U.S. Is Struggling in Its Effort to Build an Afghan Air Force

KABUL, Afghanistan — Col. Qalandar Shah Qalandari, Afghanistan’s most decorated pilot, recently took command of what was meant to be the building blocks of his country’s new air force: a squadron of shiny American-made attack helicopters, intended to solve the chronic lack of close air support for Afghan troops.

Sixteen of the armed MD-530 scout helicopters were rushed here this year to great fanfare, and a dozen more are to join them. But Colonel Qalandari was not impressed. “This plane is a total mess,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t know why we have this plane here.”

An Afghan public affairs officer tried to shush the colonel as he spoke to a journalist at the Afghan Air Force base at Kabul airport. A United States Air Force public affairs officer looked on aghast.

But Colonel Qalandari kept on: “I will tell the truth. This is my country, and these are my men, and they deserve the truth.”

He tossed a map on the table, showing the effective range of the helicopter from its Kabul airfield: It cannot even reach areas where the Taliban normally operate. In summertime, its maximum altitude with a full load of fuel and ammunition is only 7,000 to 8,000 feet, he said — meaning it cannot cross most of the mountain ranges that encircle Kabul, which is itself at an elevation of about 6,000 feet.

“It’s unsafe to fly, the engine is too weak, the tail rotor is defective and it’s not armored. If we go down after the enemy we’re going to have enemy return fire, which we can’t survive. If we go up higher, we can’t visually target the enemy,” Colonel Qalandari said. “Even the guns are no good.”

Each helicopter carries two .50-caliber machine guns, mounted on pods on either side of the craft’s small bubble cockpit. “They keep jamming,” one of the colonel’s 10 newly American-trained pilots said.

Colonel Qalandari is not the first Afghan official to complain about the woeful state of efforts to build an air force to replace the Americans in carrying out airstrikes, medical evacuations and transport missions in a country with poor and dangerous roads. United States officials have long seen the aspirations as unrealistic, while Afghans have complained that their allies have ignored their views about what they need to fight the Taliban.
One of the Afghan Air Force’s primary assault vehicles is the MD-530 scout helicopter. Its range is about 83 miles. But it cannot operate above an elevation of 7,000 to 8,000 feet, which dramatically reduces the area it can patrol in Afghanistan’s mountainous landscape.

In the past, efforts were focused on reconstructing the air force left behind by the Soviets, or at least the helicopter transport and gunship parts of it. During the Soviet era, the Afghan Air Force even had MiG-21 jet fighters with Afghan pilots. What the Afghans have had lately is a fleet of prop-driven Cessna transport planes, and aging Russian MI-17 transport helicopters and MI-35 helicopter gunships, the kind Colonel Qalandari flew in the past.

American efforts to rebuild the Russian fleet stalled after the conflict in Ukraine brought Western sanctions on the Russians. That has made spare parts difficult to obtain and new Russian helicopters all but impossible to buy.

Of the Afghan legacy fleet of five MI-35 gunships — a fearsome aircraft well-suited to Afghan conditions — only one is still flying. “And that one won’t last much longer,” Colonel Qalandari said.

Some of the Russian MI-17s, normally used for transport, have been outfitted as gunships or medevac aircraft, but there are constant problems keeping them in service because of issues with maintenance and spare parts. Afghan V.I.P.s also tend to demand them for personal transportation when they travel around the country.

American officials hailed the MD-530 as a quick — and realistic — solution to Afghanistan’s air force needs.

Built by McDonnell Douglas, the two-seat helicopter has a 33-year history, serving as a Special Operations scout helicopter, and in the United States as a traffic and weather news helicopter, or for power line work.

It is simple to fly and repair, and could be put into action in Afghanistan quickly, American officials said. The first four of the MD-530 gunships to be battle-ready have already gone on two combat missions, in August, and Afghans and Americans both pronounced them a success.

American officers say that it would take much longer — many years — to train Afghan pilots to fly more advanced American military helicopters with advanced avionics and computerized controls. They are also extremely expensive to fly.

“This is a sustainable solution,” said Lt. Col. James Abbott, an Air Force trainer who put off retirement to help run the MD-530 program in Afghanistan. “You’re fighting guys with a gun in the back of a pickup truck: How much technology does that need?”

The new helicopters were procured and delivered, with enough Afghan pilots trained and ready to fly them, in less than a year. “It’s been pretty amazing what they’ve done in a short time,” Colonel Abbott said.
Some of the Afghan pilots have already qualified on the MD-530 as instructor pilots, and are training other Afghans. Training mechanics and maintainers will take longer, and American contractors are still doing most of that work.

The pilots inside the MI-17 helicopter. Spare parts for the Russian fleet are difficult to obtain, but many Afghans are dissatisfied with replacement American helicopters. Credit Andrew Quilty for The New York Times
Colonel Abbott said a lot of the Afghan criticism of the new aircraft was from pilots used to Russian equipment, and replacing that has become impossible. “It’s a tough sell for the legacy guys,” he said, “but the young pilots love it.”

As for the complaints about the helicopter’s troubles in the high altitudes and thin air of Afghan battlefields, he noted that those would be a problem for even most advanced aircraft.

Capt. Naiem Azadi — one of the new instructor pilots and a veteran of the MD-530’s first combat mission, in Jalalabad last month — is enthusiastic about the helicopter. But he wished it had gun sights, he said. As it is now, targeting is visual, and the twin .50-caliber machine guns are aimed by tilting the helicopter toward the target.

“If we don’t have ground controllers guiding us, it’s very hard to target safely,” Captain Azadi, 27, said.

Already, one of the new helicopters has crashed, while an American pilot was flying with an Afghan trainee near the 8,000-foot-high Lataband Pass, just east of Kabul.

Colonel Qalandari said the incident showed the limitations of the helicopter in Afghan terrain. After the helicopter landed, a recurring tail rotor problem, plus its light weight, caused it to tip over in a wind. While the crew escaped safely, the aircraft rolled down the mountainside, toppled off a cliff, and was completely destroyed.

“When my pilots fly in this, only God and I know what they’re going through,” the colonel said. “And I don’t know whether they’ll make it back.”

The MD-530 is not the only problem aircraft in the Afghan arsenal, according to Afghan officials.

They also have 25 C-208 transport planes, basically modified Cessna 12-seater prop planes, an aircraft the Americans praise for its simplicity and workhorse abilities.

The Afghan Air Force chief of staff disagreed. “The C-208 is not good for Afghan territory, it’s unacceptable to the geography of the country,” the senior officer, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Dawran, said in an interview. “We can’t keep them pressurized; they only have a 4,000- to 5,000-meter ceiling — no good in the hot weather. Only a single engine.”

General Dawran said that while he was grateful to the Americans for the help they had given, they had yet to accomplish nearly as much as the Russians did in creating an Afghan Air Force in the 1980s.

“Our international friends, especially the U.S.A., did a lot of good things to help the Afghan Air Force,” he said. “We began from zero, and now we’re in a better situation. But the Americans did not pay enough attention to what we wanted. They did not consult the Afghan side.”

The Afghan general was hopeful, however, about the planned delivery next year of 20 new Brazilian-made A-29 airplanes, a light attack aircraft purchased by the American military. Unlike the new helicopters, the A-29 will be able to drop laser-guided bombs and other high-tech arms.

“The nice thing about a laser-guided bomb,” said Colonel Abbott, “it doesn’t care what it gets dropped out of, it’s just as lethal.”

Brig. Gen. Chris Craige, the commander of the American Air Force training mission here, acknowledged that development of an Afghan Air Force had lagged behind other military training efforts. For one thing, the United States and its coalition allies did not even start working on training an Afghan Air Force until 2007, and efforts were complicated by the highly technical nature of air power and by the long periods of training needed for pilots and mechanics. Pilots in particular need English-language proficiency, which takes up most of the first year of their training.

The A-29, said General Craige, “is the absolutely right airplane for them. It will bring the next level of capability to them as far as not just machine guns and rockets, but also being able to drop bombs. And that’s where we really start getting the Afghan Air Force to a point where they can sustain themselves in those tough battles.”

Training on the A-29 does not begin until next year, and the full complement of 20 planes will not arrive until December 2018.

But Afghan ground forces are begging for air support as they face more determined ground challenges from the Taliban, who have boasted of how much easier it is to fight with fewer worries about American airstrikes.

Most American airstrikes in support of Afghan forces have to be approved on a case-by-case basis by Gen. John F. Campbell, the American commander in Afghanistan, and not all are.

One exception has been Musa Qala, a district of Helmand Province that fell to the Taliban on Aug. 26. Heavy American airstrikes rained down almost continuously on the district for weeks after that, according to Afghan officials and local residents.

But over all, General Craige said, “this is the first year where the coalition hasn’t come in and said, ‘We’ll take care of it.’”

That has been difficult for Afghans to accept. As another American general put it, speaking on the condition of anonymity while criticizing an ally, the heavy American use of air power in previous years has made Afghan government forces feel excessively dependent on it.

“The Taliban doesn’t complain about not getting air support,” the general said, “but they get it done.”

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