Blackhawks Threaten to Undermine Afghan Air Force Development

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As the winter begins to thaw in Afghanistan, Afghan and coalition forces are intent to go on the offensive against the Taliban. Afghan forces have long been dependent on coalition air support, but the NATO mission’s commanding general promises “a tidal wave of Afghan airpower is on the horizon.” Unfortunately, American attempts to modernize the Afghan Air Force, specifically the introduction of the Blackhawk helicopter, risk undoing its hard-won progress.

This week, the United States delivered four refurbished UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to Kandahar Airport, as part of a commitment to gradually replace Afghanistan’s Russian helicopters. Although Blackhawks are technically superior to the existing Afghan fleet, they are inappropriate for this context and will undermine Afghan security development. The decision attempts to punish Russia by denying it weapons sales but inadvertently gives Moscow a much bigger prize: a dysfunctional Afghanistan. 

In a recent article for Small Wars Journal, Abdul Rahman Rahmani and John “Jack” McCain point to the speed, maneuverability, and lethality of the Blackhawk, relative to Afghanistan’s current Russian systems. The Blackhawk is no doubt a sophisticated aircraft and clearly the best choice for an advanced military like America’s.

But despite its technical superiority, the Blackhawk is not the best choice for Afghan forces. The existing helicopter, the Russian Mi-17 “Hip,” is much better suited to Afghanistan’s recruiting constraints, terrain, and existing capabilities. Older, less sophisticated Soviet systems are preferable in certain contexts, particularly if many military recruits are illiterate, a recurring obstacle in Afghan recruiting. The Russian systems are also a good match for Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain because they can carry heavy loads at high altitudes. Finally, introducing duplicate capabilities dramatically increases the current operational burden on the Afghan force as it attempts to bring the fight to the Taliban.

SIGAR, the congressionally mandated oversight body on Afghanistan, warned in its review of Afghan security forces development, released in September: “Providing advanced Western weapons and management systems to a largely illiterate and uneducated force without appropriate training and institutional infrastructure created long-term dependencies, required increased U.S. fiscal support, and extended sustainability timelines.” Equipping the Afghans with Blackhawks would ignore every aspect of this warning. 

Members of the Afghan Air Force train on how to pilot UH-60A Blackhawk helicopters at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan on November 5, 2017. The Afghan Air Force will replace the Mi-17s with UH-60A Blackhawks over the next few years as a plan to modernize the fleet (U.S. Air Force video by Senior Airman Ryan Green)

The need to retrain to new systems will needlessly delay the Afghan Air Force from achieving proficiency. The Afghan pilots and ground crews must focus on developing core competencies, not learning new systems. Right now, Afghan forces still lack close air support capabilities, air operations integrated with and supporting ground operations. In practical terms, this means wounded soldiers have waited 19 days for medical evacuation, leading to slipping morale and increased attrition. The United States trained the Afghan National Army (ANA) in its own image, encouraging reliance on combat enablers—close air support, medical evacuation, intelligence, and reconnaissance—that were “largely underdeveloped or nonexistent within the ANA at the time.” In February 2016, Army Gen. John F. Campbell, who then commanded the US and NATO missions in Afghanistan, testified in Congress: “One of the greatest tactical challenges for the Afghan security forces has been overcoming the Afghan air forces extremely limited organic close air support capability.” The task of developing the Afghan security forces is challenging enough; adding new systems will only complicate this effort.

The U.S. decision to replace the Russian systems is political, not operational. Congress halted a Mi-17 purchase in 2013 in response to Russia’s involvement in Syria. President Obama further restricted sales with Russian weapons companies in reaction to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Domestic manufacturing is also a popular selling point with the American public.

While the United States is right to limit Russian influence, doing so through Afghan aircraft procurement is self-defeating. In an attempt to punish Russia through procurement changes, we risking ceding Afghan security, a much larger prize from the Russian perspective. Even if the United States decides it is untenable to purchase Soviet-era systems from Russian companies, they are available from third countries. The United States has a right and responsibility to punish Russia for its destructive role in Syria and Ukraine, but it need not surrender Afghan security in the process.

A sustainable Afghan force that can stand on its own would be best served by the Russian systems. Afghan forces know how to operate and fix them, and they get the job done. Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel put it best: “They’ve been using it for years. Easy maintenance, unsophisticated. We can get it pretty quickly. That’s the one they want.”

Alexandra Gutowski is a senior military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.

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