An Afghan Air Force UH-60 Blackhawk piloted by an Afghan and American pilot fly in formation Dec. 8, 2018, while participating in the NATO led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Clayton Cupit)
There are too few Afghan Air Force pilots to operate a new fleet of UH-60 Black Hawks as they are delivered and no plan in place for teaching maintainers to keep the aircraft flying once they are fielded, according to the watchdog overseeing U.S. government spending in Afghanistan.
A “key component” of modernizing the AAF is fielding a fleet of 159 Sikorsky UH-60s — 119 for the air force and 40 for its Special Mission Wing — at a cost of between $5.75 billion and $7 billion, according to a quarterly report by the Special Inspector General For Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published Jan. 30.
The first 16 Black Hawks have been delivered, SIGAR found in an audit of the program that “based on the current UH-60 delivery schedule, it is unlikely that there will be enough pilots trained before all of the UH-60s are received.”
Even though pilot recruitment and training is not keeping pace with established schedules, the U.S. Defense Department has set no metrics to determine whether Black Hawk deliveries should be paused or the buy reduced, SIGAR says.
Even if the aircraft are fielded on time, there is no plan to maintain the aircraft or to train an adequate force of Afghan maintainers to keep them flying, according to the report. Contractor maintenance of the 159 UH-60s will cost an estimated $2.8 billion through 2023. That cost likely will grow the longer it takes to train Afghan maintainers, the report says.
“DOD does not currently have a maintenance training course in place to train Afghan personnel to maintain UH-60s,” the report says. “Having insufficient Afghan maintenance personnel limits the locations at which UH-60s can operate because DOD policy bars U.S. contractors from working where there is no U.S. or Coalition control due to security concerns.”
There also is no plan in place to limit the number of hours each aircraft flies per month. The existing maintenance strategy calls for no more than 35 flight hours per month per airframe and exceeding that limit “risks excessive wear that could require additional maintenance at an increased cost,” SIGAR says.
SIGAR recommends that the Defense Department reduce the waiting time between initial pilot training and the UH-60 qualification course and implement an English language course for pilot trainees, establish a parallel training program for aircraft maintainers including in areas where U.S. contractors are barred from working, establish a rubric for measuring and limiting monthly flight hours and link the deliveries of UH-60s to the training of pilots and maintenance personnel.
In response to a draft of the report, Defense Department officials say they are working to establish additional pilot training locations and have “developed a proposed training plan that includes establishing a maintenance development center outside of Afghanistan that will focus specifically on training entry-level UH-60 maintenance personnel.”