Afghanistan war

Afghan air force gets first of 159 US Black Hawks to replace old Russian helicopters

Afghans will phase out their 45 or so Russian Mi-17 helicopters and replace these with Black Hawks, a US military workhorse first produced in the 1970s

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 4:35pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 4:35pm

Parked at a military runway in Afghanistan near other aircraft used in the fight against the Taliban, the grey-green helicopter appears unremarkable at first blush.

A second look at the UH-60 Black Hawk reveals a vital distinction: the US Army’s insignia has vanished, replaced by the triangular logo of the Afghan security forces.

The fully refurbished chopper arrived here at Kandahar Airfield last month, the first of 159 the United States plans to give the Afghans to help turn the war in their favour.

“What you have here is a tried and true capability,” US Air Force Colonel Armando Fiterre told reporters on a recent visit to the Kandahar airbase in southern Afghanistan.

With the Afghanistan war turning 16 this month, the United States is looking to flip what officials have been calling a “stalemate” with the Taliban into a winning strategy that will force the insurgents to the negotiating table.

US President Donald Trump has ordered the deployment of more than 3,000 additional troops, on top of the 11,000 already there, to train and advise Afghan security forces.

And Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis has overseen a loosening of restrictions on when the US military can attack insurgents.

But key to any durable gain is the ability of the Afghan security forces to lead the fight, instead of relying on guidance from the US and Nato, and a big part of that is a US-funded, seven-year modernisation of their air force.

The plan to modernise the Afghan air force will provide vital firepower and mobility to the Afghans, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews said.

These are “significant offensive factors” enabling the Afghans to “break the stalemate with insurgents”.

In the past, Aghan security forces have relied on the coalition for air support.

“While the coalition is still present, (the Afghans) can also rely on their own countrymen overhead,” Andrews added.

Under the programme, the Afghans will phase out their 45 or so Russian Mi-17 helicopters and replace these with Black Hawks, a US military workhorse first produced in the 1970s.

The US says parts for the Russian choppers are hard to source, and US politicians want American aircraft to be used.

The helicopter Fiterre showed off is a training vehicle, but the Afghan Black Hawks eventually will include 58 of the attack variants that can be fitted with rocket pods and machine guns.

Others will be used to ferry troops, cargo and aid.

Afghan pilots who will fly a Black Hawk will undergo a six-week pilot training programme, followed by another 10 weeks of mission training, meaning they will start conducting operations next year.