The Complex

Afghanistan's Elite Air Force Can Barely Fly Its Own Planes or Use Night Vision Gear

Training Afghanistan's soldiers and cops has been tough. But outfitting an Afghan air force special operations unit is proving damn near impossible. The latest evidence: The Pentagon is spending $770 million on Afghan military aircraft that the Afghans have little hope of being able to operate and maintain, according to the U.S. government's Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The U.S. is hustling to help the Afghan military stand up a special, highly-trained air wing to transport its special operations forces before NATO leaves the country. The only problem is there aren't enough qualified recruits to staff the Afghan Special Mission Wing, which, as of late January, has only 180 personnel. That's less than a quarter of the 806 people it needs to be effective.

These troops need to be literate, English-speaking and able to pass an 18-20 month vetting process aimed at weeding out "candidates that have associations with criminal or insurgent activity," according to the report. Finding people who meet these criteria can be a serious challenge in Afghanistan.

Right now, the U.S. military staff and its contractors perform 50 percent of all maintenance done on the Afghan Special Mission Wing's 30 old Mi-17 helicopters. They perform an even higher share - 70 percent -- of really important maintenance work and ordering of spare parts, according to the IG.

Meanwhile, U.S. pilots have to take the lead on many of the SMW's missions since only seven out of the wing's 47 Afghan pilots are qualified to use night vision goggles. "A necessary skill for executing most counterterrorism operations," the report dryly notes. On the eve of NATO pulling its combat troops from Afghanistan, let's hope the SMW's ability, er inability, to fight is not an indication of the broader Afghan military's competency.

Making matters worse is the fact that many of the SMW's pilots belong to the Afghan interior ministry. This means that their life insurance won't kick in if they die while flying counterterrorism missions. Only pilots from the defense ministry get that kind of premium. The problem is, the interior ministry owns the wing. This is expected to change when the two ministries sign an agreement transferring control of the SMW to the defense ministry, but progress on that has been slow, according to the report.

Keep in mind that the year-old SMW is supposed to be totally ready for combat by July 2015, just a year and a half from now. That's despite the fact that U.S. military personnel and defense contractors "acknowledge that the Afghan government will not be able to independently perform maintenance and logistics support functions for at least 10 years," reads the report.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon last October paid Sierra Nevada Corp. $218 million for 18 PC-12 turboprop planes (shown above) -- similar to the ones used by U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command to discreetly move commandos around the world -- and then on June 16 gave $553.8 million to Russian arms exporter Rosonboronexport for 30 Mi-17 choppers.

All of this for a wing that can barely fly its missions or maintain its aircraft.

The IG is recommending that the U.S. suspend the contracts for the new aircraft until the wing is firmly in the hands of the Afghan MOD. It's also recommending that the U.S. work with the Afghans to develop a solid plan to ensure they know how to operate and maintain their aircraft.

It's a good thing the U.S. is going to keep military advisors at certain Afghan bases long after the last official combat troops go home. Otherwise, these aircraft might end up like the hundreds of Soviet made planes and choppers that sat rusting on the outskirts of Afghan air bases throughout the 1990s and much of the last decade.

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