The Afghans will not be able to fly – and perhaps more importantly maintain – their new fleet of Russian helicopters and Swiss planes after the U.S. drawdown next year, according to a new report from a Pentagon watchdog.
The Department of Defense plans to spend almost $554 million on 30 Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters and $218 million for 18 PC-12 planes for the Afghan Special Mission Wing, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Defense contractors currently perform half of the maintenance and repair on these aircraft, and 70 percent of the key maintenance and logistics management.
The Pentagon does not yet have a plan for transferring this capability to the Afghan government, the report states.
"The Afghans lack the capacity – in both personnel numbers and expertise – to operate and maintain the existing and planned SMW fleets," according to the report.
SIGAR recommends the Pentagon suspend its agreement to issue these aircraft to the Afghan military until it can agree on a plan with Kabul.
The latest defense policy bill from Congress specifies that the Pentagon may not use funds for contracts with Rosoboronexport, the Russian company that will arrange the shipment of the Mi-17s. A Pentagon spokesman tells the Associated Press that money from a previous fiscal year is being used for the purchase, so the restriction does not apply.
There is an "urgent, near-term need" to buy the helicopters, Defense spokesman Army Lt. Col. Jim Gregory tells the AP. "Careful consideration of all the information available to the department confirms that it would be in the public interest to procure the Mi-17s needed for the (wing) from Rosoboronexport."
Among the delays in getting Afghan pilots and crew qualified include the wide-ranging illiteracy in that country. Only seven pilots have been certified to fly using night-vision goggles, which is a key component for the special operations and counter-narcotics missions, which are central for the special mission wing.
Counter-terrorism missions are also a key component of the air wing, though it has only successfully conducted one such mission last year. The air unit completed 14 counter-narcotics missions, and 10 in support of the Ministry of the Interior, such as medical evacuations. Three of these missions were flown at night.
The Afghan government tasked the wing with this role in July 2012. The Pentagon has spent nearly $122 million since then to maintain it, aside from the more than $770 million to purchase the 48 new aircraft.
"This is a massive financial investment in the SMW," according to the inspector's report. "Without an effective support structure, U.S.-funded SMW aircraft could be left sitting on runways in Afghanistan, rather than supporting critical missions, resulting in waste of U.S. funds."
A U.S. special operations chief in Afghanistan offered in May a positive but reticent appraisal of the Afghans' flight capabilities.
Afghan pilots have flown several successful missions during nighttime raids, though not yet in a fire-support role, said Army Maj. Gen. Tony Thomas, commander of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan.
"[Their] aviation ability eclipses many of the other nations we work with throughout the world," he said. "It's a capability that's developed in quite a hurry but they're demonstrating greater capacity every day."
ISAF announced in May that the Afghans would begin training on the Swiss-made PC-12s to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
ISR and fire-support are two key missions the U.S. currently provides, Thomas said. The PC-12 may be able to replace that.
Top military officers have said the Afghan's ability to respond by helicopter is an essential tool for battlefield medical evacuations – another feature of the air wing – which will define whether the 12-year war will become a success.
"The U.S. is better than anybody in the world at providing these resources," John Nagl, a former Army officer and brain behind the military's counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, told U.S. News last week. "They are expensive, complicated, technologically demanding, and the [Afghans] are going to have a hard time delivering [them]."
Afghans fly the Mi-17 because they're more rugged than their American counterparts and can fly more safely at high altitudes than smaller helicopters, analysts say.