By Anthony Bell
Despite the ongoing modernisation of Afghanistan’s military and, in particular, the Afghan Air Force (AAF), Kabul seems to retain it’s Soviet- and Russian-made utility and combat rotorcraft in service.
In 2014, the US Department of Defense (DoD) announced a program worth some USD7 billion to upgrade the AAF’s rotary-wing inventory: Kabul, which had been operating the Mil-family gunships and transport helicopters since the late 1980s, was offered to switch to Sikorsky UH-60A+ multimission helicopter. Two years later, the proposal went ahead and the DoD announced its intention to fully replace the Soviet-/Russian-made rotorcraft in service with the AAF. Washington was originally planning to ship 159 UH-60A+s to Kabul; however, by mid-2020, this number had dropped to 53 rotorcraft due to financial reasons. Then the DoD decided to replace the Russian-made rotary-wing platforms of the Afghan military’s Special Mission Wing (SMW) and supply it with 20 Boeing CH-47 Chinook twin-rotor transport rotorcraft.
According to US DoD’s Acting Inspector General Sean W. O’Donnell’s report on operations in Afghanistan between January 1, 2020 and March 31, 2020, to Congress, in December 2019, Washington did not change its plan and proceeded with the replacement of the combat-proven Mil rotorcraft by 53 UH-60A+s. Moreover, the SMW was set to switch from its Mi-17s ‘Hip’ to Chinooks by 2023, completing the so-called ‘modernisation’ of the AAF rotary-wing inventory.
It should be mentioned that this upgrade was primarily driven by political concern, not operational evaluation or any economic and technical reasons. UH-60A+ is a slightly modernised variant of the baseline UH-60A Black Hawk and poorly suits to the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan that regularly sees rapid changes of temperature, low humidity, and hot and dusty climatic conditions.
Being powered by two General Electric T700-GE-701D turboshaft engines, a UH-60A+ has a modest payload capacity – the helicopter can transport a cargo of no more than 8,000 lb (some 3,600 kg; due to a restricted cargo cabin, the weight of the cargo that can be transported inside the rotorcraft is even less) or 11 fully equipped servicemen. The platform is also unstable at medium altitudes and cannot reliably fly in the thin air of Afghanistan’s mountaintops; therefore, it cannot be operated throughout the whole country.
Considering the poor performance of the UH-60A+ in mountains, one should worry why the DoD heavily insists on the replacement of the reliable Mi-17-family utility rotorcraft by refurbished Black Hawks. The Mil platform has revealed its outstanding flight performance in mountainous terrains of Afghanistan since the early 1980s. The latest iteration of the platform, Mi-17V-5‘Hip-H’, transports a 4,000 kg cargo (or 36 fully equipped servicemen) inside its crew cabin.
Moreover, the Mi-17V-5 features far better reliability and serviceability.
According to Donnell’s report, Afghan technicians had mastered 95% of maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) works on the Mil platform by March 2020. The report’s figures speak for much easier maintenance of the Mi-17V-5: in December 2018, Afghans were capable of performing 80% of technical works, and by March 2020 this figure increased to 95%. In December 2018 – March 2020, the AAF did not train even one technical specialist to maintain the UH-60A+s. “Afghans still do not perform any maintenance on the UH-60 helicopters,” says the document. Therefore, the replacement of the Afghan Mi-17V-5 by the US-made rotary-wing platform is senseless in terms of logistics.
There also some problems related to the delivery of Black Hawks to Afghanistan. The AAF is reported to have received no more than 17-18 UH-60A+s by early 2020, and the delivery rates are not ramped up. The Afghan pilots complain about low payload capacity, poor reliability, difficultness-of-operation, high fuel consumption, and poor flight performance of the Black Hawk in the mountains. At the same time, the Mi-17 is reported to be capable of conducting almost any tasks under the complex climatic conditions of Afghanistan.
Much has been written on the easy maintenance of the Russian-made rotorcraft, but there is a case that vividly illustrates it. During a conflict in Afghanistan in the early 2000s, the Northern Alliance’s pilots were flying a Mi-17 utility helicopter that had one of its engines replaced by a powerpack from a Mil Mi-24 gunship. According to Steve Coll’s book ‘Ghost Wars’, this platform had been being operated for several years with no accidents.
The AAF also flies some Mi-24 transport-combat helicopters. By October 2019, India had handed over four refurbished Mi-24Vs ‘Hind-D’ to the Afghan government. According to Indian officials, the rotorcraft will allow Kabul to maintain robust counter-terrorism capabilities. The DoD is trying to replace the Mi-24s with A-29 Super Tucano light ground-attack aircraft; however, these efforts have not been fruitful up to date: the operational costs of the Super Tucano are relatively high and cannot beat those of the Mi-24. The aircraft also requires highly trained pilots and technicians, while the Mi-24 is capable of flying on a wing and a prayer.
Within this context, any attempts to scrap robust Soviet- and Russian-made combat and utility helicopters in the AAF’s inventory appears to be politically motivated as the UH-60A+s and A-29s poorly suit the conditions of Afghanistan and cannot fulfil operational tasks to the full extent. The continuation of the use of Mi-17s and Mi-24s seems to be the AAF’s only way to secure skies, support troops, and establish a well-balanced transport system inside the country.
(The author is an Independent Military Analyst. Views expressed are personal.)