Congress Will Get the Afghan Air Force It Asked For

August 23, 2019
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The Pentagon is vexed that Afghanistan’s air force insists on trying to maintain some of its Russian-made helicopters while the United States is trying to replace them with a fleet of “certified pre-owned” UH-60 Black Hawks

The Pentagon’s recent report to Congress, Enhancing-Security-and-Stability-in-Afghanistan, notes “The Mi-35s were removed from the [Afghan Air Force’s] authorized fleet in 2015, but the Afghans continue to attempt to sustain them."

As to whether or not the Mi-35 HIND, a Russian helicopter gunship, attack helicopter, and troop transport, is “authorized," the Afghan Air Force’s actions answer the question. (That tone-deafness this late in the Afghan enterprise may also explain some other problems the U.S. is having.)

But it wasn’t the Afghans or the U.S. Department of Defense that ultimately caused the worries about the MI-35. The responsibility for that rests on Capitol Hill, which on the one hand, knew what it was doing and on the other had little idea of the long-term effects of its actions.

The U.S. Congress is now concerned about problems in Afghanistan’s transition from the Russian Mi-17 transport helicopter to the UH-60, problems the U.S. Army predicted when Congress demanded it cease doing business with Russian arms export agency Rosoboronexport, which sold helicopters for Afghanistan to the U.S. as “non-standard rotorcraft." 

The DoD complied and in 2013 canceled plans to buy Russian helicopters, and so the $6 billion Afghanistan UH-60 project was born in original sin.

As arms deals go, the politics were first-class. The helicopters supplied to the Afghans came from the National Guard, which got new helicopters, thus getting the Governors and Adjutants General behind the effort, in addition to the congressional delegations from the states supplying the airframes, avionics, and engines. The only problem was the timing. It would take too long to get the refurbished National Guard UH-60s to Afghanistan, so the Defense Department filled the gap by buying more MD-530 scout helicopters, which are already in Afghanistan, and which the Afghans compare unfavorably to the Mi-35 gunship they have struggled to maintain.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) recently reported the Afghan UH-60 program faces a raft of challenges: a shortage of qualified pilots;  mismanagement of the training program; the absence of a maintenance training program, which ensures continued reliance on contracted maintenance estimated to cost $2.8 billion; and the lack of a flying hour program to help control maintenance costs while ensuring crews are adequately trained.

One problem the Army no doubt explained to Congress was that the Mi-17 has greater lift capacity and can operate at a higher altitude than the UH-60. That quickly was borne out, and now it has been suggested that the U.S. supply the CH-47 Chinook, a heavy-lift helicopter, to provide the capability lost in the transition from the Mi-17 to the UH-60. Thus, the Americans have managed to replace the proven, and cheap, Mi-17 with the UH-60, which costs over $4000 per hour to operate and, when it failed to perform all its missions, suggested adopting the CH-47 Chinook, which costs over $6000 per hour to operate.

The likely Afghan response? “Go ahead. It’s your money!”

On the other hand, someone in the U.S. government thinks the Mi-17 is just fine for critical U.S. missions in Afghanistan. The U.S. Transportation Command has awarded numerous contracts to vendors that provide lift services in Afghanistan, and many of the missions were successfully accomplished with the Mi-17.

President Donald Trump recently ordered all U.S. troops to depart Afghanistan by the 2020 election. There will likely be a residual force focusing on counterterrorism and counternarcotic missions, but that may not be enough to secure the bases where the U.S. contractors are maintaining the Afghan UH-60s. The Pentagon policy of barring U.S. contractors from working where there is no U.S. or coalition control may affect the ability of civilian maintainers to stay in the country.

So, why are the Afghans keeping those Mi-35s? Probably to maintain knowledge of how to repair the platform as a hedge against the U.S. reducing or withdrawing funding for contractor maintenance. The eight Mi-35s in Afghanistan were transferred by India, which has extensive experience operating and maintaining Russian helicopters and would have been an ideal partner in the absence of the Russians.

India is the largest regional donor to Afghan reconstruction, having given $3 billion to date. It has an interest in a peaceful Afghanistan that will outlast U.S. interest in the place. If the U.S. wants India to stay involved in Afghanistan’s reconstruction - and balance Pakistan’s pernicious influence – India needs to be in on the action, and a high-profile effort like Afghan Air Force helicopter maintenance and training would have been ideal.

So, Congress used golden handcuffs to lock Afghanistan into U.S. helicopters, and then it put in place a law that can penalize Afghanistan's efforts at self-help. Here’s how.

In the febrile days after the 2016 election, when the political class and the media, preoccupied with the idea the Russian government swung the election for Donald Trump, Congress passed the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). CAATSA, while intended to tie Trump’s hands should he attempt to reduce tensions between the U.S. and Russia by waiving sanctions, also provided sanctions for transactions with the Russian defense sector.

CAATSA was passed without much consideration for second-order effects, such the impact on friendly nations. Later, at the Pentagon’s request, it was amended to allow for waivers of sanctions against countries with a stock of Russian weapons that now want to buy American gear, highlighting its mercantilist utility — doing well while doing good, as it were.

Turkey and China were subject to sanctions under CAATSA for buying the Russian S-400 missile system, and China suffered sanctions for buying the Su-35 fighter aircraft. India, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are discussing S-400 purchases with Russia and will be sanction candidates if they follow through. Turkey has likely figured in-for-a-penny, in-for-a-pound and may enter talks with Russia to buy the Su-35.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar may think they have enough stroke in D.C. to get away with it and, considering how many American politicians take their money, and they might be right. India can't spend like the Gulfies, but the Americans did change the name of a unified combatant command to include “Indo” so that may provide a measure of confidence that may - or may not - be warranted.

Those Mi-35s from India? They were bought from Russia so India would be risking sanctions if it were to purchase components to support the Afghan fleet, as would Afghanistan if it embarked on a serious self-help effort

America’s multi-vector sanctions policy will make it hard to work constructively with India in Afghanistan, as relations will become transactional, something Trump’s critics - who vigorously promoted CAATSA - have always decried in him. India, which doesn’t think the Non-Aligned Movement it co-founded is some Cold War artifact, will be back to balancing among the U.S., Russia, China, and the European Union, to the satisfaction of no one but the handicappers.

So, what does the U.S. get for this? It will get short-term leverage, but a long-term expectation by its interlocutors of reciprocal transactions, and the international politics version of "Irish democracy."

The U.S. now has a sanctions law (CAATSA) it can use to eliminate competition for arms sales, under color of protecting American technology. Countries will have to consider the potential for U.S. sanctions in their equipment decisions, and this will cement the U.S. as the world's top arms seller (Fiscal Year 2018 sales were $192.3 billion).

Conversely, it can use sanctions waivers to reward compliant behavior in other areas, such as awarding infrastructure contracts to U.S. firms. U.S. officials will argue that sanctions decisions are arms-length from advocacy for contractors and that is generally true, but that doesn’t mean the competition won’t spread fake news that will be believed, especially if the buying country has a history of a lack of transparency in the award of public tenders.

The fielding of new U.S. aircraft in Afghanistan gives the Americans the opportunity to force out Afghan officers who were trained by the Soviets and install U.S. clients schooled in U.S. doctrine. And the U.S. Congress had better be comfortable with the long-haul in Afghanistan as the contractor maintenance will be required to at least late 2025 but, like everything else about the Afghanistan adventure, it will go longer and cost more than we were promised.

In 2011, the Commission on Wartime Contracting might have been describing the Afghan UH-60 program when it declared “Billions of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars will be wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan if the host nation governments cannot take over the operation, maintenance, and security of efforts undertaken to reconstruct, stabilize, and develop those countries.” 

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).

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