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Afghan Air Force Switch from Russian to US Helicopters

Afghan Air Force

An Afghan Mi-17 pilot reviews flight information before his first orientation flight in the new Afghan Air Force UH-60A Black Hawk on Sept. 3, 2017, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.

It took years to the Pentagon to alter its means of buying Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters to the Afghan Air Force to fielding American-made UH-60A Black Hawks following heavy pressure from Congress.

Now the transition from flying and Mi-17s to UH-60As in Afghanistan is presenting predictable problems to the AAF.

Senators who have long championed the switch from Russian to American helicopters in Afghanistan be interested in an entire examination of the challenges and, subsequently, answers to fix the identified issues.

The issues were organized inside a recent Lead Inspector General questionnaire to Congress on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

“We share the concerns outlined inside the report and urge that you immediately develop and implement an agenda to deal with these emerging challenges,” Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, wrote in a July 26 letter shipped to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood.

The Afghan Air Force has trusted Mi-17 helicopters, manufactured by Russian arms dealer Rosoboron export, for several years, given by the U.S. government as being a nonstandard rotary wing procurement.

Army officials have argued how the service necessary to buy Mi-17s since the Afghans already realize how to fly the aircraft, while American-made helicopters are extremely expensive and complicated. Additionally, the sole avenue in which military versions of the Mi-17s could possibly be purchased was through Rosoboron export.

Blumenthal has challenged that decision in countless public hearings over the years. He led the charge to insert legislation into the fiscal 2015 defense policy bill to terminate existing Mi-17 contracts with Rosoboron export which also imposed other strong limitations on dealings using the company due to its activity of providing weapons to Bashar Assad’s government in Syria.

The Department of Defense inked several contracts worth vast sums of dollars to purchase roughly 73 Mi-17s for the Afghans from 2011 through 2013. The Army stopped its purchases without buying another 15 aircraft planned inside FY14 budget.

Two years ago, Blumenthal and Ernst specifically urged then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter to generate the switch to American-made helicopters to the Afghan Air Force, and in 2017 the Pentagon initiated a transition to change Mi-17s with 159 from the earliest variant of Sikorsky’s Black Hawk.

The transition is now a part in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces RoadMap approach.

Army officials had warned from the difficulties for these a transition, particularly maintenance and training; as well as the IG report shows those struggles are arriving at fruition.

Over-reliance on contractor maintenance

While the Afghans perform 80 percent from the maintenance on Mi-17s and 20 % is performed by contractors, UH-60As are “almost entirely reliant” on contractors, the report states.

According towards the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan, or 9th AETF-A, which is faced with working using the AAF around the transition, the Mi-17 is “much more conducive on the education level available within the general Afghan population as opposed to UH-60A” when it comes to maintenance.

Because with this, the AAF will need to rely on contractors for maintenance in the near- and mid-term, the IG report states.

The report also notes that “since the Mi-17 will probably be taken from service, it’s not clear just how much benefit there is in continuing to practice Afghans to keep the Mi-17.”

The two senators write that this 9th AETF-A “should move past the current expectation that this AAF will likely be reliant on [contractor logistics support] for UH-60A Black Hawk maintenance and figure out a far more sustainable way to steadily improve the number of maintenance performed by the Afghans themselves.”

Why keep training on Mi-17s?

Another concern outlined inside IG report is the continued target training new Mi-17 pilots because helicopters are phased out.

The Mi-17 inventory is expected to be whittled into 20 aircraft towards the end of 2019. There are currently 47 aircraft, 24 ones are in long-term maintenance, according on the IG report. The fleet will shrink a little more forward to 18 in the end of 2021 and down to 12 towards the end of 2022.

There are 10 pilots scheduled to graduate in late 2018, and another 10 will graduate in 2019 to replace current Mi-17 pilots which can be transitioning on the Black Hawk.

“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 to the Black Hawk pipeline,” the report notes.

There are 22 pilots and 16 special mission operators in the AAF which are learning to fly the Black Hawk.

The Afghans actually have eight from the helicopters, with another 45 purchased although not yet fielded away from a complete 159 planned.

In their letter, Blumenthal and Ernst urge the Pentagon to “reassess the education of AAF personnel for the Mi-17 in lieu of training them about the UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter.”

Capability Challenges

As the Afghans transition through the Mi-17 to the UH-60, several operational challenges have cropped up concerning the Black Hawk’s capability related for the Mi-17.

The IG report said that the Black Hawk doesn’t need the lift capacity comparable to Mi-17s and it is can not undertake some in the larger cargo an Mi-17 carries, which requires two UH-60s to transport the strain of just one Mi-17.

Additionally, the Black Hawks can’t fly at the same high elevations as an Mi-17. As a result, the first kind cannot be employed in remote areas in the country.

In the report, the 9th AETF-A said the Mi-17s will have a “crucial role” inside near-term fighting season.

“In the long run, as Mi-17s phase out in the service, the aforementioned challenges will end up more pronounced,” the report adds.

Blumenthal and Ernst tend not to address these capability challenges of their letter to Rood, but suggest that “improved UH-60A Black Hawk capacity through aircraft deliveries and sustainable training programs both for AAF pilots and maintainers will address the transition challenges presented in the report.”

In the letter, the senators requested a briefing from U.S. Forces-Afghanistan on its plan to “mitigate these transition roadblocks.”

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