The U.S. Army’s Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters have fewer capabilities for critical missions than the Russian-made Mil Mi-17 (NATO reporting name: Hip) helicopters operating in Afghanistan’s Air Force, according to a new report from the Pentagon’s inspector general.
Afghan Armed Forces, which are jointly working with the Pentagon to develop and extend its Air Force’s capacities, have been flying the Russian-made helicopters since the early 1980s.
In response to President Putin’s covert/overt military operations in Ukraine and parts of the Middle East, U.S. lawmakers recently asked the Pentagon to phase out the Mi-17 sold by Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-owned weapons exporter — in favor of American made helicopters in Afghanistan’s Air Force.
An Afghan Mi-17 helicopter flown by Lt. Col. Bakhtullah, 377th Afghan Air Force Squadron commander, takes off for an air-assault training flight, May 29 from Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan (2013). (Source: Afghanistan Air Force)
The transition to Black Hawk helicopters “presents several challenges that have yet to be fully addressed,” Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine wrote in a quarterly report, available to the public, on overseas contingency operations, posted last month after the first Black Hawk became operational in Afghanistan’s Air Force.
“Black Hawks do not have the lift capacity of Mi-17s. They are unable to accommodate some of the larger cargo items the Mi-17s can carry, and in general, it takes almost two Black Hawks to carry the load of a single Mi-17.
Furthermore, unlike Mi-17s, Black Hawks cannot fly at high elevations and, as such, cannot operate in remote regions of Afghanistan where Mi-17s operate.
According to 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan (9th AETF-A), the Mi-17s will play a “crucial role” in the near term fighting season. In the future, as Mi-17s phase-out of service, the aforementioned challenges will become more pronounced.”
The Pentagon’s inspector general detailed in the report that by the end of 2019, the Mi-17 helicopter inventory is expected to be reduced from 47 to 20. The fleet size is scheduled to decrease to 18 by the end of 2021 and then to 12 by the second half of 2022.
Bloomberg said that in 2017, after months of lobbying by Connecticut lawmakers, where the Black Hawk is manufactured (how convenient), Congress appropriated more than 800 million dollars for Afghanistan’s Air Force modernization program.
As of March 2018, the Pentagon delivered 8 Black Hawks with another 45 expected to arrive in the near term — with a total 159 planned over the next few years.
Army Lieutenant Colonel Kone Faulkner, a Pentagon spokesman, told Bloomberg in an email that the Defense Department concluded that Black Hawks could only perform 90 percent of the Afghanistan missions the Mi-17 fleet was performing.
Faulkner tried to spin a few positives about the Black Hawk, which he said, it “can fly at the required mission altitudes at which the Afghan Mi-17 missions are typically flown.”
He added, “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.”
The Pentagon’s inspector general revealed that Afghanistan’s Air Force performs “80 percent of the maintenance tasks on their Mi-17s” and mostly relies on “contractor logistics support for the remaining 20 percent.” The inspector general said the Mi-17’s maintenance tasks are “much more conducive to the education level available in the general Afghan population than the UH-60As” when it comes to maintenance.
Faulkner again tried to point out more positives about the Black Hawks, adding that the helicopters have “significantly lower” operating costs than Mi-17s, and the transition will “enable a shift from a Russian supply chain to a well-established and reliable U.S. supply chain.”
While the military-industrial-complex with the help of Connecticut lawmakers has been rushing to sell their Black Hawks to Afghanistan, it is rare for a high-ranking Pentagon official to admit that Russian helicopters are far more superior than theirs. Is American (helicopter) Exceptionalism fading?