/8. Photo courtesy of Russian Helicopters
Afghanistan’s military is fielding Black Hawk helicopters that lack the lift capacity and flight capabilities of the Russian Mi-17s it currently flies, which are also simpler to fly and maintain than the U.S.-made aircraft, according to a U.S. Defense Department watchdog report.
The Defense Department is replacing the Mi-17 with UH-60A Black Hawks to provide additional lift and aerial fires capability to the Afghan Air Force (AAF). Congress also called for the switch from buying Russian helicopters to purchasing aircraft from U.S. manufacturers.
That transition will present challenges for the AAF as it continues to battle Taliban insurgents and the illicit narcotics economy, according to the most recent quarterly report on the war by DOD’s Lead Inspector General for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
Black Hawks do not have the lift capacity of Mi-17s and cannot fly at altitudes encountered in Afghanistan’s remote mountainous regions from which insurgents operate, according to the report, published in late May. The report covers the period January through March 31, 2018.
“The transition presents several challenges that have yet to be fully addressed,” the report says. “They are unable to accommodate some of the larger cargo items the Mi-17s can carry, and in general, it takes almost two Black Hawks to carry the load of a single Mi-17. Furthermore, unlike Mi-17s, Black Hawks cannot fly at high elevations and, as such, cannot operate in remote regions of Afghanistan where Mi-17s operate.”
According to 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan, the Mi-17s will play a “crucial role” in the near term fighting season, but as they phase out of service, the challenges presented by transitioning to the UH-60 will become more pronounced.
By the end of 2019, the Mi-17 inventory is scheduled to be reduced from 47 (24 of which are in long-term maintenance) to 20. The fleet size is scheduled to decrease to 18 by the end of 2021 and then down to 12 by the end of 2022.
Between December 2017 and March 2018, the U.S. issued four UH-60s to the AAF at a cost of $13.6 million, according to the Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). The Defense Department set aside $709.8 million in fiscal 2018, the second year of the transition effort.
As of March 2018, eight Black Hawks had been delivered to the AAF, with another 45 purchased but not yet fielded, out of a total 159 planned as part of the Afghan National Defense and Security Force’s AAF modernization road map. The AAF in 2018 has trained 20 UH-60 Pilots and 16 special mission operators.
As of March 3, the U.S. spent $6.4 billion to support and develop the AAF from fiscal years 2010 to 2018, with roughly $1.4 billion appropriated in fiscal 2018, according to SIGAR.
The AAF’s current inventory of aircraft includes the eight UH-60 utility helicopters; four Mi-35 helicopters, of which four are unavailable; 47 Mi-17s, of which 24 are unavailable; 25 MD530 helicopters, of which five are unavailable; 24 C-208 utility airplanes, four C-130 transport airplanes, 20 A-29 light attack airplanes, SIGAR counted in its most recent quarterly report to Congress.
Both the Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters are Russian-made. The U.S. bought 33 of the Mi-17s from Russia, but provided no funding or other support for Mi-35s. The other Mi-17s were procured for the Afghans from other sources.
Afghans are performing roughly 80% of the maintenance tasks on the Mi-17s and rely on contractor logistics support for the remaining 20%, according to the IG report, but maintaining the Mi-17 is “much more conducive to the education level available in the general Afghan population than the UH-60As.”
In the near- to mid-term the AAF will be almost entirely reliant on contractors for Black Hawk maintenance. Maintenance contracts will scale down as the Mi-17 fleet size reduces will “reduce emphasis on aircraft readiness and place more emphasis on building Afghan maintenance capacity,” the IG report says.
Despite the introduction of the UH-60A Black Hawks, the AAF will continue to train new Mi-17 pilots. Ten pilots scheduled to graduate in late 2018 and another 10 scheduled to graduate in late 2019, the report says. The new pilots are needed to replace Mi-17 pilots who migrate to Black Hawks.
“This raises concerns about the efficiency of training Afghan pilots to fly an airframe that is being phased out, rather than putting new trainees directly into the Black Hawk pipeline,” the report says.