The Pentagon is at risk of mismanaging yet another multi-billion project in Afghanistan — a modernization program intended to equip the Afghan Air Forces (AAF) with 159 state-of-the-art Black Hawk helicopters as part of efforts to address capability gaps, a U.S. watchdog agency reported Tuesday.
In an audit of the program, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted that the estimated cost of providing the helicopters between 2017 and 2023 varies from $5.75 billion to approximately $7 billion in American taxpayer funds — a figure that covers procuring and sustaining the aircraft as well as training pilots and crewmembers.
SIGAR warned that there will not be enough Afghan pilots or engineers trained to fly and maintain the aircraft by the time the war-ravaged country receives the helicopters.
Given concerns that the AAF and [its Afghan Special Mission Wing] SMW may not be able to fully use all 159 aircraft when delivered, DOD [U.S. Department of Defense] runs the risk of wasting U.S. taxpayer dollars to purchase aircraft the AAF and SMW cannot fly or maintain. Despite this risk, DOD has not yet developed benchmarks to determine when to pause or terminate the delivery of UH60s if the AAF and SMW cannot carry out these critical tasks.
The U.S. military has only provided 16 of the scheduled 159 UH-60 Black Hawks to the Afghan Air Force and its special mission wing at $1.32 million per aircraft. Pentagon officials already requested a total of $264 million to finance the Black Hawk modernization program in 2017 alone, a figure that will be available for two years, SIGAR found.
The watchdog noted:
SIGAR found that based on the current UH-60 delivery schedule, it is unlikely that there will be enough pilots trained before all the 159 UH-60s are delivered. DOD has expressed concerns about the speed at which it can train pilots to keep pace with the new aircraft joining the AAF and has made some decisions that have hindered pilot development. For example, the decision to hold UH-60 qualification training only in Afghanistan may cause dozens of pilots who complete their initial pilot training outside of Afghanistan to wait up to a year to complete the required additional training.
As a result, DOD runs the risk that the aircraft it delivers will sit idle in Afghanistan without enough pilots to fly them. Furthermore, DOD does not currently have a program in place to train Afghan personnel to maintain UH-60s.
Literacy, considered key to developing the Afghan security forces, is low among recruits, SIGAR has repeatedly noted in the past.
“It takes 5 to 7 years to develop a fully qualified helicopter mechanic, but lack of English and basic literacy in the enlisted force makes training difficult,” the watchdog noted on Tuesday.
SIGAR recommended improving pilot training timetables, teaching English to ensure pilots have necessary skills to attend training classes, implementing a program to train Afghan Air Force personnel to maintain the UH-60s, and linking the deliveries of the helicopters to the training of the pilots and engineers “so UH-60s will not sit idle in Afghanistan”:
[U.S.-NATO troops] originally intended to train 477 pilots, but the command now plans to train [at least] 320 UH-60 pilots. However, [U.S.-NATO troops] may not achieve the [low-end] 320-pilot target because the number of pilots going through training is already falling behind planned class sizes.
While the U.S.-NATO mission estimated that training would cost $1.3 billion over seven years, SIGAR placed the cost at approximately $374 million, noting that the foreign troops “could not provide the data to explain” the discrepancy.
The U.S.-NATO mission made the “unrealistic” assumption of zero attrition although the “current pilot training has an attrition rate of about 26 percent,” SIGAR declared, adding:
DOD guidance requires that training associated with security cooperation programs be planned realistically, taking into account the skills to be developed and the background and experience of the students. We found that [U.S.-NATO troops] have made unrealistic assumptions regarding student or pilot attrition and the English language program, thus decreasing the likelihood that the commands will achieve their training targets.
The U.S.-made Black Hawks are expected to modernize the Afghan Air Force by replacing its fleet of aging Soviet-era helicopters heavily used by the Afghan Air Force in recent years to carry out record airstrikes against the Taliban and the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL).
“DOD has acknowledged that the UH-60 has performance limitations when compared with the MI-17, which can fly higher and carry more passengers,” SIGAR pointed out. “However, according to DOD, most missions that the AAF flies do not need the additional capability provided by the MI-17.”
“Battle damage, excessive flying hours, and U.S. sanctions against Russia that prohibit additional U.S. purchases of this aircraft and its spare parts,” have forced Afghanistan to dramatically reduced its reliance on the Russian aircraft.
Late last year, Reuters reported that “Afghanistan’s fleet of 47 M-17s was under pressure from a deadly mix of hard use and poor maintenance.”
The watchdog’s warning that Afghanistan does not have enough pilots or engineers for the helicopters came amid concerns that the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) will not be able to cope with a possible drawdown of foreign troops after more than 17 years of war. ANDSF troops include police and military units as well as the air force.
During his State of the Union Address, U.S. President Donald Trump indicated that he is considering withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan in exchange for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban. The U.S. is asking the Taliban to provide assurances that it will not allow any other jihadi group to plan and carry out attacks from the South Asian country.
Trump suggested that a residual “counterterrorism” force would remain in Afghanistan post a major withdrawal to monitor the Taliban’s promises.
There are currently 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. A top Afghan government official noted on Monday that the U.S. has not mentioned anything about pulling out of Afghanistan.
Although the U.S. has devoted the vast majority (over $83 billion) of the more than $132 billion in U.S. funds appropriated for nation-building efforts in Afghanistan to the training and development of the local security forces, the troops continue to struggle to against the Taliban and other terrorist groups.
Afghan terrorists, mainly the Taliban, control or contest about half of all Afghan districts.