Will Afghanistan’s Air Force Soon be Without Vertical Airlift?
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN—The Afghan Air Force is one focal point in efforts to develop strong Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, with air power one of the major advantages of government forces over the insurgency. However, the attention nearly always lies solely on the Afghan Air Force’s combat capabilities, seemingly neglecting also important airlift, which will most likely pose a significant problem in the near future.
Even though less obvious, airlift is probably at least as – if not even more – important than attack capabilities. Of course, the ability to not only strike insurgents directly from the air, but also to preventively deter them from massing in larger formations is a powerful enabler and should not be underestimated. However, insurgents often don’t present clear targets that can be hit from the air without causing collateral damage that threatens to drive the population towards the insurgency (in fact, civilian casualties caused by airstrikes is a common propaganda narrative of the Taliban). Therefore, it could be argued that tactical vertical airlift which allows to swiftly deploy ground forces even into remote areas to engage and pressure insurgents with less risk of collateral damage would in many situations be more effective. In addition, given Afghanistan’s rugged terrain there are numerous remote outposts that rely on air supply by helicopter. Furthermore, helicopters also evacuate wounded soldiers from otherwise inaccessible fronts, which, if not readily done, can have a devastating effect on the morale of ground forces.
Nonetheless, airlift seems to be neglected as the Afghan Air Force’s vertical airlift fleet of Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopters is already now strained and – contrary to the combat fleet of recently delivered A-29 light attack aircraft as well as MD 530F light attack helicopters – ageing and will soon reach the end of its lifespan. More specifically, the US Department of Defense in a report from December 2015 stated that „the (Afghan Air Force’s) Mi-17 fleet (…) is still unable to meet the ground forces’ demand“ and clarified in December 2016 that „at the current attrition and flying hour rates, the number of (Afghan Air Force) Mi-17s available for 2017 will be significantly diminished, and the Mi-17 fleet will become unsustainable by mid-2018, virtually eliminating the (Afghan Air Force’s) vertical transport and lift capability“. Further showing the neglect of airlift, the report from December 2016 also notes that the 13 of the total 47 Mi-17s of the Afghan Air Force that have been „configured with a fixed forward firing capability“ are frequently used as gunships, which „limits the (Afghan Air Force’s) ability to employ Mi-17s in support of other mission sets such as (casualty evacuation (CASEVAC)) and aerial resupply“.
Despite this looming elimination of the Afghan Air Force’s vertical airlift capabilities, plans to sustain the transport helicopter fleet were only recently announced and are not definitive yet. According to Adam Stump, a spokesman of the US Department of Defense, „the Department of Defense has determined that procuring U.S.-made helicopters is a more sustainable long-term solution to meet the requirements, given the higher-than-anticipated costs of maintaining Mi-17s, overuse and attrition problems, and legal restrictions on spending (Department of Defense) funds to maintain or buy more Russian helicopters“ and that an upgraded version of the US-made Sikorsky UH-60A BlackHawk medium-lift utility helicopter would be „the best available platform to meet the mission requirements of the Afghan air force“. However, while Mr. Stump added that the US Department of Defense had already requested funding to procure and modify 53 BlackHawks, it is not yet clear, whether or when US Congress will approve this funding.