AATP: Afghanistan Rearms, US Earns

Mi-17V-5 for one of the foreign customers. Photo: Rosoboronexport / roe.ru

The Afghan army is now armed with several dozen Russian-made Mi-17V-5 multipurpose helicopters. This technique finds application in a variety of tasks and has proven itself well. However, it was decided to abandon it in favor of other foreign designs. At the insistence of the United States, the Afghan command plans to decommission the Mi-17V-5 over time and master new equipment – of course, American.

Purchase and replacement

Afghanistan has 76 Mi-17 helicopters, according to IISS’s The Military Balance. The main part of this park, 63 units, was supplied by Russia under the contract of 2011. The order was paid for by the so-called. a helicopter fund, the main contribution to which is made by the United States in the framework of assistance to friendly Afghanistan. The last helicopters went to the customer in 2014. For the fulfillment of the order, the Russian side received $ 1.3 billion.

The 2011 contract provided for the possibility of extending and ordering new batches of equipment. However, in 2014, relations between Russia and the United States deteriorated sharply, which ruled out the possibility of new supplies. In addition, Washington and Kabul had problems with the repair and maintenance of equipment – for this they had to turn to organizations from third countries.

In 2017, the United States launched the Afghan Aviation Transition Plan (AATP) program, the goal of which is to replace the equipment of the Afghan army aviation by completely replacing Russian samples. According to the original plans, by 2021, all Afghan Mi-17V-5s were to give way to 159 American UH-60A Black Hawks. Soon, several American helicopters from the presence were repaired and modernized, after which they went to Afghanistan.

Updated plans

In December 2019, the Department of Defense sent another report, Enhancing Security and Stability In Afghanistan, to Congress, describing the current situation and current plans. Along with other topics, the document revealed the state of the Afghan helicopter fleet, as well as the main ways of its modernization.

Mi-17 of the Afghan army during a joint operation, 2011.Photo: US Army

According to the report, the air force has a total of 45 Mi-17V-5 helicopters. Other vehicles were lost under various circumstances, both due to enemy actions and due to insufficient qualifications of personnel. 23 helicopters are operational and ready for service. Other machines are in need of repair.

The second operator of the Mi-17V-5 is the Special Mission Wing (SMW). He owns 30 Russian-made helicopters used to transport personnel, fire support and other support for special operations.

According to the Pentagon’s plans, the last Russian helicopters will be decommissioned in 2024, when the Afghan Air Force and SMW will receive a sufficient amount of American-made equipment. At the same time, delivery plans were revised – with a decrease in the total quantity, but with an expansion of the list of types and modifications.

Earlier it was planned to deliver 159 UH-60A helicopters, incl. several dozen transport-combat UH-60FFF. Now their number has been reduced to 53 units. – this is how the current needs of SMW and the Air Force are assessed. At the same time, it is proposed to transfer up to 20 CH-47 Chinook helicopters with higher characteristics to Afghanistan. This technique is only for the Special Operations Wing.

One of the advantages of the Mi-17V-5 is the convenience of embarkation and disembarkation. Photo: US Army

As follows from recent reports and messages, the United States will not build equipment from scratch. The helicopters will be decommissioned by the American army, repaired and modernized according to the latest projects, and then transferred to a friendly country. Repaired 1980s UH-60s will be handed over to Afghanistan. The age of CH-47s planned for transfer has not yet been specified.

Who benefits from?

It is not hard to guess that the latest events around the Afghan helicopter fleet are related exclusively to politics and economics. Disputes of this kind arose even at the stage of placing an order in 2011, although then they managed to defend it. By now, the situation has seriously changed and is not conducive to the continuation of cooperation with Russia.

Let us remind you that in the 2010-11 tender. the Russian Mi-17V-5 helicopter has bypassed several foreign competitors due to the favorable balance of tactical, technical and operational characteristics. The advantages of this machine are the relatively large carrying capacity, the ability to solve various tasks and adaptability to work at mountain airfields. In addition, the Mi-17V-5 is quite easy to maintain, and the Afghan specialists already had experience with Soviet and Russian-made equipment.

The contract with Russia being prepared was heavily criticized. In fact, it provided for the purchase of equipment for an ally from a potential enemy. However, technical and operational aspects prevailed over politics, as well as over the desire to support their own manufacturer.

Another example of accelerated loading through the ramp. Photo: US Army

Subsequently, the political situation in the world changed, which led to serious problems. Afghan helicopters needed maintenance and repair, but the United States could no longer entrust such work to Russian enterprises. There was a way out in the form of cooperation with Slovakia, but this almost led to a scandal.

In 2017, we launched a new AATP program, the conditions of which exclude the supply of equipment from third countries. Due to this, US-Afghan cooperation will no longer depend on a strategic adversary in the person of Russia.

In addition, the issue of finance is of great importance. This time, the money for the modernization and supply of helicopters will go to American companies and remain in the United States. In 2017, it was reported that the preparation of the first batch of UH-60A helicopters of 53 units. will cost 814 million dollars. The cost of work on 20 CH-47 has not yet been reported. However, it is clear that the total cost of supplying helicopters will exceed $ 1-1.1 billion. Thus, the Afghan helicopter fleet is of too great commercial interest to be trusted by third countries to update it.

Wide range of problems

It is obvious that the transfer of the Afghan Air Force and SMW to the new helicopter technology will not be easy and painless. Kabul and Washington will face a host of problems of a very different nature. Some of them will make it difficult to operate and use, while others can lead to accidents or disasters.

First of all, the two countries will have to ensure the retraining of flight and technical personnel. According to American estimates, retraining a pilot from a Mi-17V-5 to a UH-60A takes only 3 months, training from scratch – more than a year. The training of technicians is equally challenging. However, its results are far from obvious.

Helicopter and landing troops during exercise, November 10, 2013 Photo: US Air Force

The experience of operating Russian helicopters shows that the technical staff does not always cope with their work, and the Mi-17V-5 is considered relatively easy to operate. You can imagine what risks will arise when operating more complex UH-60 or CH-47. It is also expected to increase the cost of the life cycle, due to the origin of the equipment itself and spare parts for it.

At one time, the Mi-17V-5 surpassed competitors due to its good transport capabilities. In the mountainous conditions of Afghanistan, it is capable of lifting at least 2 tons of cargo placed in a comfortable cabin with a stern ramp. The American UH-60A has only side doors, and its carrying capacity in mountainous areas is limited to 1 ton.

For the CH-47, the maximum load exceeds 12 tons. Even with a drop in performance with increasing height, the Chinook is ahead of the Mi-17V-5 in terms of carrying capacity. However, this helicopter is larger and heavier than the Russian one, as well as more expensive and more difficult to maintain.

The Russian machine compares favorably with the ability to carry a wide range of weapons to support ground forces. On the Mi-17V-5, machine-gun mounts are mounted in the openings; there is an external suspension for machine gun and cannon containers, unguided missiles, etc. American vehicles are armed with machine guns. The UH-60FFF also receives LASS-type pylons for suspension of other weapons.

Results of the AATP

According to current plans, the implementation of the AATP program will be completed in 2024. A total of about 7 years and about $ 1 billion will be spent on its implementation. This will result in a change in the composition and structure of the army aviation helicopter fleet and the “special operations wing” with ambiguous consequences.

The first two UH-60A delivered to Afghanistan in 2017. Photo by the US Army

It is proposed to remove from service all 76 available Mi-17s of various modifications. Perhaps, equipment suitable for further exploitation will be sold to other countries. Instead, Afghanistan will receive 53 UH-60A helicopters, incl. a number of armed FFFs, as well as 20 CH-47s. For the three countries involved in one way or another in this situation, all these processes will have different meanings.

The United States will benefit from an economic and political nature – the ally will be “tied” more tightly with its equipment, and the money for its purchase will remain in the country. At the same time, Russia will not be able to receive a new order for the Mi-17V-5, provided for by the 2011 agreement (although no one has counted on it for a long time).

The Afghan Air Force and SMW find themselves in the most difficult situation. They will have to not only master new equipment and increase spending on its maintenance, but also rebuild the army logistics system, as well as revise plans for combat use. American helicopters seriously differ from Russian ones in their characteristics, and this can affect various aspects of operation. In addition, most likely, Afghanistan will have to prepare for an increase in accidents.

However, in this situation, the leading role remains with the United States. The party paying for the rearmament decides what its foreign partner needs and chooses the helicopters for him. There are no prerequisites for changing this situation. Apparently, the AATP program will successfully end with the rearmament of the Afghan army, but without Russian participation.

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