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How Not to Win the Afghan War

Afghanistan’s ability to defend itself is being hurt by an American effort to help
Two U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters prepare for takeoff at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, on December 4, 2011. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

National-security rookies, as well as some senior Pentagon types, think that weapons are military muscle. But logistics is the blood that pumps all military hardware to life, and the people who operate and maintain them are their brains—without those two key elements, military muscle is little more than rotting flesh.

The Pentagon is shipping UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to Afghanistan faster than it can train the pilots and mechanics needed to operate them.

Take the Pentagon’s F-35, the cutting-edge jet fighter being flown by the Air Force, the Marines, and the Navy. It’s the costliest weapon system in history, being built by Lockheed Martin, the Defense Department’s biggest contractor. Yet despite all this money and expertise, nearly one out of three of the Pentagon’s F-35s can’t fly because spare-parts bins are empty. That’s leading to a lot of expensive hardware sitting around doing nothing.

Given that the U.S. military seems to have forgotten the most important anatomy lessons of military power, it’s not surprising that it is teaching the wrong lessons to its allies in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is shipping more UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters there than it has the pilots and mechanics needed to operate them. Not only that: according to a blistering report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction there seems to be no coordination among U.S. and Afghan officials to fix the problem.

In a nutshell, the U.S. government is forcing the Afghan air force out of its simple Russian Mi-17 helicopters into more complex American-made UH-60 Black Hawks. The switch to the more complicated U.S. choppers is hampering the Afghan government’s hold on power, and risks the marginal gains made in 18 years of war since the United States invaded in 2001. As the Project On Government Oversight reported last June, the U.S. helicopters do less and cost more than the Mi-17s. Afghanistan’s lack of airpower is apparently allowing the Taliban to continue to gain control over more of the country (though the U.S.-led coalition has stopped making such information public).

Afghan National Army Mi-17 helicopters taxi on the runway of the Kabul International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 10, 2011.
(Photo: U.S. Air Force / Senior Airman Amber Williams)

The Pentagon wants to provide its Afghan allies with 159 refurbished UH-60s by 2023 at a cost of up to $7 billion. That’s happening despite the fact that the Mi-17s are better suited for Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and the skills of its pilots and maintainers.

But—as is the rule in war—those paying the piper tend to call the shots. That’s true even if it’s not in the best interests of those the United States is trying to help (and U.S. sanctions against Russian suppliers are exacerbating the problem). The growing chopper-people mismatch, detailed in a January report by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), compounds the problem.

The swap has sparked controversy. The Mi-17 was “the perfect helicopter” for Afghanistan because it can carry more and is easier to maintain, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John E. Michel, who commanded the air training mission in 2013 and 2014, told the New York Times in January. “Let’s be candid” about the shift from Russian to U.S. choppers, he added. “That was largely done for political reasons.” Lawmakers from Connecticut—home to Lockheed’s Black Hawk-building Sikorsky division—led the charge. “I will continue to work with leadership at the Department of Defense to bring these contracts—and jobs—back home to Sikorsky and Connecticut,” Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro said.

The Pentagon, as part of its perpetual self-delusion, views the Black Hawks as a silver bullet designed to help the Afghan government prevail in a war with the Taliban (and other insurgent groups) that it and the United States have not been able to win in 18 years. “A tidal wave of Afghan airpower is on the horizon,” the top U.S. general in Afghanistan said when the first Afghan UH-60s landed in Afghanistan in 2017. “The momentum has shifted, and it is irreversible.”

Don’t bet on it.

The problems surrounding the Afghan UH-60 fleet are rampant, and reflect both a lack of training and low literacy rates among personnel. Hardware without the people able to operate it and, just as critical, keep it operating has long been a blind spot in the U.S. military. When budgets are cut, the operations and maintenance accounts are the first to feel the ax.

Beyond that, soldiers privately have told me that the United States hasn’t been fighting an 18-year-long war in Afghanistan. Rather, they ruefully say, the United States has fought 18 one-year wars in Afghanistan, with all the mixed signals such a “strategy” implies. The Black Hawk program captures that confusion, the SIGAR report notes, as U.S. officers currently running the program often are unable to explain why their predecessors took certain actions.

Less than two years after the program began, its pilot production is lagging while the schedule for delivering the used but updated UH-60s remains on track. “Despite the fact that pilot development is not keeping pace with original program assumptions, DOD has yet to establish benchmarks it can use to determine whether it should pause the deliveries of UH-60s or reduce the number of aircraft to deliver to the Afghan government,” the SIGAR report says.

U.S. Army UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force Phoenix make their approach into Camp Morehead, Afghanistan, on December 5, 2013.
(Photo: U.S. Army)

There are four major problems conspiring to cripple Afghanistan’s UH-60 program: a shortage of pilots, not enough mechanics, limits on where they will be able to fly, and the Afghan commanders who ignore flight-hour limits designed to keep maintenance costs under control on their Mi-17 aircraft.

Yet even as the United States cuts the number of Afghan pilots it wants to train, the already-small number can’t keep up with the chopper deliveries. While the U.S. mission in Afghanistan “originally intended to train 477 pilots,” that has been cut to 320, SIGAR says. Yet the command may fall short of the 320-pilot target, the report warns, “because the number of pilots going through training is already falling behind planned class sizes.”

U.S. trainers running the program in Afghanistan “decided to reduce the number of pilots trained as a cost-saving measure,” SIGAR says, although it estimates their $1 billion training budget was double what is needed for the original 477 pilots. Fewer pilots would cut the training cost to $374 million, SIGAR estimates, or slightly more than $1 million per pilot. The inspector general asked the U.S. military to explain its cost projection, “but it could not provide the data to explain the estimate.”

Basic Afghan helicopter pilot training begins either at the U.S. Army’s helicopter school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, or at contractor-run facilities in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or the United Arab Emirates. But the specialized training Afghan pilots need to fly the UH-60s is only being done in Afghanistan. The limited capacity there has created a “bottleneck” that “may cause dozens of pilots who complete their initial pilot training outside of Afghanistan to wait up to a year to complete the required additional training,” SIGAR says, their English and flying skills rusting in the process. Initially, the UH-60 training was to take place in Slovakia, but in 2017 the Pentagon decided it had to take place in Afghanistan. “Current [U.S. military] officials could not explain the rationale behind this decision,” SIGAR notes.

(Source: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction 19-18 Audit Report, page 5)

Beyond these missteps, the Pentagon is also fudging the numbers. The U.S. military command in charge of instructing Afghan pilots to fly the Black Hawks “assumes that future training classes will have no attrition, even though current pilot training has an attrition rate of about 26 percent,” SIGAR says. The attrition, it adds, is due to “a lack of English comprehension skills; medical issues, such as color blindness and cataracts; security issues; cheating; and academic failure.”

Teaching prospective pilots English—the global language of aviation—is critical. But a top Pentagon trainer said the most recent batch “of English training was not successful in preparing students for [initial helicopter training] because different contractors provided the training with different standards.” SIGAR added, “Furthermore, the program was not outcome-based and did not require the contractor to report student attendance, and students did not always attend classes.”

The Pentagon has launched a beefed-up English program, but the effort “is at less than 50 percent of planned efficiency due to force protection shortages at the primary training location” in Kandahar, according to SIGAR. In other words, the Taliban and other insurgents are already keeping Afghanistan’s choppers grounded.

The switch to the more complicated U.S. choppers is hampering the Afghan government’s hold on power, and risks the marginal gains made in 18 years of war since the United States invaded in 2001.

That said, pilots may not be needed if Afghanistan’s choppers can’t get off the ground. The Pentagon is counting on the Afghan military to handle some UH-60 maintenance starting in 2025, but the training that will make that possible hasn’t yet begun. “Because it takes 5 to 7 years to develop fully-qualified helicopter maintainers, recruitment and training would need to begin immediately for the [Afghan Air Force] to have any trained maintainers available by 2025,” the inspector general says. United States taxpayers are paying private contractors an estimated $2.8 billion to keep the Afghan UH-60s flying through 2023, but that figure is expected to climb given the lack of Afghan trainers, SIGAR warns.

Once again, English is a stumbling block. “Maintenance personnel must complete approximately 9 months of English before beginning entry-level maintenance training,” SIGAR reports. “According to DOD, maintainers need to speak and read English because there are cost, legal, and feasibility difficulties that make it impossible to translate maintenance manuals into Dari,” one of Afghanistan’s official languages. Not that translating all that into the local language would help that much: “Many of the enlisted personnel,” SIGAR says, “do not read or write in their native languages, making training difficult.”

Thirdly, without Afghan mechanics, the Black Hawks will only be able to fly from bases under U.S. or coalition control. “DOD policy bars U.S. contractors from working where there is no U.S. or coalition control due,” SIGAR notes. “To be fully effective, the UH- 60 will need to be able to fly to areas currently serviced by the MI-17,” it says. “Because many of those areas are outside coalition control, retrieving a UH-60 from such areas, for example, in the event the aircraft experiences a malfunction and is unable to depart, would be a significant challenge.”

A U.S. Army UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter assigned to Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, Task Force Phoenix flies a personnel movement mission over Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on October 17, 2013.
(Photo: U.S. Army / Capt. Peter Smedberg)

Finally, the lack of a limit on how many hours each Black Hawk can fly each month will drive maintenance costs through the roof. Afghanistan’s Mi-17s fly up to 50 hours a month despite a 2017 order limiting them to 25. “Ground commanders want the helicopters today and do not care that they will not be available tomorrow,” one Afghan Air Force official told SIGAR.

There are three reasons the Afghan military can’t keep a rein on flight hours, according to the SIGAR report: “First, Afghan National Army commanders ignore the 2017 directive with impunity. Second, ground commanders call on the Mi-17s to deal with fighting situations that the ground forces should be able to handle without air support. Finally, and most importantly, ground commanders do not request resupply early enough to allow for ground transportation of supplies, such as firewood and ammunition.”


The Pentagon is planning to limit the Afghan UH-60s to 35 hours of flying per month, but there are no plans in place to make that happen, SIGAR says. Additional flying risks excessive wear that could “require additional maintenance at an increased cost,” it adds. A Black Hawk costs $6,070 per hour to fly—over $100 a minute.

Plainly, the Pentagon should stop rushing the choppers to Afghanistan. Kabul’s UH-60s aren’t fresh off Lockheed’s Connecticut assembly line, but are used U.S. Army models outfitted with more powerful engines to fly in Afghanistan’s thinner air. That gives the Pentagon the upper hand in slowing down chopper deliveries, although it hasn’t done so. “As a result,” SIGAR concludes, “DOD runs the risk that the aircraft it delivers will sit idle in Afghanistan without enough pilots to fly them.”

That’s especially likely because—get this—the Afghan pilots you spent $1 million each training to fly these helicopters don’t actually have to hang around and fly them. Pilots flying for the U.S. Army are obligated to serve at least six years in exchange for their training. But that’s not how things are done Afghanistan. The Afghan air force “does not require pilots to commit to serve for a specified period after completing training,” Pentagon and Afghan officials told SIGAR.

It adds up to the perfect coda on the American way of waging war: plenty of too-complex and too-costly hardware with too few people to make it work.