The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.
This week in The Bunker: How the U.S. push to junk Afghanistan’s Russian helicopters in favor of complicated U.S. aircraft mirrored the 20-year fiasco that was the Afghan war, a White House green light for hypersonic weapons, and more.
U.S. UH-60 choppers in Afghanistan
The U.S. disaster in Afghanistan had many roots, but The Bunkerpredicted five years ago that the U.S. push to replace Afghan Russian-built helicopters with more costly and complicated U.S. models would be one of them. Gratifying to see on February 27 that the top U.S. watchdog on Afghanistan agreed (emphasis on the second syllable).
The U.S. push to scrap the Afghan air force’s tried-and-true Mi-17 helicopters in favor of UH-60 Black Hawks was a lousy idea from the start. “In 2017, [NATO trainers] estimated that the AAF [Afghan air force] would be able to completely maintain its Mi-17s by 2019,” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in its highly-critical 140-page report(PDF).
But, pressured by Connecticut lawmakers — home of Black Hawk builder Sikorsky — the U.S. force-fed the far more sophisticated UH-60s into the Afghan air force. “The shift from Mi-17s to UH-60s moved the date for AAF self-sufficiency back to at least 2030, 10 years after the United States committed to removing all U.S. military and contractor support from Afghanistan,” the report added. Efforts to train Afghans to fix the Black Hawks went nowhere: “By 2020, DOD reported that 100% of maintenance for the AAF’s UH-60 aircraft was still being performed by foreign contractors.”
Not really a surprise. “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,” The Bunkerwrote in 2018. “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.” It was part of two decades of delusions.
The decision — surprise! — tracked the Pentagon’s standard mindset. “The United States designed the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] as a mirror image of U.S. forces,” the watchdog report concluded, “which required a high degree of professional military sophistication and leadership.”
Chaos ensued. “When the U.S. contractors withdrew, every aircraft that had battle damage or needed maintenance was grounded,” the report said. An Afghan general told the U.S. investigators, “In a matter of months, 60% of the Black Hawks were grounded, with no Afghan or U.S. government plan to bring them back to life.” The chopper shortage “meant that Afghan soldiers in isolated bases were running out of ammunition or dying for lack of medical evacuation capabilities,” the report added. “Without air mobility, ANDSF bases remained isolated and vulnerable to being cut off and overrun.” (Tellingly, Ukraine’s air force is doing fine battling Russia with its fleet of ancient Russian helicopters.)
“Look at the Black Hawk fiasco,” SIGAR chief John Sopko said February 28 (PDF). “When you pulled the contractors out, the Afghan air force was doomed.” The cascading problems contributed to the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government in August 2021 as U.S. troops and contractors abandoned the country for good.
“We built that army to run on contractor support. Without it, it can’t function. Game over,” Dave Barno, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, told the watchdog office. “When the contractors pulled out, it was like we pulled all the sticks out of the Jenga pile and expected it to stay up.”
“Our attempt to develop the Afghan air force never rose above inadequacy,” Joseph Collins, a retired Army colonel and former senior Pentagon civilian, wrote in a March 3 summing up(PDF) in Parameters, the Army’s scholarly journal. Its title: Defeat in Afghanistan: An Autopsy.
So, what lessons has the U.S. military taken from this humiliation, which cost the lives of 2,324 U.S. troops and $2.3 trillion? “We did conduct an internal classified lessons learned report,” Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said the day after the SIGAR report’s release. “That report remains classified.”
The U.S. intended to provide Afghanistan with 159 rebuilt Black Hawks, but the number inside Afghanistan when the U.S.-backed government dissolved also is classified(PDF). Fifty-two UH-60s earmarked for Afghanistan are now sitting at a U.S. Army base in Alabama.
Sounds like a pretty roundabout way of defeating the Taliban.
FULL HYPERSPEED AHEAD
The White House stomps on the gas
President Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act to spur development of hypersonic weapons(PDF). It’s a reflexive response to the threat posed by new, Chinse and Russian maneuvering missiles capable of traveling more than five times the speed of sound. “Ensuring a robust, resilient, and competitive domestic defense industrial base that has the capability, capacity, and workforce to meet the hypersonic warfighting mission is essential to our national security,” Biden wrote March 1.
Despite a defense budget closing in on $1 trillion annually, Biden said that “United States industry cannot reasonably be expected to provide the additional investment required to provide airbreathing engines and constituent materials for hypersonic systems” without more money and waivers to speed up production.
“We are pleased and excited that the President is allowing us the opportunity to act on behalf of the nation to accelerate the advancement of hypersonics capabilities in the United States,” Anthony Di Stasio, chief of the Pentagon’s Manufacturing Capability Expansion and Investment Prioritization office, said. “These investments will lead to new training and job opportunities for American citizens in facilities across the country.” Jobs — and national security! Reminds The Bunker of Shimmer, Saturday Night Live’s 1976 combo floor-wax-and-dessert-topping.
This is the opening shot of a second Cold War.
We went through this hysterical hyperbolic hoopla three generations ago with the Soviet Union and nuclear weapons, ICBMs, and bombers. On his trips to Russia and China, The Bunker found their citizens to have much more in common with Americans than our politics would make it seem. Yet it is those few leaders at the very top, making life-and-death decisions, that suck trillions away from more productive endeavors in the name of global arms racing and domestic political points.
Foreign bogeymen are the closest thing yet to an ATM (All The Money) confected by major governments.
WHAT WE’RE READING
Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently
“Look — up in the pie-in-the-sky!” (PDF)
The Pentagon issued its latest pretty-please guidelines for the military use of space March 3. Don’t hold your breath.
A new rule lets female Air Force crew members fly while pregnant, and a B-1 pilot is doing just that, Air Force Times reported March 1.
That’s the Pentagon acronym for its “Overseas C-sUAS Routing and Approval Package,” designed to protect foreign Marine outposts from small drones, according to a March 1 corps message.
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