One of the most important lessons the United States learned in more than a decade of conflict in Afghanistan is the value of air power to counterinsurgency and stability operations. Command of the air allowed U.S. and coalition forces to overcome the difficulties of operating in a country with lots of difficult terrain and few roads. Air power enabled friendly forces to counter Taliban and al-Qaeda local advantages whether for the movement of troops and supplies or the provision of close air support. Air power, particularly when operated by the Afghan government, is a visible symbol of sovereignty, one that also serves to knit that country together.
As part of its effort to leave the Afghan National Security Forces in a position to assume responsibility for the security of the country, the coalition – but primarily the United States – undertook to build a new Afghan Air Force (AAF). After a number of false starts, this effort settled on providing the AAF with a set of basic resources, particularly aircraft, which it could operate and maintain with minimum additional foreign support. One of the two pillars on which the AAF was being built were Russian-built Mi-17 helicopters. The Mi-17 was chosen because it is a simple and durable platform which can handle the Afghan environment and be maintained by an AAF with relatively simple skills and not a lot of money. The other options, to include U.S. manufactured helicopters, were both more expensive to acquire and more challenging to maintain. To date, the U.S. government contracted with the Russian arms exporting company, Rosoboronexport, for some 30 Mi-17s.
Unfortunately, faced with withering criticism from Congress, the Pentagon has decided to foreshorten its planned purchase of Mi-17s, cancelling a planned final buy of some 15 helicopters. The critics are right when they say that Rosoboronexport is an unsavory company that provides arms to U.S. adversaries such as Syria and Iran. However, the decision to halt acquisition of the Mi-17 will leave the AAF with fewer helicopters than it needs. Given that most foreign forces, including air units, will be withdrawn in little more than a year, this decision is unwise. Having already spent more than $1 billion on Russian helicopters, it makes sense to bite the bullet and complete the planned purchases of Mi-17s.
The second pillar on which the AAF will rest is the Light Air Support (LAS) system. The LAS is an Embraer Super Tucano modified with sensors and other mission systems by Sierra Nevada Corporation. The LAS will perform both ISR and light attack missions. After a number of contracting false starts and protests that delayed the program by nearly two years, production of the first 20 LAS is finally under way. Plans to equip the AAF with a second tranche of 20 LAS are currently in limbo. Having cut back on the purchase of Mi-17s, it would make sense for the Pentagon to provide the AAF with the additional LAS.
Find Archived Articles: