WASHINGTON — Afghan pilots will begin training on U.S. UH-60 A model Black Hawk helicopters sometime in early October.
The Black Hawk training aircraft are expected to arrive in Afghanistan sometime shortly after October 1, and training will start soon after that, Capt. William Salvin, a spokesperson for Operation Resolute Support, recently told Military Times.
In total, the U.S. plans to procure 159 Black Hawks to the Afghan air force, a defense official previously told Military Times. However, that plan is hinged upon Congress approving aid for the program every year.
At the tune of $814 million, the U.S. plans to replace Afghanistan’s aging Mi-17 Russian transport helicopters as part of a NATO-supported recapitalization program to help bolster Afghanistan’s fledgling fleet.
That plan is set to procure 53 UH-60A Black Hawks over the next year and half, and an additional 30 MD-53O Cayuse Warrior ground attack helicopters, six A-29 Super Tucano fixed wing aircraft and five armed AC-208 fixed wing planes.
The training will take place in Afghanistan at the Kandahar airfield, Maj. Gen. Neil Thurgood, deputy commanding general of Combined Security Transition Command, said during an interview with Resolute Support.
Afghanistan’s lack of a robust infrastructure and communications network makes supporting the local population and connecting them to their government a difficult task, meaning a robust air force with air lift capability is necessary.
“How do you get support out where you need support out?” Thurgood said in an interview with Resolute Support.
Afghanistan currently boasts 78 Mi-17 transport helicopters. But, those airframes are nearing the end of their lifespan and eventually as they are replaced by the Black Hawk they will reach zero, according to Thurgood.
Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, pressed for the UH-60s before lawmakers back in February. Nicholson sees the Black Hawks as necessary to boost Afghanistan’s offensive capabilities and to break what he has described as a stalemate in a nearly 16-year war.
Afghanistan’s air force has struggled over the years, beset by maintenance issues and growing pains. The first series of offensive air platforms didn’t arrive in Afghanistan until the start of 2016.
As U.S. and NATO forces have taken a backseat to offensive combat operations in the war-torn country, Afghanistan’s barely broken in air force has had to step up to the plate.
According to a recent assessment by the United Nations, there was a 43 percent increase in civilian casualties compared to the same point last year as a result of aerial operations.
The U.N. attributes most of those casualties to the Afghan air force as a result of their increasing use of offensive aircraft.
However, the Afghan air force continues to develop new capabilities. In June, the Afghan air force conducted its first ever airdrop resupply mission from a Cessna 208, according to Salvin.
Salvin described the new capability as “vital.”
Because of the harsh terrain in Afghanistan, “often, aerial resupply is the only option,” he told Military Times. “Now, the Afghans have the capability to keep ground forces supplied with food, water and other vital supplies.”
Furthermore, it was never planned for the Afghan air force to have an airdrop capability, according to U.S. Air Forces Central Command. Coalition partners training it took it upon their own initiative to modify planes and train crews.
After the UH-60s arrive for training it will take roughly 12 weeks to transition former Mi-17 pilots to the new U.S. platform, according to officials at the Pentagon. New pilots with limited English speaking capabilities could be in training for as long as 13 months.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.