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

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.

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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)

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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.

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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.




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Think Defence
August 8, 2013 1:51 pm

Back in the ancient archives of TD I wrote about the RAF’s role in my ‘forward presence’ strategy choice {which incidentally pre-dates the SDSR upstream engagement theme, you know, just sayin like) and how building up allied air forces from a humble start point would be good, if the Army and RN can do all that building security, working with allies thing why not the RAF (and I don’t mean selling Typhoons by flying around the ME as important as it is)

What is the RAF’s upstream engagement strategy for, say West Africa?

Jeremy M H
August 8, 2013 2:02 pm

The problem with Afghanistan and pretty much everything the West is trying to do there is that we are looking at the situation and coming up with a list of things we need to do for them to be a reasonably stable place when we leave. We have never stopped to ask if any of it can really work. Or if we did we have ignored the answers.

We know they need an Air Force so we set about getting them one that would serve their needs. Without an Air Force they are reduced to being little more capable than the groups they are chasing around so on some level it makes sense. But the sad fact is that they have no chance of maintaining that force long term without us doing it for them. They don’t have the money. They don’t have the people. They don’t have the tech base.

So while we know they need an Air Force to have a reasonably stable security situation the fact is they can’t operate that Air Force and thus they won’t be stable. The fact is that the whole approach in Afghanistan is and has been horribly flawed.

Ace Rimmer
August 8, 2013 2:05 pm

Why am I not surprised? I believe the problem lies with Western thinking as opposed to Afghan organisation. You cannot magic technical knowledge and experience into an individual just by throwing money at them. Aircraft capability has to be nurtured and investment time scales have to be in the long term. Introducing new types merely complicates the equation.

Its easy to point the finger at the Afghans but:

Do they have access to adequate spares and stock inventory?
Do they have all the necessary special tools and support equipment?
Do they have an adequate stock of oils and lubricants etc?
Is there a problem with a technical language barrier and suitable training manuals?
Do the maintenance recruits have an adequate education BEFORE starting technical training?
Are their technical officers degree educated and how much experience do they have?

I think the West tends to look at trained pilots first and foremost, but without trained maintenance fitters and technicians a pilot stays on the ground. As for ISAF, they were probably too busy handing out lucrative support contracts to private companies rather than investing in the personnel of the Afghan AF.

August 8, 2013 2:26 pm

They can buy old Russian aircraft, but do they desire, need an aviation, we the habit of being the gendarmes from world, especially the U.S., they say that if it goes wrong, they will call us , about to Afghanistan, in my humble opinion, the Taliban will retake power and all we have done is useless.

August 8, 2013 2:35 pm

UK Gov should put in a cheeky offer for the C27’s…Should fit the gap between the chinook and Atlas A400 maybe ?

August 8, 2013 3:44 pm

Procuring the C-27A and retiring the AN-32 was a baffling solution! The AN-32 was designed for austere operation, hot & high conditions, has simple maintenance, is the type they are already familiar with, relatively cheap and still in production.

That they are compounding the mistake by giving them the C-130 beggars belief! It is more expensive to operate and maintain then the C-27 it replaces, also how do they think they are going to stop the highly corrupt Afghan government selling the spare parts for C-130 to Iran!

Five of the retired An-32 are mothballed, they should be reactivated given an overhaul and returned to service at significantly less cost then the C-130. The Afghans know how to fly and maintain the AN-32, it is designed for their operational conditions.

August 8, 2013 3:52 pm

Afghanistan should simply go to Russia and buy Military hardware and call it a day

August 8, 2013 4:14 pm

Alas if was only so simple, put simply they can’t afford to! Afghan tax intake is vastly less then what they spend! They rely on foreign aid to pay for their services. This is from the 2011 budget:

revenues: $1.58 billion
expenditures: $3.3 billion

With the nepotism and huge corruption in their government what money that does come in is syphoned off to pay for villas, luxury 4×4 and bling! The Army and Police are effectively paid for with American defence aid plus gifts from other countries.

The terrible irony is the country potentially has billions even by some estimates trillions of dollars worth of natural mineral resources and they share a land border with China a country that if it was safer would happily help dig it up for them!

August 8, 2013 4:23 pm

They might want to go shopping in the Czech Republic actually. They have some rather interesting designs that suit low end users, like the L-159. Not supersonic by any means, but if their forseeable future involves lots of COIN, being supersonic really isn’t that big a factor as compared to persistence and ubiquitousness. And the right price tag. Or buy Chinese. Just 2 countries away.

Frenchie, you are too pessimistic, the Taliban originally seized power with the help of the Pakistani Army. Reports indicate that up to 50% of the invading force was actually army regulars, not Taliban. Since any help going to the Taliban nowadays is going to be watched like a hawk, they are not likely to be able to repeat the stunt again, at least not without severe US displeasure and with India hovering menacingly on the sidelines. So, no. Taliban back? Not likely.