Training for Transition: The Re-Emergence of the Afghan Air Force


2013-03-25 By Robbin Laird

With all the many words on the Super Tucano versus AT-6 competition, what has been lost in the public debate is the real issue: equipping and training the Afghan Air Force to be an effective fighting force able to work with other Air Forces in providing for enhanced Afghan security.

The broad trajectory of change has been to move from a Russian-equipped force in disrepair to shaping a mixed fleet of aircraft able to support the various missions which the Afghans would need: transport, ground support and counter-insurgency ISAR and strike.

A new one is replacing the core fleet of aging Mi-35s and AN-32s.

The new fleet will be a mixed fleet of aircraft as well as adding capabilities to replace the current battlefield lift provided by the Chinooks.

The  Mi-35s are being completed and replaced with new or upgraded Mi-17s, a Light Attack Aircraft to provide for both strike and ISR, and lift assets.  Problems in replacement have been generated by the failure to date to procure the Super Tucano, the clear favorite of the USAF for the mission and the collapse of the C-27 program in Afghanistan.

Shaping the right fleet is crucial to shaping an effective training mission.

Oct. 15, 2012 at Shindand AB, Afghanistan. These pilots have logged over 250 hours in the simulator and C-182 and C-208, they are the first to complete the fixed wing training program from start to finish entirely in Afghanistan and Shindand AB. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Quinton Russ/RELEASED)

Obviously, beyond simply learning basic rotorcraft or fixed wing flying skills, training has to be focused on the particular aircraft.

Notably, because the leave behind approach really has to be focused on a smaller fleet or rugged, reliable and maintainable aircraft.

In contrast, to lift or LAA assets, the rotor wing transition has been relatively smooth and entails the insertion of a newly modernized Mi-17 force.

The Mi-17 purchases from Russia are a key element of shaping the new Afghan Air Force.

The Mi-17 is seen as an emerging backbone capability for the Afghans because of its capabilities appropriate to the Afghan environment.  It is rugged; it is designed for the Afghan operational environment; and it is maintainable.

As Bill Ardolino underscored in 2010:

American advisors assert that the Hip is cheap – each is about half the cost of an American CH-47 Chinook transport – and uniquely suited for the mission. Specifically designed by the Russians for service in Afghanistan, the Mi-17 has capabilities that no American aircraft currently possess: it is very easy to maintain, and its extremely long rotors and light weight generate extraordinary lift, enabling the Hip to fly into the highest reaches of the Hindu Kush mountains. Once some Mi-17s are fitted with offensive weapons (a transition currently in the testing stages), they will be able to go where no other attack helicopter in the world can go, and with comparatively low maintenance requirements.

“Just talking about the rotary wing side, I think the Mi-35 and the Mi-17 are the aircraft for this mission right now, and the Mi-35 is a bridge to an armed Mi-17,” said Nimmo. “The armed Mi-17, I think we’ll look back from the future, and we talk from a historical perspective, the Mi-17 is going to be the moneymaker. And that’s because of all the COIN missions, that’s the utility that it brings. In terms of sheer performance, there is nothing in the world for the cost … that performs like an Mi-17 can.”

The Mi-35 has been the legacy aircraft and the baseline from which coalition training has been launched in working with the Afghans.  Czechs, Croats and Hungarians, to name three coalition partners have all been part of the Mi-35 training process.

The role of Hungry was discussed in a 2011 report on the Hungarian Mi-35 mentor team in Afghanistan, which reflects to overall coalition effort in training for the transition.

In spring 2010, the Hungarian Defence Forces got a possibility, of sending a small group of aviation experts to the developing country of Afghanistan.

The group is called the Hungarian Defence Forces Mi-35 Air Mentor Team (AMT). The mission of this group is to train, help and assist the Afghan Air Force rotary wing units, in developing their operational capability. The AMT consists of twelve personnel, including Mi-24/35 instructor and maintenance test pilots, maintenance personnel, such as engineers, airframe, weapon systems, avionics and radio systems specialists, and furthermore logistics and admin specialists.

Hungarian Support for Mi-35 Training

In preparing for the upgraded Mi-17s, the U.S. has funded both transitional units as well as shaping training capabilities in the United States which have been replaced in the last two years with Afghan-based training.

One report highlighted the role, which Alabama companies have played in supporting the transition.

In a hangar at Huntsville International Airport, the Army is working with an American company to modify some old Russian helicopters so Afghan crews can be trained to fly the newer versions, and U.S. troops can come home sooner.

Col. Bert Vergez watched recently as a team of Science and Engineering Services employees removed an instrument panel from the cockpit of an older, bulbous Mi-17 helicopter. They will replace it with a more modern, “westernized” set of instruments and technology similar that used today in Afghanistan by U.S. and allied forces.

These and other updates and modifications will add about $3 million in U.S. content to the Russian aircraft. Then it goes south to the Army’s flight school at Fort Rucker, where an Mi-17 training center is being established.

The idea is that these older aircraft will be made to look and perform like new Mi-17s the U.S. is having built in Russia and sent to Afghanistan for its forces to use. Fort Rucker is where a new generation of Afghan pilots and instructors will learn to fly their new birds.

Training for the rotorcraft is now occurring at the new facilities, which the U.S. has built at the old Soviet airfield at Shindand airbase.

As a USAF source put it, base modernization and expansion is crucial for the transition strategy.

By expanding to nearly three times its original size, Shindand Air Base recently became the second largest airfield throughout Afghanistan.

Colonel Larry Bowers, the 838th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group commander, opened the new expansion area upon completion of construction of approximately eight miles of perimeter fence line.

Having been in the works since fall of 2010, completion of the “Far East Expansion” makes the base second only to Bastion Field in Lashkar Gah in size.

The project is part of a $500 million military construction effort to support Regional Command West and turn Shindand AB into the premier flight-training base in Afghanistan, officials said.

The new expansion is slated to become the new living and working area for more than 3,000 coalition forces and government contractors, officials said. The relocation of these members will make room for a new a 1.3-mile NATO training runway, with construction scheduled to begin in early 2012.

“Our current mission here is to train and upgrade Afghan air force pilots in flying the Mi-17 helicopter,” Bowers said. “The new runway project is being constructed in preparation for the addition of 18 new fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft and the establishment of Afghan introductory flight and undergraduate pilot training programs.”

And another source highlighted the beginning of the new phase whereby Afghans are training Afghans in the Mi-17 program at Shindand AB.

The Afghan air force reached a new milestone with the opening of the pilot training program recently here.

The first Afghan pilots began their eight-week instruction course early in January with a four-day academic schedule before beginning flight instruction on the Mi-17 Hip H.

“We are helping the Afghans develop a training program that’s going to build the foundation of their air force for the future,” said Lt. Col. James Mueller, the 444th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron commander.

Home of the AAF training center, Shindand Air Base officials have taken steps to achieving their goal of becoming the pilot and aircrew training center for the country. The training center provides upgrade training, teaching co-pilots how to be aircraft commanders and eventually turning existing Afghan pilots into instructors.

“I think that with any air force, the backbone is the schoolhouse,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Shults, a 444th AEAS flight engineer adviser. “Here, we are producing future pilots, flight engineers and crew chiefs.”

Officials hope this training will develop into a homegrown, self-sustaining facility, eliminating the need for Afghan pilot candidates. At this time, the candidates leave the country to receive formal instruction at places such as Fort Rucker, Ala. Currently, the students enrolled have already received their wings, but need familiarization with the Mi-17.

The Mi-17 suits the landscape of Afghanistan.

“It’s a great aircraft for what they use it for,” Sergeant Shults said. “It hauls a lot of weight, a lot of people and it’s very durable — especially in the hills of Afghanistan and its low-lying deserts. We like to call it ‘The Tractor’ because it’s, no kidding, a John Deer that can hover.”

Base officials plan to expand its Mi-17 fleet  to increase the amount of training conducted here. The training center was developed to give the AAF the opportunity to focus solely on training; whereas in Kabul, training was balanced with the operational flying mission, officials said.

“The point of Shindand Air Base is to make sure we can focus on training only,” Sergeant Schultz said.

To support the Afghan training mission, the U.S. has provided a new simulator to aid in preparing Afghan pilots for flying and operating the Mi-17.

Afghan pilots now have a state-of-the-art MI-17 simulator here to hone their aviation skills in a safe environment.

Air Force Lt. Col. Chas Tacheny, the deputy commander of the 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group, said he has been involved with bringing the MI-17V5 No-Motion Level 5 Simulator to Afghanistan since July 2011 and he is impressed with the end result.

“In 21 years I don’t think I have flown in a better simulator. Afghanistan has an extremely challenging environment for helicopters,” he said. “The high altitudes in Afghanistan push the performance envelope of the MI-17.”

The colonel said the simulator provides a remarkable reproduction of the Afghanistan air space. He said it is important that the aviators are able to practice their craft in a low-risk environment.

Afghan air force 1st Lt.Waheed Sediqe pilots a new MI-17 simulator at Kabul International Airport, April 18. The state-of-the-art simulator is able to recreate numerous different challenging scenarios to test and enhance the pilot’s aviation abilities. (Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Larlee)

But it is hard to train if you don’t have the planes on which to train. 

As Nathan Hodge of The Wall Street Journal has hammered home the point:

Shindand Air Base has an 8,000-foot runway, a gleaming new headquarters complex and a cadre of motivated Afghan pilot candidates.

Because of the way Washington operates, however, it lacks warplanes.

The budding Afghan air force was supposed to receive $355 million worth of planes custom-made for fighting guerrillas well ahead of the U.S. withdrawal in 2014.

Equipped with machine guns, missiles and bombs, those reliable, rugged turboprop aircraft are cheaper to operate and easier to maintain than fighter jets.

The Afghans won’t get the planes on time.

The need to get the Light Attack Aircraft into the hands of the Afghan Air Force covers a range of missions: ISR, attack and ground support, and various counter-insurgency mission sets.

As the head of USAF training in Afghanistan underscored when the Super Tucano was down selected in 2012:

According to Brig. Gen. Tim Ray, the NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan commander, the Tucano was “tailor made” for the Afghan’s counterinsurgency mission and provides a cost-effective, easy to sustain platform to help augment the Afghan air force’s already capable lift and training platforms.

“The LAS platform signals a milestone in moving beyond lift and rotary wing where we’re really not going after the enemy,” Ray said.

“The Tucano is the most kinetic, most offensive aircraft they’ll have, and I’m sure a big morale boost to the troops on the ground when they see it overhead. It’s the right kind of platform for the terrain, the fight and most importantly, it’s easy to sustain,” he said.

Built for counterinsurgency missions, the light air support platform — specifically the Tucano — has been the heavy lifter in fighting antigovernment elements around the world. More than 150 units across the globe have logged a collective 130,000 flight hours with more than 18,000 combat hours with no recorded losses.

Mirroring the same success in Afghanistan relies on two primary missions. The first is ensuring related costs of the light air support stay within the Afghan government’s current and projected budgets.

“The LAS operates at a fraction of the cost of other strike platforms,” Ray said. “The engine in the aircraft is incredibly reliable and very simple. We have the same engines in the Cessna 208s and it’s the most reliable in the aircraft industry that I’m aware of.”

The second is training pilots and pilot trainers capable of handling the aircraft in combat scenarios.

“The Afghans are good aviators,” Ray said. “When it comes to the basic stick and rudder skills and bravery, they are more than suitable, and we have two curriculums being refined to train the advisors and to train the students. We already have students flowing out of the different pilot training pipelines and learning the basics of flying fixed wing aircraft. The follow on of course would be a mission training program that would give them the skills to employ the LAS in combat.”

The light air support’s addition marks the final major complement to the Afghan air force’s inventory of more than 100 varied aircraft and sets the stage for future growth. Basic training for the light air support airframe will be conducted at Shindand Air Base with follow on mission training held at a different location yet to be determined.

There is obviously a getting on with it quality to adding the Super Tucano to the Afghan Air Force fleet to shape the transitional and collaborative capabilities to enable greater competence in providing for their own needs.

But the missing Super Tucano is not the only missing aircraft. 

The other is proper lift aircraft.  The new aircraft was supposed to be the C-27J and the aircraft was to take over Chinook missions and to form the core of an ability to support the kind of mobility crucial to support missions throughout Afghan territory.

Although an interesting aircraft, apparently one of the key elements of building an Afghan air force was forgotten – maintainability.  When the C-27 contract for Afghanistan was cancelled in late 2012, apparently the reason revolved largely around the maintainability question.

According to one source:

The Afghan ministry of Defence welcomed the termination of the contract as the majority of the transport aircraft were unserviceable and stood idle on the ramp of Kabul International Airport.

A lack of equipment, spare parts and technical documentation has hampered the Afghan C-27 program from the beginning. The entire fleet was grounded intermittently during the period from December 2011 through May 2012 and only four to five aircraft were serviceable out of sixteen delivered by late 2012. The cargo aircraft were said to be prone to fuel leaks, landing gear problems and engine failure. Widespread cannibalization of spare parts further compounded the problems.

The C-27 episode underscores the centrality of maintainability to the future of the Afghan Airforce.  As Josh Smith wrote recently in Stars and Stripes:

Lasting concerns about maintenance, however, have raised doubts about the Afghans’ long-term ability to keep even the older aircraft flying.

Sherzai, the Kandahar Air Wing commander, is also an influential local businessman and the brother of a powerful provincial governor. Unlike most of his U.S. counterparts, he has practically no aviation background. He says his wing’s capabilities have grown from almost nothing four years ago, but problems securing parts for aircraft worry him as NATO forces depart. “That’s our big challenge,” he said through an interpreter.

The issue came to a head when the Afghans’ entire fleet of C-27 cargo aircraft was grounded after a spat with a contractor over the lack of maintenance and spare parts.

There is a clear need to find a replacement aircraft for this mission, as the USAF’s interim response is to deploy C-130s which are certainly as complex as C-27s to maintain.

Putting together a reliable and rugged and easily maintainable lift aircraft with the Super Tucano and the Mi-17 fleet along with Cessna trainers is the core force for the Afghan Air Force going forward.

A recent status report on the training of the Afghan Air Force was provided by a USAF source.

As of January 2013:

With increasing aircrew course capacity at Shindand Air Base, other classes just ahead or in session are below. The Afghan Air Force and the NATO Air Training-Command are also currently focused on the concurrent development of Afghan instructor aircrew.

  • In Mi-17 helicopter: Initial Qualification Training Class 91-03: 6 pilots, 6 flight engineers, and 10 aerial gunners slated to graduate February 2013
  • In Mi-17 helicopter: Initial Qualification Training Class 91-04: 6 pilots, 6 flight engineers, and 10 aerial gunners starts February 2013. Class enrollment includes two female helicopter pilots recently graduated from the United States.

• In Cessna 182 fixed wing aircraft: UPT Class 12-04: 7 student pilots slated to graduate early fall 2013
  • In Cessna 182 fixed wing aircraft: Initial Flight Screening Class 13-01: 14 student pilots to be selected for rotary or fixed wing training in Jan 2013
  • In MD530 helicopter: Rotary Wing UPT Class 91-02: 4 student pilots slated to graduate in late January
  • In MD530 helicopter: Rotary Wing UPT Class 91-03: 8 student pilots slated to graduate in April
  • In Cessna 208B fixed wing aircraft: UPT Class 12-03: 5 student pilots slated to graduate in early summer 2013

The training dimension of the Airpower transition is a reminder that the Afghan transition is not a calendar-based process but conditions based process. 

There is little point to just walk away and to give Afghans equipment without the training and support processes for the challenging tasks ahead.  It would not just be a policy failure; but a moral one as well.

Editor’s Note: A very good overview on the various challenges facing the effort to train and equip the Afghan Airforce can be found in this March 2012 article in Stars and Stripes.

For a video overview on the path to the current situation see the following:

This is the second part of the series on Afghan airpower transition.

The first part can be found here: