Defense.gov, June 16, 2018 - The United States and Afghanistan continued the initial stages of transitioning the Afghan Air Force (AAF) from Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters to UH-60A Black Hawks during the quarter.
According to the Department of Defense (DoD), that transition was driven largely by the requirement for additional rotary wing lift and aerial fires capability, particularly given attrition of the Mi-17 fleet, and Congressional direction to transition to U.S.-made rotary wing aircraft rather than spending any more from the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF) on buying helicopters from Russia.
Training on the UH-60A Black Hawk continued for 22 pilots and 16 special mission operators. As of March 2018, 8 Black Hawks had been delivered to the AAF with another 45 purchased but not yet fielded out of a total 159 planned as part of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) Road Map’s AAF modernization.
The U.S. plan to replace the AAF’s fleet of Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters with Black Hawks will require Black Hawk crews to operate over areas currently serviced by the Mi-17.
The transition presents several challenges that have yet to be fully addressed. Black Hawks do not have the lift capacity of Mi-17s. They are unable to accommodate some of the larger cargo items the Mi-17s can carry, and in general, it takes almost two Black Hawks to carry the load of a single Mi-17. Furthermore, unlike Mi-17s, Black Hawks cannot fly at high elevations and, as such, cannot operate in remote regions of Afghanistan where Mi-17s operate. According to 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force–Afghanistan (AETF-A), the Mi-17s will play a “crucial role” in the near term fighting season. In the future, as Mi-17s phase out of service, the aforementioned challenges will become more pronounced.
By the end of 2019, the Mi-17 inventory is scheduled to be reduced from 47 (24 of which are in long-term maintenance) to 20. The fleet size is scheduled to decrease to 18 by the end of 2021 and then down to 12 by the end of 2022.
Afghans are performing roughly 80 percent of the maintenance tasks on their Mi-17s and rely on contractor logistics support for the remaining 20 percent. According to the 9th AETF-A, the Mi-17 is “much more conducive to the education level available in the general Afghan population than the UH-60As” when it comes to maintenance.
The expectation is that the AAF will be almost entirely reliant on contractors for Black Hawk maintenance in the nearto mid-term.
Maintenance contracts will scale down as the Mi-17 fleet size reduces, and according to the 9th AETF-A, the contracts will also reduce emphasis on aircraft readiness and place more emphasis on building Afghan maintenance capacity. Since the Mi-17s 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.
Despite the introduction of the UH-60A Black Hawks in the AAF, Train, Advise, and Assist Command-Air (TAAC-Air) will continue to train new Mi-17 pilots, with 10 pilots scheduled to graduate in late 2018 and another 10 scheduled to graduate in late 2019. Even though the Mi-17 is being phased out, 9th AETF-A said the new pilots are needed to replace Mi-17 pilots who migrate to Black Hawks. 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.