National-security rookies, as well as some senior Pentagon types, think that weapons are military muscle. But logistics is the blood that pumps all military hardware to life, and the people who operate and maintain them are their brains—without those two key elements, military muscle is little more than rotting flesh.
The Pentagon is shipping UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to Afghanistan faster than it can train the pilots and mechanics needed to operate them.
Take the Pentagon’s F-35, the cutting-edge jet fighter being flown by the Air Force, the Marines, and the Navy. It’s the costliest weapon system in history, being built by Lockheed Martin, the Defense Department’s biggest contractor. Yet despite all this money and expertise, nearly one out of three of the Pentagon’s F-35s can’t fly because spare-parts bins are empty. That’s leading to a lot of expensive hardware sitting around doing nothing.
Given that the U.S. military seems to have forgotten the most important anatomy lessons of military power, it’s not surprising that it is teaching the wrong lessons to its allies in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is shipping more UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters there than it has the pilots and mechanics needed to operate them. Not only that: according to a blistering report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction there seems to be no coordination among U.S. and Afghan officials to fix the problem.
In a nutshell, the U.S. government is forcing the Afghan air force out of its simple Russian Mi-17 helicopters into more complex American-made UH-60 Black Hawks. The switch to the more complicated U.S. choppers is hampering the Afghan government’s hold on power, and risks the marginal gains made in 18 years of war since the United States invaded in 2001. As the Project On Government Oversight reported last June, the U.S. helicopters do less and cost more than the Mi-17s. Afghanistan’s lack of airpower is apparently allowing the Taliban to continue to gain control over more of the country (though the U.S.-led coalition has stopped making such information public).
The Pentagon wants to provide its Afghan allies with 159 refurbished UH-60s by 2023 at a cost of up to $7 billion. That’s happening despite the fact that the Mi-17s are better suited for Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and the skills of its pilots and maintainers.
But—as is the rule in war—those paying the piper tend to call the shots. That’s true even if it’s not in the best interests of those the United States is trying to help (and U.S. sanctions against Russian suppliers are exacerbating the problem). The growing chopper-people mismatch, detailed in a January report by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), compounds the problem.
The swap has sparked controversy. The Mi-17 was “the perfect helicopter” for Afghanistan because it can carry more and is easier to maintain, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John E. Michel, who commanded the air training mission in 2013 and 2014, told the New York Times in January. “Let’s be candid” about the shift from Russian to U.S. choppers, he added. “That was largely done for political reasons.” Lawmakers from Connecticut—home to Lockheed’s Black Hawk-building Sikorsky division—led the charge. “I will continue to work with leadership at the Department of Defense to bring these contracts—and jobs—back home to Sikorsky and Connecticut,” Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro said.
The Pentagon, as part of its perpetual self-delusion, views the Black Hawks as a silver bullet designed to help the Afghan government prevail in a war with the Taliban (and other insurgent groups) that it and the United States have not been able to win in 18 years. “A tidal wave of Afghan airpower is on the horizon,” the top U.S. general in Afghanistan said when the first Afghan UH-60s landed in Afghanistan in 2017. “The momentum has shifted, and it is irreversible.”
Don’t bet on it.
The problems surrounding the Afghan UH-60 fleet are rampant, and reflect both a lack of training and low literacy rates among personnel. Hardware without the people able to operate it and, just as critical, keep it operating has long been a blind spot in the U.S. military. When budgets are cut, the operations and maintenance accounts are the first to feel the ax.
Beyond that, soldiers privately have told me that the United States hasn’t been fighting an 18-year-long war in Afghanistan. Rather, they ruefully say, the United States has fought 18 one-year wars in Afghanistan, with all the mixed signals such a “strategy” implies. The Black Hawk program captures that confusion, the SIGAR report notes, as U.S. officers currently running the program often are unable to explain why their predecessors took certain actions.
Less than two years after the program began, its pilot production is lagging while the schedule for delivering the used but updated UH-60s remains on track. “Despite the fact that pilot development is not keeping pace with original program assumptions, DOD has yet to establish benchmarks it can use to determine whether it should pause the deliveries of UH-60s or reduce the number of aircraft to deliver to the Afghan government,” the SIGAR report says.
There are four major problems conspiring to cripple Afghanistan’s UH-60 program: a shortage of pilots, not enough mechanics, limits on where they will be able to fly, and the Afghan commanders who ignore flight-hour limits designed to keep maintenance costs under control on their Mi-17 aircraft.
Yet even as the United States cuts the number of Afghan pilots it wants to train, the already-small number can’t keep up with the chopper deliveries. While the U.S. mission in Afghanistan “originally intended to train 477 pilots,” that has been cut to 320, SIGAR says. Yet the command may fall short of the 320-pilot target, the report warns, “because the number of pilots going through training is already falling behind planned class sizes.”
U.S. trainers running the program in Afghanistan “decided to reduce the number of pilots trained as a cost-saving measure,” SIGAR says, although it estimates their $1 billion training budget was double what is needed for the original 477 pilots. Fewer pilots would cut the training cost to $374 million, SIGAR estimates, or slightly more than $1 million per pilot. The inspector general asked the U.S. military to explain its cost projection, “but it could not provide the data to explain the estimate.”
Basic Afghan helicopter pilot training begins either at the U.S. Army’s helicopter school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, or at contractor-run facilities in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or the United Arab Emirates. But the specialized training Afghan pilots need to fly the UH-60s is only being done in Afghanistan. The limited capacity there has created a “bottleneck” that “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,” SIGAR says, their English and flying skills rusting in the process.
Initially, the UH-60 training was to take place in Slovakia, but in 2017 the Pentagon decided it had to take place in Afghanistan. “Current [U.S. military] officials could not explain the rationale behind this decision,” SIGAR notes. (end of excerpt)
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