WASHINGTON — On June 17, the Pentagon announced the purchase of 30 Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters to support the Afghan Special Mission Wing (SMW), an Afghan military unit commissioned to perform anti-narcotics and counterterrorism operations.
But an unreleased report from the government’s watchdog in Afghanistan warns that the Pentagon should halt plans to buy the helicopters, along with 12 fixed-wing planes, until major changes are made in how the unit is supported and operated.
“Despite the planned $908 million DOD investment in 48 new aircraft for the SMW, the Afghans lack the capacity — in both personnel numbers and expertise — to operate and maintain the existing and planned fleets,” found the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report. “Without an effective support structure, US funded SMW aircraft could be left sitting on runways in Afghanistan, rather than supporting critical missions, resulting in waste of US funds .”
The draft report in question, “Afghan Special Mission Wing: DOD Plans to Spend $908 Million to Build Air Wing that the Afghans Cannot Operate and Maintain,” was obtained by Defense News June 21. Because the report is a draft, it is possible the content may change in its final version. The report also lacked Pentagon response, which would be included in the final version.
A spokesman for SIGAR declined to comment, citing office policy not to talk about reports until they are finalized.
The SMW was commissioned in July 2012, with an eye on creating an effective anti-narcotics and counterterrorism unit that can operate independently of allied forces at a time the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan. The country is estimated to produce up to 90 percent of the world’s opium, the sales of which help bankroll terrorist organizations such as the Taliban.
To support the unit, DoD plans to spend at least $908 million to purchase 30 rotary-wing and 18 fixed-wing aircraft. The Pentagon estimates there will be another $109 million per year required for oversight, maintenance, training and logistics support, which SIGAR notes will occur the “next several years.”
At full operational capacity, the SMW will be supported by 806 Afghan personnel, including pilots, flight engineers, mechanics and security staff. The SMW will be organized into four squadrons, with two based in Kabul, one in Kandahar and one in Balkh province. Each squadron is designed to include seven Mi-17 helicopters and four PC-12s, a transport plane manufactured by Swiss firm Pilatus Aircraft.
The Pentagon’s announcement for the Mi-17s listed a price of $572,180,894. That total does not include the simulator for training. SIGAR cites a DoD briefing dated March 9, 2012, to the Afghanistan Resources Oversight Council as identifying the cost for the fully capable aircraft and simulator at $771 million. The contract for the PC-12s was announced on Oct. 16 with a price of $218 million.
The purchase of Mi-17s has already proved controversial, due to the relationship between Mi-17 manufacturer Rosoboronexport and the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The Russian firm has supplied Assad’s military with weaponry used in its ongoing struggle against rebel forces in Syria.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who last year held up the nomination of Heidi Shyu to become the Army’s top acquisitions officer over the Pentagon’s decision to purchase goods from Rosoboronexport, took the Senate floor June 19 to decry the sale.
The Obama administration “want us to believe that we are promoting US security by doing business with a Russian arms dealer that is helping an anti-American, terror-sponsoring dictatorship commit mass atrocities,” Cornyn said. “American taxpayers should not be indirectly subsidizing the murder of Syrian civilians, especially when there are perfectly good alternatives to dealing with Rosoboronexport.”
The SMW plan calls for the unit to be fully operational by July of 2015. But as of Jan. 23, 2013, SIGAR found that the unit had just 180 personnel, less than a quarter of the manpower needed. Additionally, neither of the Kabul-based squadrons, which were supposed to be in place by the middle of this year, had been fully established as of May 15.
Finding recruits for the unit has proved difficult, due to the 18-20 month vetting process required by the US and because of a requirement that personnel be literate in their native language, a challenge in a country where the United Nations estimates only 26 percent of adults have basic literacy.
Recruitment efforts have also been stalled by tensions between the Afghan Ministry of the Interior (MoI) and Ministry of Defense (MoD), which currently have joint control over the SMW. SIGAR notes that giving full control of the unit to MoD would allow the SMW to draw from the general Afghan Air Force pool, something they currently cannot do because MoD is unwilling to give up recruits without assurance it can maintain control over them.
A draft agreement to hand over control of the unit is “unsigned by the ministries due largely to MOI resistance to surrendering authority over the SMW,” SIGAR wrote.
Recruits who have been selected for the SMW are under-supported and many lack key training to allow them to operate at night.
“The SMW lacks the capacity to conduct counterterrorism missions — part of its stated role,” SIGAR wrote. “The SMW has conducted very few ‘pure’ counterterrorism missions, in part because counterterrorism missions are primarily flown at night, requiring pilots certified to fly using night vision goggles.
“As of January 16, 2013, only 7 of the 47 pilots assigned to the SMW were fully mission qualified to fly with night vision goggles. From SMW conception in May 2012 to our in-theater field work in October 2012, the SMW conducted 25 operations, only one of which was a pure counterterrorism mission.”
Problems also persist with supporting the SMW, which SIGAR warns “may not be able to perform maintenance and logistics support function on its own without continued assistance from DOD.”
Training on the unit has also fallen behind due to poor conditions and a reduction in available flight hours for contractor Northrop Grumman, which provides maintenance and logistics support in Afghanistan.
“Northrop Grumman lost training flights due to SMW crew members not showing up for scheduled training,” SIGAR wrote. Additionally, “the SMW’s flight simulator in Kabul has been inoperable since September 2012 due to lack of needed repairs and an expired warranty.”
Taken together, these challenges caused SIGAR to call for the Pentagon to freeze its purchase of the new platforms “until and unless the memorandum of understanding between MOI and MOD is completed and signed.”
“We question the wisdom of moving ahead with the provision of 30 new Mi-17s and 18 PC-12s, unless these issues are properly addressed,” SIGAR wrote in its conclusion. “We believe the purchase and delivery of the aircraft should be contingent on the SMW’s achievement of personnel and maintenance and logistics support milestones, indications that the SMW has the capacity to execute its mission and operate and maintain its fleet.”
For its part, the Pentagon is concerned that freezing delivery of the aircraft could harm the long-term development of the SMW.
“The department did not concur with the SIGAR report recommendation that the DoD should suspend plans to purchase the 48 new aircraft for the Special Mission Wing (SMW) until and unless the memorandum of agreement between the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior is completed and signed as it would not be in our national interest,” Lt. Col. James Gregory, Pentagon spokesman, wrote in an emailed statement.
“Delaying contract award pending agreement between the ministries on transition of SMW administrative control would unacceptably delay our efforts to develop the SMW into a capable force,” he added. “ISAF is currently engaged with GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] on an Afghan Air Force charter to accomplish the purposes of the MOU.”
Auditors looked at two major task orders, issued by US Army Space & Missile Defense Command, that were designed to provide maintenance and logistical support for the SMW.
Task order 20, issued on Sept. 26, 2008, went to Northrop Grumman to provide maintenance and logistics for MOI and MOD air assets. Task order 32, issued on Sept. 30, 2009, went to Lockheed Martin for “procurement of material and spare parts in support of MOI and MOD air maintenance and repair options.”
SIGAR auditors found that DoD “oversight of ongoing maintenance, logistics, and supply services” for the two task orders was lax. Poor oversight and a lack of measurable outcomes “presented opportunities for the contractor to underperform” and potentially lead to waste of taxpayer funds.
Neither of the task orders includes language specifying how or when the contractors will begin moving management responsibilities over to the SMW, and senior Northrop officials interviewed by SIGAR auditors complained that the SMW has not provided enough highly educated Afghans to be able to take over these roles.
“As a result, they have elected to directly hire some local Afghans with stronger skills than the skills demonstrated by the Afghans provided by the SMW,” auditors wrote. “The officials stated that training direct local hires is better than training the Afghans serving in the SMW because the direct hires are accountable to the contractor. Northrop Grumman is taking this approach on its own; the task order 20 performance work statement has no such requirement.”
Additionally, these two task orders are set to expire by Sept. 30. Auditors note that in November, US military personnel drafted a new work statement to replace these two task orders, and that a Pentagon official said they expect to award a new contract over the summer. But SIGAR still warns that, because the DoD has “not yet issued or taken meaningful action to issue a new contract for the expiring support of task orders 20 and 32, there is concern that ongoing operations and/or support may be interrupted.
“Without well-written task orders to provide maintenance, logistics, and supply order services, and without effective oversight of those task orders, DoD’s ongoing financial investment in the SMW is also at risk,” auditors concluded.
To help solve these challenges, SIGAR called for development of a plan to transfer maintenance and logistics management to Afghan forces, as well as the development of performance metrics to measure contractor performance.
“The SMW was formally established less than a year ago and sustainment efforts, including training, are presently underway,” Gregory, the Pentagon spokesman, wrote in the statement. “Delivery of the aircraft in question will take place over the next eighteen months. This will include training on how to operate and maintain the aircraft and associated equipment.”