Last chance to improve Afghanistan’s fledgling Air Force?

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The United States remains locked in its longest war to date, a 16-year venture in Afghanistan that shows no signs of relenting. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee in early February and drew much needed attention to one of the greatest fiascoes of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan – reconstituting a capable, effective, and sustainable Afghan Air Force (AAF). Nicholson bluntly noted that “close air support and aerial mobility are the most critical remaining gaps that need to be addressed.” He couldn’t be more right.

Although the Afghan National Security and Defense Force (ANDSF) has grown significantly since its post-Taliban rebirth, the ANDSF still suffers from attrition, corruption, logistics and maintenance deficiencies, and inadequate air power. The U.S. and NATO effort to reconstitute the AAF began slowly in 2007, and like most efforts in Afghanistan, it soon became mired in bad deals, mismanagement, and bureaucratic disasters.

{mosads}In 2008, the U.S. drafted a plan to replace Afghanistan’s four aging Russian-made AN-32 military transport planes, all of which needed to be phased out of service by the end of 2010 due to air frame serviceability and lifespan issues.

Afghanistan has used AN-26 transport planes, the predecessor of the AN-32, since 1978. Instead of pursuing the acquisition of additional AN-32 transport planes, which were long familiar to the older Afghan pilots, a deal was cut with Alenia North America to acquire 20 Italian C-27 cargo planes for $486 million. An additional $200 million was earmarked to establish a spare parts inventory, ground support equipment, and for contractor support to keep the fleet maintained.

In the end, the program failed – Alenia struggled to meet its contractual obligations and the fleet of C-27s were grounded in 2012, the program was canceled outright in 2013, and the fleet of C-27s were sold for scrap to a local Afghan construction company for 6 cents a pound, amounting to a mere $32,000. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko stated in 2012 that it’s imperative that “the U.S. government does not repeat the mistakes made throughout this nearly half-billion dollar program.”

Fast forward to 2017 and the Pentagon is again finding itself in a similar position. Nicholson’s sworn testimony confirms that the U.S. government is considering replacing Afghanistan’s Russian-made fleet of Mi-17 transport helicopters with 53 U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawks at a cost of $814 million. The program is heavily supported by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). Notably, the Blackhawk helicopter is manufactured by Sikorsky at a facility in Connecticut. The Pentagon had to terminate its $554 million contract with Russia’s state-owned military exporter Roboronexport to provide additional Mi-17 helicopters and spare parts to the AAF in 2013 following opposition from senators such a Blumenthal over Russian’s military support to Syrian dictator Bashir Assad and for Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

While Blumenthal’s sales pitch for U.S.-manufactured Blackhawks might fall in line with the “America First” message President Trump conveyed in his inaugural address, plans to transition the AAF from one of its most relied upon aircraft – the Mi-17 – amid Afghanistan’s heaviest fighting in years, is a grave mistake. 

Nicholson warned Congress that it would take 21 months from the initial approval decision to field the first refurbished and upgraded UH-60 to the AAF, and any further delays in making such a decision would further widen the “critical Afghan aerial capability gap.” Nicholson further warned that with the AAF unable to field the UH-60s until 2019, the burden would fall upon U.S. aviation and authorities to bridge the gap, which would put U.S. campaign objectives at serious risk.

Extending the life of the fleet or replacing expended Mi-17s should be considered essential in the short term to provide the AAF with an organic aerial mobility and fires capability until a reasonable transition time to UH-60s is achieved. A hard stop in the AAF’s usage of Mi-17s in 2017 and 2018 will unnecessarily put the lives of the ANDSF at risk and further threaten U.S. objectives in Afghanistan.

As a man who disdains bad deals, President Trump and must carefully balance the “America First” policy with the ground realities of America’s longest fought war. The proposed acquisition of UH-60 Blackhawks given the current situation in Afghanistan is reminiscent of the bad deal cut with Alenia in 2008. The additional years’ worth of training, which would include retraining pilots, ground crews, and logistics and maintenance personnel, would further delay the anticipated 2020 timeline for a fully functional Air Force. Given the precarious nature of Afghanistan’s fragile National Unity Government and the ANDSF’s continuing fight against a robust and growing insurgency, the additional years needed for training and transition are an unrealistic luxury that Afghanistan and its allies cannot afford.

Matthew C. DuPée is a senior South Asia analyst for the U.S. Defense Department. Matthew Archibald is independent researcher and consultant on South Asian issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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