KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Just over one month ago, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan declared at a ceremony here that a new fleet of 159 Black Hawk helicopters, flown by Afghan pilots, would help create a "tsunami of air power" to turn around the stalemated conflict with Taliban insurgents.
But the UH-60s won’t have an impact for at least several years on an intense war that has already cost at least $700 billion since 2001 — and is showing no signs of letting up.
The versatile, hardy U.S. Army aircraft, each costing more than $7 million to refurbish and deliver, are intended to gradually replace the Afghan fleet of Soviet-era Mi-17 choppers to carry out military cargo drops, troop transport and medical evacuations. But they are already coming late to the game, a drawback aggravated by the slow pace of UH-60 deliveries, the limit of six Afghan pilots in each three-month training course, and the need to keep the Mi-17 choppers in action in the meantime.
President Trump's new military strategy in Afghanistan has made beefing up the Afghan air force a top priority, and U.S. military officials said the Black Hawk program is being accelerated, amid the press of war and the broader agenda of building a professional air force.
Yet officials of the U.S. air training, advising and assistance mission here said they expect to have only four Afghan flight crews ready for conflict missions by the next spring’s fighting season and 32 teams and Black Hawks ready by spring 2019. The full fleet of 159 choppers will not be in place and manned until 2022, and only 58 will be equipped with attack weapons.
Meanwhile, the Taliban is continuing a relentless campaign of bombings and ground assaults, while numerous other attacks have been claimed by the Islamic State. Civilian casualty rates continue to exceed records. In just the past month, more than 250 people have been killed in a wave of violence across the country that targeted mosques, military facilities and transport, and a diplomatic zone and TV station in the capital.
Afghan field commanders have said that more efficient air combat, rescue and resupply support is urgently needed to motivate troops and push back the insurgents. Since 2012, the United States has supplied the Afghan defense forces with 24 smaller MD-530 scouting and attack helicopters, 12 A-29 Tucano fighter-bomber planes and 24 C-208 short-range airlift planes. It has sent Afghan pilots to the United States and other countries to learn how to operate them, then continued their training here. In some cases, though, the pilots were not ready to begin flying combat-zone missions until last year.
“Getting the aircraft is just the head of the snake. That’s the easy part. The hard part to get is the tail of the snake — training pilots and flight crews, doing maintenance and finding parts,” said Col. Darryl Insley, deputy commander of the U.S. air advisory program. With the new Black Hawks, he added, “we are doing mission qualification during combat, and that is very aggressive.”
During two days of classroom training and aerial practice for six future Black Hawk pilots at Kandahar Airfield last week, the students’ motivation and experience were evident. All were seasoned Mi-17 pilots, mostly in their 30s and 40s, and they seemed confident in their ability to transfer their skills to the Black Hawks.
In one class, a U.S. instructor rapidly reviewed a checklist of emergency procedures in English. Most involved multiple technical terms and required instant decisions in the cockpit. The six students, all Afghan air force officers, listened intently. Two sat on either side of an Afghan interpreter, who translated especially complicated phrases in a murmur.
“We know the systems completely now, but we are still inside and practicing,” Capt. Jawad Saqib, 32, said during a class break. “When you are on a mission, you are not flying from airport to airport. You may be flying in dust or fog, at a low altitude or in a confined area, so it is more challenging. We have to memorize a lot of terms and know every possible condition,” Saqib added. “You have to feel the aircraft like it is a part of your body.”
Earlier that morning, four of the trainees took turns at the controls of a UH-60 cockpit, circling over the airfield with an American trainer beside them. It was an ideal flying day, with a light breeze and a cloudless blue sky. One after another, the helicopters descended and approached, hovering in place before touching down, and then taking off for another round.
Capt. Zabiullah Dorandish, 27, tried to keep a solemn face as he hopped down onto the tarmac after his practice flight. He declared that it had been a “perfect day” aloft and that the only problem had been a confusing blizzard of radio communications in English.
“A few times I had to keep answering, ‘Say again, say again,’ but then I was fine,” he said. His flight instructor nodded in approval, saying the Afghan pilots “exceed our standards every day.”
Three months from now, the six students will be ready to take the controls unaided and head back into war: delivering troops and dropping supplies to battlefield outposts, evacuating the wounded and dead, and, in some cases, firing mounted machine guns to provide defensive air cover.
Meanwhile, a second batch of six officers will leave their jobs as Mi-17 pilots, start the UH-60 course and be qualified for action by spring. While that transition may be relatively painless for pilots, U.S. air advisers said that training Afghans to perform Black Hawk maintenance, repair and inspections will take from five to seven years. Currently, 80 percent of all work on U.S.-supplied military aircraft here is being done by U.S. and other foreign contractors.
Several U.S. advisers noted that the Mi-17s have more space for passengers and are tough enough to keep going for many more years. The problem, they said, is lack of upkeep. Only 25 in the fleet of 45 are currently operable, because it has become hard to obtain parts and certification inspections from countries familiar with the Soviet-built choppers. The rest sit rusting on airfield parking lots.
“We just can’t extend them. We have to retire them,” Insley said.
Despite the constraints of time, language, delivery, maintenance and on-the-job pilot training, U.S. military officials said they believe the Black Hawk program will contribute to the overall wartime “asymmetric advantage” of air power for Afghanistan’s defense forces.
Eventually, the number of military aircraft is slated to double, with a full fleet of Afghan-operated AC-208s for surveillance, A-29s for attack, MD-530s for landing at difficult spots and Black Hawks for heavy lifting. The roster of Afghan air force personnel will triple to 8,000, including coordinators to call in airstrikes, an air academy graduating 250 cadets per year, and an officer candidate school graduating 50.
For now, though, the war grinds on. Insurgents armed with suicide vests, assault rifles and an occasional stolen Humvee continue to gain ground in a growing number of provinces and carry out terrorist attacks in the capital — all without a single asset in the air.