The U.S. Army’s Black Hawk helicopters are less capable for some missions conducted by Afghanistan’s Air Force than the Russian-made ones they’re replacing, according to the Pentagon’s inspector general.
It’s a setback six years after lawmakers started pushing for the U.S. to stop buying the Mi-17 sold by Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-owned weapons exporter, in light of President Vladimir Putin’s interventions abroad. The Afghan military, which is working to develop its Air Force’s capabilities, has been flying the Russian-made helicopter since the 1980s.
The transition to Black Hawks made by Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky Aircraft unit “presents several challenges that have yet to be fully addressed,” Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine wrote in his latest quarterly assessment of U.S. expenditures in Afghanistan, posted in May, the same month the first Black Hawk was flown in an Afghanistan operation.
“Black Hawks do not have the lift capability” of the Russian aircraft, Fine wrote. The helicopters also “are unable to accommodate some of the larger cargo items the Mi-17 can carry, and in general it takes almost two Black Hawks to carry the load of a single Mi-17,” Fine said. “Unlike the Mi-17, Black Hawks cannot fly at high elevations and, as such, cannot operate in remote regions of Afghanistan where Mi-17s operate.”
As the Mi-17 is phased out in favor of the Black Hawk, the challenges “will become more pronounced,” Fine wrote.
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Army Lt. Col. Kone Faulkner, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email that the Defense Department determined that Black Hawks, which are designated UH-60s, could perform as much as 90 percent of the missions the Mi-17 fleet was performing.
Lawmakers started pushing the Pentagon in 2012 to replace the Mi-17, after it was disclosed that the helicopters were being used against civilians by President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. The Defense Department agreed in 2013 not to buy Mi-17s beyond the 86 already purchased.
In fiscal 2017, after heavy lobbying by lawmakers from Connecticut, where the Black Hawk is built, Congress appropriated $814 million to deploy 159 of them over time. The Mi-17 is being phased out in Afghanistan, from about 47 today to 12 by December 2022.
Faulkner said the Black Hawk “can fly at the required mission altitudes at which the Afghan Mi-17 missions are typically flown.” He said “in many cases the UH-60 is as, or more, capable than the Mi-17” and that one version “provides more firepower than the Mi-17 variant, which is limited to rockets only and is less maneuverable.”
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Aside from flying capabilities, Fine wrote that the Afghan Air Force performs 80 percent of maintenance on the Mi-17 but will have to depend on contractors “in the near- to mid-term” for the more complex Black Hawk.
That’s because the Mi-17’s maintenance tasks are “much more conducive to the educational level available in the general Afghan population,” Air Force officials in Afghanistan told Fine’s auditors, according to his report.
“Virtually all militaries that have operational aviation fleets are reliant on contractors for maintenance,” said Faulkner, the Pentagon spokesman. “The Afghan Air Force is no different, and as we are in the early stages of maintenance training, they will be more reliant” on contractors initially “but this reliance will diminish over time.”
Black Hawks have “significantly lower” operating costs than Mi-17s, and the changeover will “enable a shift from a Russian supply chain to a well-established and reliable U.S. supply chain,” Faulkner said.
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