WASHINGTON — It took years for the Pentagon to change its strategy of buying Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan Air Force to fielding American-made UH-60A Black Hawks following heavy pressure from Congress.
And now the transition from flying and maintaining Mi-17s to UH-60As in Afghanistan is presenting predictable problems for the AAF.
Senators that have long championed the switch from Russian to American helicopters in Afghanistan want to see a full examination of the challenges and, subsequently, solutions to fix the identified issues.
The issues were laid out in a recent Lead Inspector General quarterly report to Congress on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
“We share the concerns outlined in the report and urge you to immediately develop and implement a plan to address these emerging challenges,” Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, wrote in a July 26 letter sent to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood.
The Afghan Air Force has relied on Mi-17 helicopters — manufactured by Russian arms dealer Rosoboronexport — for many years, supplied by the U.S. government as a nonstandard rotary wing procurement.
Army officials have argued that the service needed to buy Mi-17s because the Afghans already know how to fly the aircraft, while American-made helicopters are too expensive and complicated. Additionally, the only avenue through which military versions of the Mi-17s could be purchased was through Rosoboronexport.
Blumenthal has challenged that decision in countless public hearings over the years. He led the charge to insert legislation into the fiscal 2015 defense policy bill to terminate existing Mi-17 contracts with Rosoboronexport that also imposed other strong limitations on dealings with the company due to its activity of providing weapons to Bashar Assad’s government in Syria.
The Department of Defense inked several contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to buy roughly 73 Mi-17s for the Afghans from 2011 through 2013. The Army stopped its purchases without buying another 15 aircraft planned in the FY14 budget.
Two years ago, Blumenthal and Ernst specifically urged then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter to make the switch to American-made helicopters for the Afghan Air Force, and in 2017 the Pentagon initiated a transition to replace Mi-17s with 159 of the earliest variant of Sikorsky’s Black Hawk.
The transition is now a part of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces RoadMap approach.
Army officials had warned of the difficulties of such a transition, particularly maintenance and training; and the IG report shows those struggles are coming to fruition.
Overreliance on contractor maintenance
While the Afghans perform 80 percent of the maintenance on Mi-17s and 20 percent is done by contractors, UH-60As are “almost entirely reliant” on contractors, the report states.
According to the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan, or 9th AETF-A, which is charged with working with the AAF on the transition, the Mi-17 is “much more conducive to the education level available in the general Afghan population than the UH-60A” in terms of maintenance.
Because of this, the AAF will need to rely on contractors for maintenance in the near- and mid-term, the IG report states.
The report also notes that “since the Mi-17 will be taken out of service, it is not clear how much benefit there is in continuing to train Afghans to maintain the Mi-17.”
The two senators write that the 9th AETF-A “should move beyond the current expectation that the AAF will be reliant on [contractor logistics support] for UH-60A Black Hawk maintenance and determine a more sustainable path to steadily increase the percentage of maintenance performed by the Afghans themselves.”
Why keep training on Mi-17s?
Another concern outlined in the IG report is the continued focus on training new Mi-17 pilots as the helicopters are phased out.
The Mi-17 inventory is expected to be whittled down to 20 aircraft by the end of 2019. There are currently 47 aircraft, 24 of which are in long-term maintenance, according to the IG report. The fleet will shrink even further to 18 by the end of 2021 and down to 12 by the end of 2022.
There are 10 pilots scheduled to graduate in late 2018, and another 10 will graduate in 2019 to replace current Mi-17 pilots that are transitioning to the Black Hawk.
“This raises concerns about the efficiency of training Afghan pilots to fly an airframe that is being phased out, rather than putting new trainees directly into the Black Hawk pipeline,” the report notes.
There are 22 pilots and 16 special mission operators in the AAF that are learning to fly the Black Hawk.
The Afghans currently have eight of the helicopters, with another 45 purchased but not yet fielded out of a total 159 planned.
In their letter, Blumenthal and Ernst urge the Pentagon to “reassess the training of AAF personnel on the Mi-17 rather than training them on the UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter.”
As the Afghans transition from the Mi-17 to the UH-60, several operational challenges have cropped up regarding the Black Hawk’s capability related to the Mi-17.
The IG report said that the Black Hawk does not have the lift capacity comparable to Mi-17s and is unable to take on some of the larger cargo an Mi-17 carries, which requires two UH-60s to carry the load of one Mi-17.
Additionally, the Black Hawks can’t fly at the same high elevations as an Mi-17. As a result, the former cannot operate in remote areas of the country.
In the report ,the 9th AETF-A said the Mi-17s will play a “crucial role” in the near-term fighting season.
“In the future, as Mi-17s phase out of the service, the aforementioned challenges will become more pronounced,” the report adds.
Blumenthal and Ernst do not address these capability challenges in their letter to Rood, but state that “improved UH-60A Black Hawk capacity through aircraft deliveries and sustainable training programs both for AAF pilots and maintainers will address the transition challenges presented in the report.”
In the letter, the senators requested a briefing from U.S. Forces-Afghanistan on its plan to “mitigate these transition roadblocks.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.