The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have been mentored and trained by a largely United States force that is used to relying heavily on air support, a habit they have transferred to the Afghans. Until now, international air support has given Afghan forces an edge over the insurgency, but this year that support will be scaling down which means the ANSF need an effective Afghan Air Force (AAF). In his second piece for AAN on the Afghan Air Force (AAF) (see the first one here), guest author Gary Owen looks at aircraft, in particular transport and attack helicopters, which the AAF needs to obtain to give Afghan forces the air support they have grown accustomed to. The US’ cancellation of a large planned purchase of helicopters for the AAF, he says, was a real blow: here, he explores which options remain for Afghanistan.
The scaling down of international air support in 2014 while only having a weak Afghan Air Force to slot into its place raises serious concerns about the ability of Afghan forces to combat the insurgency – to project power in areas where the insurgents have established a solid foothold. And the AAF is still weak, as the US Department of Defence in its most recent Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan (published in November 2013) made clear:
The AAF made significant progress during the reporting period [April-September 2013], contributing to the success of the ANSF in the areas of intra-theatre, airlift, transport, CASEVAC, ISR, limited fires delivery, and training. However, the AAF remains challenged to support ANA operations due to maintenance and logistics challenges, limited number of air assets, lack of trained pilots, and an inability to perform missions at night or in adverse weather conditions that require reliance on flight instruments.
The AAF and Special Mission Wing – which supports the Afghan Special Forces – are not forecast to be fully fielded, says the report, until after 2015 and their ‘aerial fires’ capability will not be “fully mature” until after 2017.
This was the already murky situation the ANSF and the Afghan Air Force (AAF) were in when everything got a whole lot dimmer in November 2013 when the United States cancelled the planned purchase of 15 Mi-17 transport helicopters from Rosoboronexport, an arms exporter owned by the Russian government. The main reason for the cancellation was concern over the company’s ties to the Syrian government, which is a politically sensitive issue for the US given the current conflict in that country. Given the ANSF’s reliance on aerial platforms to conduct counterinsurgency operations, it would seem that a cancellation of this magnitude could sound a death knell for the AAF. However, there are other options besides buying more Russian helicopters.
While the mid-size Mi-17 transport helicopter can be converted into a gunship to provide airborne firepower to support troops in battle, its primary role in the AAF is the transportation of personnel and equipment. For the AAF as a whole, this mission can be adequately filled by several other aircraft currently in the AAF inventory, including two US-made C-130 transport aircraft (1) delivered to the Afghans in September of 2013. Where the Mi-17 is sorely needed is in two key areas of ANSF operations: casualty evacuation and the rapid deployment of the Afghan Special Operations Forces. According to the most recent US Department of Defence report on the state of the war in Afghanistan, the AAF currently has between 11 and 17 Mi-17 transport helicopters available for missions at any given time. (The number varies based on availability due to aircraft being down for maintenance or other reasons.) Additionally, there are an undisclosed number of aircraft in use by the Afghan Special Missions Wing that only supports Afghan Special Operations Forces operations, primarily geared around counter-terrorism capture-or-kill operations. For now, while coalition forces are still in Afghanistan, any gaps in air support coverage can be filled by foreign forces, but without that additional support, Afghan forces are going to have a difficult time adequately supporting their own on-going military operations. With only 11 to 17 operational helicopters to cover an entire country the size of France (or much larger than California), that leaves significant gaps in the Afghan ability to provide their own air support.
No Russian helicopters – American ones instead?
In addition to the AAF having an insufficient number of aircraft to support operations, those aircraft are rapidly aging. The Afghan Air Force currently consists of:
- 18 Cessna 208 light transport planes
- 46 Mi-8 / Mi-17 helicopters (of which, as said, only 11 to 17 are operational at any one point in time)
- 6 Mi-35 gunships (only two are capable of flight operations)
- 9 UH-1H light transport helicopters
- 6 MD-530 training helicopters
- 2 C-130 transport aircraft
Replacements will be needed over the next few years. The Mi-17 helicopter is the most logical choice for this replacement, as the Afghans have experience using it and it also operates remarkably well in the high-altitude locations where helicopters are most useful. But the Mi-17 is not an American product, and it is this consideration that also drove the US decision to cancel the contract with the Russians. While Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut has previously objected to the purchase from Rosoboronexport on the grounds that the company provides weapons to the Syrian government, he has also argued that helicopters should be bought from Sikorsky, an American manufacturer. The largest Sikorsky assembly plant in the United States is in Stamford, Connecticut, and the 8,600 jobs at that location are going to figure strongly in Blumenthal’s advocating for US-made helicopters to be purchased for the AAF. While good for the US defence industry, this might not be as good for the Afghans, given their lack of familiarity with the American-made aircraft.
This aside, there is also the issue of maintenance sustainability. Typically, American military aircraft require more technically precise maintenance than Russia’s Mikoyan family of aircraft. The Mi-8 / Mi-17 family of helicopters is known for its simplicity and durability, which is generally characteristic of Russian military equipment designs. Donating the American helicopter as an alternative to the Russian would play well for US voters, but, in the long term, it would lead to greater logistical and maintenance complications.
One possible alternative source for the aircraft is India. The Indian government is keenly interested in supporting Afghanistan financially as well as militarily and expanding its influence in the country. Karzai’s recent requests for military hardware have been denied, as India is hesitant to provide lethal weapons. (According to this article, Karzai asked for “150 battle tanks, field guns, howitzers and one squadron of attack helicopters.”) India has instead focused on non-lethal equipment like transport aircraft and training. But there is nothing stopping a possible future deal brokered by the Americans (who, if the Bilateral Security Agreement is signed, would pay for the order) for the distribution to the AAF by the Indian government of Mi-17s bought from Russia or other helicopters. Even if the Americans were unwilling to see US cash change hands for aircraft bought in Russia, there is nothing to deter India from providing them as part of future defence support packages.
There is a healthy defence spending relationship between the Indian and US governments. Since 2009, India has placed orders for eight billion dollars worth of equipment from American defence contractors (the willingness of India to provide hardware to the Afghans is also visible in the upcoming delivery of two Indian-made Cheetah light transport helicopters as reported here. This is a scenario that would work well for all parties: the United States would be able to fulfil its obligation to secure Afghanistan; the Indians – who are also very familiar with the Mi-17, as there are currently 168 of them in the Indian military inventory – would gain even more leverage with both Kabul and Washington; and the Afghans would receive a sustainable source of security support.
There would remain the problematic issue of how all of this would be viewed by Islamabad, as the Pakistani government is keenly interested in reducing Indian influence in Kabul. This could put further strain on the US-Pakistani relationship, but for the long-term benefit of Afghanistan, the Americans will likely decide to continue to pursue this course of action.
With IED-riddled roads, air support remains necessary
In a perfect world, the ANSF would be able to function just fine without significant levels of air support. Anecdotal reports from places like Sangin indicate that they are learning to utilise other means of fire support such as artillery (see also insight into this in the 2013 UNAMA report on civilian casualties and AAN analysis here, but to use these pieces effectively pre-supposes a stable road infrastructure relatively free from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). That same road network is also required to allow for the transport of wounded ANSF personnel for medical treatment, and even if the roads were well maintained and free from IEDs, the nearest medical facility would likely be incapable of providing the kind of care necessary to ensure the survival of the wounded. So air support is still going to be necessary.
For the foreseeable future, however, the AAF and the ANSF as a whole are going to have to rely on the aircraft they currently have while decisions are made by the Americans about what the future support for the AAF is going to look like. If Blumenthal and other like-minded officials in the United States are able to convince Congress to provide Sikorsky aircraft, now is the time to make that happen, while significant US troop presence in Afghanistan allows for the needed levels of support to maintain those aircraft and train staff on the necessary routines. But that does not answer the question about the long-term sustainability and maintenance of those same AAF aircraft, particularly with the uncertainty surrounding the US presence in Afghanistan from 2015 onwards. This must be addressed urgently in order to determine the long-term viability of the Afghan Air Force.
(1) The C-130 Hercules is a large, US-built, four-engine transport aircraft capable of operating from more primitive airfields than a standard jet transport. It is used by the military in many NATO countries.
Gary Owen is a civilian development worker who has spent the past four years in Afghanistan, working in Ghazni, Gardez, Khost and Kabul provinces. Previously, he spent 21 months in Iraq on two different deployments – in 2004 as an infantry officer in Taji and in 2008 as a civil affairs officer in Tikrit. Usually, he writes in the guise of the often brilliant satirist El Snarkistani. See a couple of AAN’s favourite posts here and here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020