While critical war efforts in Afghanistan must be protected from the upcoming budget cuts, this does not mean all Afghan programs are sacrosanct. For instance, the recent $600 million cancellation of the Afghan C-27 program indicated that the U.S. Air Force’s plans, and the Afghan Air Force’s capabilities, may be grossly mismatched. When the U.S. Air Force was selected to mentor the Afghan National Army Aviation Force, they found they were supporting aircraft they could not fly themselves, namely the Russian Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters, the Ukrainian An-32 transport aircraft and Czech L-39 light jet.
From 2009 to 2012, however, a number of decisions were made to create a new Afghan Air Force from the ground up. A training fleet consisting of the Cessna T-182T, the Cessna 208B and the MD-530 helicopter was purchased. The Mi-17 was to be given a Western cockpit familiar to U.S. Air Force pilots. The Ukrainian AN-32 transport aircraft was phased out and replaced with the C-27. The Russian Mi-35 attack helicopter is to be replaced with the recently awarded Embraer A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft.
There is no doubt each of these new platforms could eventually increase the capability of the Afghan Air Force. However, the immediate result is an Afghan Air Force flown by U.S. instructor pilots and almost exclusively maintained by U.S. defense contractors. Equally significant, these decisions have resulted in an annual operating bill the Afghans can never hope to pay themselves. Unless the U.S. intends to spend hundreds of millions annually to support this fleet for decades to come, there needs to be a full review of the supportability of the chosen plans and platforms. Such a review would reveal these basic facts:
The Afghans’ aircraft maintenance group can support approximately 40 percent of the current Mi-17 fleet and none of the other aircraft. The current maintenance training program will not affect this situation for years.
It is less expensive to train Afghan flight crews in Central Europe or the Middle East than to purchase a training fleet and staffing it with U.S. contractor flight instructor and maintenance personnel.
The Mi-17 was chosen for the Afghans because it was the aircraft they had experience flying and maintaining. Yet the Western cockpit installed by the U.S. Army undermines this argument, adds more than $3 million to the cost of each aircraft and creates a hybrid that will cost 50 percent more to overhaul. Sticking with the standard Russian cockpit in new Mi-17s and the legacy fleet will save more than $110 million in the next two years.
Even had the purchased C-27 aircraft been flyable, the high cost of parts and the requirement for long-term Western maintenance support would have eventually doomed the program. The currently proposed C-130, however, is an even worse choice. The C-130 costs more to purchase, maintain and operate than the C-27. The black market in Iran for C-130 parts will undermine efforts to keep C-130s flying in Afghanistan.
Instead of another expensive Western aircraft, the U.S. should return the Afghans’ five mothballed An-32 transports to service. Overhauling and extending the lives of the An-32 fleet will cost $12 million, about a quarter of the cost of a single C-130. Equally important, the Afghans can actually fly and maintain the An-32.
The light attack aircraft is the wrong choice, too little and too late. The ideal platform for Afghanistan would be a crop duster-type aircraft with commercial avionics capable of landing on a dirt strip.
Instead, the selected aircraft has a heads-up display with an integrated avionics suite, ejection seats, retractable landing gear, pressurized cockpit and acrobatics capability, and it needs 5,000 feet of improved runway. The Afghans will not be flying this aircraft for years, cannot hope to maintain it or afford parts for it, and have no close air support program with which to use it. Furthermore, if the requirement for a CAS-type aircraft actually exists in the Afghan Air Force, 20 Afghan aircraft would only serve as a symbolic replacement of our forces (the Coalition flew 29,948 close air support sorties in Afghanistan in 2010).
The light attack aircraft program should be halted at 10 aircraft, and the aircraft should not be donated to the Afghans. Instead, the U.S. Air Force should use them as part of an internal study to determine if a turboprop CAS aircraft is a viable alternative to a jet in a lower threat environment. This will save $500 million in the next two years.
The U.S. Air Force has a history of developing requirements for aircraft more capable than the Afghans need, more complex than they can hope to operate and maintain, and impossible for them to afford after our departure. Introducing C-130s and a light attack aircraft into the Afghan fleet will only divert resources from already stretched programs and make achieving the goal of Afghan self sufficiency more remote.
In response to realities in theater and the economic condition in the U.S., the U.S. Air Force should make the ability of the Afghans to sustain a platform, with minimal U.S. financial and technical support, a determining factor when choosing aircraft for donation.
Mark Young is president of Defense Technology, Huntsville, Ala., a company providing aviation support services to the U.S. government in Afghanistan.