As part of Afghanistan's four-year road map to double its 17,000-strong special forces unit and bolster the Afghan Air Force, the U.S. plans to provide Afghanistan with up to 159 refurbished UH-60A Black Hawks to replace its aging fleet of Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters, according to Afghan and U.S. defense officials.
Ahmad Shah Katawazai, defense liaison and security expert at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., told Military Times that the addition of Black Hawks to the Afghan fleet is vital for giving the security forces leverage needed to end the stalemate.
"We are in the midst of an insurgency where the enemy is getting tacit support from neighboring countries. Our security forces are under immense pressure as they are fighting each day, on several fronts, with more than 20 terrorist organizations."
The development comes after Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, saying more U.S. troops were needed to help break the "stalemate" against terrorists groups fighting there. The Trump administration is evaluating how many additional personnel it may deploy.
There is $814 million designated this year to bolster Afghanistan's air force, including enough funding for 53 of the 159 Black Hawks, a defense official told Military Times. Each year, the Defense Department will have to request additional funding for the remainder. Officials expect to deliver 30 a year. The first delivery is expected in about 21 months.
A fleet of 159 Black Hawks would nearly double the Afghan Air Force's current fleet of 78 Mi-17s, calling into question whether Afghanistan has the capability to maintain such a large fleet of U.S.-made helicopters.
And not everyone agrees that the UH-60 is a good fit for Afghanistan.
"Given that it takes substantial U.S. support to maintain the airframes that the Afghan Air Force has already, it doesn't seem feasible that they would be able to support that many Black Hawks without a significant contribution from NATO," Dr. Matthew Archibald, an independent researcher and consultant on South Asian issues, told Military Times.
Afghanistan has had considerable problems with maintaining its current fleet of aircraft.
The 2016 Mi-17 crash that injured top Afghan military officials and killed Afghan Army Commander
Gen. Muhayuddin Ghori was determined to be caused by a mechanical failure resulting from lack of maintenance.
According to latest estimatesfrom the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction
, roughly 18 of Afghanistan's Russian Mi-17s are unusable, two of the four C-130s are undergoing serious repair and one MD-530 crashed as a result of mechanical failure. Though the report acknowledges that most of the issues with the Mi-17 stem from their overuse, as Afghanistan heavily relies on the lumbering helicopter for troop transport, air assault operations and, at times, for offensive ground air support.
The replacement of the Mi-17 with the UH-60 has the potential to degrade Afghanistan’s total lift capacity and offensive firing capabilities, according to Archibald. "The Black Hawk doesn't bring nearly the amount of close air support capability that the Mi-17 does," he said. In 2016, the Mi-17 fired its rocket pods over 600 timesin support of ground operations in Afghanistan, a similar rate to its primary ground attack platform the MD-530.
U.S. defense officials push back on that claim. Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said that although 63 Mi-17s were equipped with the ability to fire rockets, not all of them are actually armed and "very few of these aircraft have been outfitted with rockets because their primary role is to perform lift, air assaults and medevac missions rather than aerial fires missions."
Stump also said some of the Black Hawks will be equipped with rocket pods and additional offensive aerial platforms are being added to Afghanistan's air force, which will make up for any loss in offensive capabilities with the switch. Afghanistan is also set to receive an additional armed 30 MD-530 Cayuse Warrior ground attack helicopters, six more A-29 fixed wing close attack aircraft, and five armed AC-208 fixed wing aircraft, he said.
As for a loss in total lift capacity, the Black Hawks are receiving a new engine designed to handle Afghanistan’s punishing terrain "and will be able to perform almost all of the same missions that the current Mi-17 fleet has been conducting in terms of number of people and cargo typically carried," Stump said.
And then there's the question of timing and whether it will take too long to train pilots and deliver the helicopters in time to make a difference on the ground.
U.S. defense officials say it will only take 12 weeks to train Afghan pilots on the Black Hawk. For new pilots, training could take nine to 13 months depending on the English proficiency of the student. But according to a recent SIGAR report on Afghanistan, there are 68 Mi-17 pilots and 35 of them are instructor pilots, meaning Afghanistan could have to send almost hundred new pilots through entry-level training, taking up to a year to complete.
The nearly two-year time frame before the first UH-60's arrive may not be realistic or beneficial to Afghanistan, according to Franz-Stefan Gaddy, a senior fellow at the East-West Institute. "The Afghan military just does not have the luxury to wait a couple of years for the Black Hawks to arrive...these aircraft will certainly not be available by the time the AAF [Afghan Air Force] needs to retire its Mi-17 fleet next year," he said.
The procurement process to get the first batch of A-29 Super Tucanos took almost half a decade, and the entire fleet is still not operational, Gady explained. "From a tactical and operational perspective, acquiring the Black Hawk would be a bad decision for the Afghan military."
Training is expected to begin almost immediately according to an Afghan defense official. Four UH-60s slated for training purposes are expected to arrive in Afghanistan later this fall, the official told Military Times, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plan is still in initial stages. Officials at the Pentagon would not confirm the time or place of the training because the issues were still "pre-decisional."
President Donald Trump is headed to the NATO summit in Brussels this week where the war in Afghanistan will be high on the agenda. Nicholson submitted his recommendation in April calling for an additional 3,000 to 5,000 more U.S. troops to assist with the "train and advise" mission called Operation Resolute Support. NATO allies are also considering a a troop increase in the war-torn country.