How not to build an airforce, or what to do with 2Bn USD

Airmen removed portions of an Afghan Air Force Mi-17 helicopter after a crash

The story of rebuilding the Afghan Air Force since 2005 is a salutory tale of eye-watering costs and slow progress.

The latest report from the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) strongly criticises the latest US DOD contracts valued at 772M USD contract for provision of 48 new aircraft (30 x Mi-17 helicopters – 554M USD, and 18 PC-12 fixed wing aircraft – 218M USD) for the ANSF Special Forces Special Mission Wing (SMW).

SIGAR found that SMW had no viable means to command, manage or maintain these aircraft. SMW currently relies on 30 Mi-17 helicopters of which 13 are supplied by US DOD, 10 on loan from the Afghan Air Force, five from the United Kingdom, and two from Germany.

The UK’s contribution was enabled through Project CURIUM with QinetiQ leading.

At least 2 of the airframes were purchased ex-Bulgaria and registered in the UK for aircrew training before donation to Afghanistan

Project Curium Mil 17
Project Curium Mil 17

From the total existing fleet of 30x Mi17, SIGAR estimated in Summer 2013 that 19 were unserviceable due to maintenance issues, or awaiting disposal following crashes or other incidents.

Afghan Air Force (AAF) Mi-17 helicopter crash in Kunar province, Afghanistan
Afghan Air Force (AAF) Mi-17 helicopter crash in Kunar province, Afghanistan
Airmen removed portions of an Afghan Air Force Mi-17 helicopter after a crash
Airmen removed portions of an Afghan Air Force Mi-17 helicopter after a crash

The SIGAR report was particularly critical that DOD decided to proceed with the latest contracts despite prior warnings from SIGAR that adequate controls were in place.

The SMW tale would be bad enough on its own but has to be seen in context of the entire Afghan Air Force development programme.

Total 772M USD (excluding UK, German contributions)

The US first established a Combined Air Power Transition Force (CAPTF) in 2005-6 with the mission to develop an independent Afghan Air Force Capability. What that actually meant was less clearly defined at the outset in terms of airframes and specific capabilities.  One moot point was (for example) whether the US ever planned restore a fast-jet capability to the Afghans (who had, even into the late 1990s under the Taliban operated MIG 21s and SU 22s).

One reliable commentator indicated in 2009 that up to 20 ground attack jets, possibly the Czech L159, might be procured but this has not been pursued, and would appear to have been subsumed into the turboprop Light Air Support (LAS) requirement (see below)

US Air Force historian Forrest Marion claims in 2008 the AAF (then the Afghan National Army Air Corps) had only 31 aircraft:  18x Mi-17, 3x Mi-35, 6x An-32, 2x An-26, and 2x L-39 Albatros jet trainers (the fate of these since then is unclear)

In 2009 SIGAR reported that while the former Soviet/WP aircraft types would be maintained in the short term it was the intent of CAPTF to move away from these in the longer term. By 2016 it was hoped the AAF would consist of 7500 personnel and 125-145 aircraft.

In the latest SIGAR report, the AAF inventory had grown to 108 aircraft, made up of 48x Mi-17s, 6x Mi-35, 16 C-27A (G222) Transports, 26x C-208 Caravan light transports with 6 x C182 trainers, 6 x MD-530F light helicopters.

Cessna 208B’s to be used for the Afghan Air Force
Cessna 208B’s to be used for the Afghan Air Force

Of these the C208 /C182 procurement appears to have been straightforward, with a 2011 contract placed for a reported 88.5M USD. Whether this includes maintenance and spares support in Afghanistan is not detailed.

Running Total 860.5M USD

Similarly, the MD530 rotary wing primary training aircraft (RWPTA) contract for 186M USD was successfully let in 2011 and 6 aircraft are now operating at Shindand, with the programme due to be fully transitioned to Afghan control in 2017.

                                                                                                Running Total 1.046 Bn USD

The increasing number of Mi-17 since 2008 suggests that the US has struggled to meet its original intent to replace the soviet aircraft types. The Mi-35s were gifted from the Czech Republic in 2008 with additional crew training from India and in-theatre support from Czech and Hungarian mentors.

The US has also provided aircrew support, with USAF Maj Caleb Nimmo the first American Mi-35 HIND attack helicopter pilot to fly in combat in 2010.

The Mi-35 is a proven provider of tactical fire support to ground troops in Afghanistan (in its Mi-24 guise) but the airframes are due retirement in 2016, to be superseded in the ground-support role by the LAS aircraft.

The Mi-17 fleet development has been yet more problematic for the US which has strict rules for foreign assistance purchase of Russian equipment, complicated by the fact that between 2006-10 the Russian defence export agency Rosoboronexport was on a US banned list, and will be again from the next FY.

Nevertheless, between 2009-2012 at least 24 Mi-17 were funded by the US, including some with the assistance of intermediary Defence Tech International.  A further 6 aircraft were donated by the Czechs along with the Mi35s mentioned earlier.  The purchase of the Mi-17 may make good sense from an Afghan perspective but has attracted persistent criticism in US domestic politics, which the latest contracts for the SMW aircraft have once again stoked. Critics claim that the US is paying too much per platform for the helicopters, although this is disputed.

The cost of these Mi-17s varies widely depending on age, mark and fit out.  In 2008 the US issued a 325M USD contract for 22 Mi-17s for Iraq.

The unit cost of roughly 16M USD was estimated at the time to be roughly double the price paid in other contracts.  The SMW contract mentioned above suggests a unit price of over 18M USD.  Assuming a unit price of 10M USD the approximate cost to the US for Mi-17 purchase, excluding maintenance and logistic support, for 24 aircraft would be 240M USD

Running Total 1.286 Bn USD (excludes Czech contributions)

The Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft selection competition completed in Feb 2013.

However, the award of an initial 431M USD contract to Embraer for 20x A29 Super Tucanos was disputed twice by the main competitor Beechcraft which had offered its AT-6.

The GAO finally dismissed Beechcraft’s appeal in July 2013 and it is hoped that aircrew and maintenance personnel will begin training in May 2014, although, according to SIGAR, the full employment of CAS capability is not expected until sometime post-2018.

The total cost of the LAS contract is capped at 919M USD out to 2019.

The LAS will provide the AAF with the capability to conduct air interdiction, armed reconnaissance, air-to-ground support, combat search and rescue (presumably more of the former than the latter !) border patrol, and aerial escort missions.

In a subsequent twist, in the US DOD FY2014 Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget submission, a request was made for 20 more LAS aircraft, budgeted at 417M USD.  After the SIGAR report on the SMW contract award, this request was cancelled.

Running Total 1.717 Bn USD

The 2008 contract for a medium transport capability was intended to be delivered by the G222/C-27A, enabling the AAF to completely replace its mixed fleet of soviet era Antonovs with a modern NATO compatible turboprop.

The actual aircraft offered were 18 ex-Italian Air Force aircraft refurbished and supported by Alenia in a 287M USD fixed-price contract.

The program included modules to convert 2 aircraft to a VIP Transport configuration if required.

In Sep 2010 a further 2 aircraft were added in a 30M USD contract extension.  By Mar 2011 the AAF had received 10 of the 20 aircraft and a further support contract for 20M USD was issued to Alenia. By Mar 2012, 15 aircraft were in Afghanistan and a further 108M USD support and maintenance contract was issued.

Afghan Air Force C-27 Spartan
Afghan Air Force C-27 Spartan
New C-27 Transport Arrives in Kabul For Afghan Air Force
New C-27 Transport Arrives in Kabul For Afghan Air Force

However, by May 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that the entire C-27 fleet had been grounded for several months.

This was due to key equipment either missing or unavailable, poor documentation, and subcontractor L-3 Systems Field Support being unable to meet contract specifications. By Dec 2012 the same newspaper was reporting that, after expending nearly 600M USD, the USAF had decided to cancel the existing support contract and dispose of the 16 aircraft and spare parts already delivered.

Running Total approx 2.31 Bn USD


OK, so it’s junk maths but almost impossible to capture the full costs of what has been spent on aircraft in Afghanistan since the US-led CAPTF stood up in 2005-6.

What is clear that in capability terms the AAF now arguably has less air transport than it had in 2008, no obvious improvement in key areas such as airborne ISR (unless some of the C208s or PC12s are subsequently modified), low levels of aircraft availability, and a handful only of strike assets in the form of donated Mi-35s due out of service in 2016.

Afghan Minister of Defense Visits Afghan Air Force Flight Simulator in Kabul
Afghan Minister of Defense Visits Afghan Air Force Flight Simulator in Kabul

Clearly the investment in fixed and rotary wing training aircraft should not be underestimated, but the overall impression is not a positive one.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments