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Whirlybird-Brained: U.S. Making Wrong Chopper Choice for Afghanistan

When it comes to winning America’s longest war, prevailing isn’t the top priority
The Pentagon is buying less-capable UH-60 Black Hawks like this one, shown flying amid Afghanistan’s mountains, instead of pushing to expand its fleet of more capable and easier-to-fly-and-fix Russian-built Mi-17s. (Photo: U.S. Army / Brian Harris)

If the U.S. were serious about winning its 17-year war in Afghanistan, it wouldn’t be forcing the fledgling Afghan air force out of its simple and cheap Russian helicopters into costly and complicated American ones. Decisions about which weapon to use can be subjective. But logic has its own requirements, and once it’s ignored you start down a slippery slope that too often ends in disaster.

While the Pentagon hasn’t acknowledged that it’s buying the wrong chopper for the struggling Afghan military, the Department of Defense’s Inspector General (IG) has done the public a service in a new report. Taxpayers, and those who want to win, or at least lose less badly, in Afghanistan, should be paying attention. This report highlights the danger posed by pork-barrel politicians—in this case, from Connecticut—to military value. Washington has decided it is more important to punish the Russians—and grease the squeaky rotors squealing on Capitol Hill—than it is to outfit the Afghan military with the best weapon for their tough assignment.

This report highlights the danger posed by pork-barrel politicians—in this case, from Connecticut—to military value.

The IG’s bottom line is that the Russian-built Mi-17s are better suited for Afghanistan’s terrain and people than the U.S.-built UH-60 Black Hawks.

“The transition presents several challenges that have yet to be fully addressed,” Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine concludes in his typically-understated IG-speak report. “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.”

But, as they say on TV: Wait—there’s more!

Helicopters fly by hanging onto the air their blades are slicing, and at higher altitudes—where the air is thinner—there is less of it for them to grab on to. That’s a big problem in mountainous Afghanistan. “Unlike Mi-17s, Black Hawks cannot fly at high elevations and, as such, cannot operate in remote regions of Afghanistan where Mi-17s operate,” the IG says. It’s also where the Taliban, which has been trying to overthrow the U.S.-backed national government in Kabul since the Pentagon’s 2001 invasion—can hide.

The U.S. military knows the difficulties of fighting at Afghanistan’s high altitudes. “Afghanistan is one of the few places on the planet where the air-defense threat from ground forces may be firing from above the helicopter,” it noted in a 2011 report.

The third strike is how much more complicated—surprise!—the Black Hawk is than the Mi-17 Hip (for decades, NATO gave all Russian choppers Westernized nicknames starting with “H,” including the Mi-28 Havoc, the Mi-24 Hind and the Mi-26 Hoodlum). Even Pentagon officials training Afghans concede the Mi-17s are “much more conducive to the education level available in the general Afghan population than the UH-60s” when it comes to keeping them flying. No surprise there: Afghans have been flying the simpler Mi-17 since the 1980s.

Afghan pilots have flown the simpler and more-capable Russian-built Mi-17 helicopters since the 1980s. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

Today, Afghan mechanics handle 80 percent of the maintenance on their Mi-17s, but that share will be flipped as the UH-60s enter their fleet. Afghanistan “will be almost entirely reliant on contractors for Black Hawk maintenance in the near to mid-term,” the IG says. That’s great news if you’re an American contractor, but not so good if you’re an Afghan pilot or mechanic—or a U.S. taxpayer.

Unless you live in Connecticut. The UH-60 is built there by Lockheed Corp., the Pentagon’s biggest contractor. Vladimir Putin helped Connecticut land the deal by selling Mi-17s to Syria, and seizing Crimea from Ukraine. The state’s congressional delegation has been seeking for years to ground the Mi-17s in favor of Black Hawks built by Lockheed’s Sikorsky subsidiary.

“We are troubled that the Department seeks to continue purchasing Russian-made aircraft without opening the contract for a fair competition that considers U.S. manufactured helicopters,” then Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman, and four of the state’s five representatives, wrote Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2010. One of the five was Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat who sits on the House Appropriations committee and whose district is home to Sikorsky. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat elected to Dodd’s seat in 2011 and serves on the Armed Services committee, joined Delauro in pushing the Pentagon to buy American aircraft.

The combination of Nutmeg State congressional pressure, and an executive order by President Obama restricting arms deals with Russia, led the Pentagon to announce in 2016 that it was changing choppers. “Today’s announcement is great news for Connecticut’s defense industry,” DeLauro said. “I will continue to work with leadership at the Department of Defense to bring these contracts—and jobs—back home to Sikorsky and Connecticut.”

That’s too bad, according to experts who have looked at Afghanistan’s in-house capabilities over the years. “They’ve been using [Mi-17s] for years,” then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress in 2013. “Easy maintenance, unsophisticated. We can get it pretty quickly. That’s the one they want.” That same year, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers why Mi-17s were the right fit for the Afghan air force. “There’s no way we can put them in anything other than that helicopter,” the nation’s top military officer said.

Even the conservative Heritage Foundation agreed. “The Department of Defense is not in the business of job creation; it is in the business of providing the best capability required at the best cost to the U.S. taxpayer,” Heritage’s Luke Coffey wrote in 2013. “In the case of equipping the Afghan National Security Forces, this means Mi-17 helicopters.”

But ignoring such heavyweight advice, last year Congress allocated $814 million for the Afghan air force, including the first 53 of an expected fleet of 159 Black Hawks. The refurbished choppers cost the U.S. government about $8 million each. “Doing the switch essentially from the Mi-17s to the Black Hawks, given the current environment, really looks more like a political profiteering exercise on the part of some U.S. politicians than having the Afghans’ interest at heart,” Pentagon analyst Matthew DuPee told Stars and Stripes, the Pentagon’s own newspaper, in March 2017.

Responding to questions from Blumenthal at a hearing last year, Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, expressed concern that it would take 20 months for the Black Hawks to make it from funding approval to the front lines. The independent Long War Journal recently reported that “the Taliban has unquestionably been resurgent” since 2011. That makes the idea of switching helicopters in midstream—stretching out what Nicholson termed the already-existing “critical Afghan capability gap”—inane.

But there are upsides. “The use of U.S. airframes, U.S. training deepens the relationship with the Afghans and the United States,” Nicholson told Blumenthal. “And, of course, much of that funding goes back to the U.S. economy.”

Like the Mi-17s, the Black Hawks will be used to ferry cargo and troops around the country because, in many places, the Taliban threat makes ground travel too dangerous. About a third of them will be outfitted with weapons to support Afghan soldiers down below. The Afghan air force conducted its first operational UH-60 mission in Helmand province May 8. There are 15 Afghan Black Hawks in Afghanistan, with two more arriving each month.

The Pentagon has suggested that Russia isn’t willing to help maintain the Mi-17s. But the Mi-17 is flown and maintained by about 70 nations around the world, ranging from Algeria to Zimbabwe. There are plenty of spare parts floating around, especially for a Pentagon that has made a career of buying Russian-built aircraft to figure out their vulnerabilities. Roughly 12,000 Mi-17s have been built, triple the Black Hawk’s production, and have been flown by double the number of nations as the Black Hawk. The U.S. could rely on other nations—Australia and India have been mentioned—to keep the Mi-17s flying while avoiding direct U.S. commerce with Russia.

“The idea that UH-60s can replace Mi-17 is ludicrous,” says Rex Rivolo, who spent nearly 20 years assessing weapons for the Pentagon. While the UH-60 can perform the Mi-17’s routine missions in Afghanistan, he says it can’t fly the 20 percent or so that involve combat. “Besides the load-capability shortcoming, the lack of high-density altitude capability will preclude conducting any such missions, thus giving the Taliban a significant advantage and sanctuary,” he argues, in language common to a pilot who flew F-4 fighters in Vietnam and Sikorsky-built rescue choppers as a military reservist after that war.

And forget about grooming Afghans to maintain their new choppers, which Rivolo estimates require five times as much repair time per flight hour as the Russian birds. “The maintenance burden with UH-60 will be huge and very expensive,” he believes, “relying completely on contractors and will never transition to a native capability.”

While the Pentagon’s IG report didn’t make much news in the U.S., Russian media had a field day with it. “US plans to replace Afghan Mi-17s with Black Hawks have met new ‘challenges,’ as the Russian military choppers are superior, according to a Pentagon report,” the government-operated Russia Today reported June 18. “It remains unclear how exactly these ‘challenges’ emerged unexpectedly, since both the Mi-17 and UH-60 helicopters date back to the 1970s and their capabilities should have been well known to the US military.”

But the fact is, as the record makes clear, these shortfalls didn’t pop up “unexpectedly.” They have been acknowledged, and discussed, for years. Now they’re being ignored. The only ones slated to pay for that ignorance will be the people of Afghanistan, and the 99 percent of American taxpayers who don’t live in Connecticut.