The Afghan Air Force is about to get a fleet of helicopters that are too complicated to fly, too expensive to maintain, too weak to carry cargo, and incapable of flying in the country’s highest mountains.
But the new Black Hawk choppers are made in Connecticut. So the Afghan military is getting shipments of American pork. Like it or not.
The Department of Defense Inspector General’s latest report on the helicopter fiasco is yet another depressing example of the ease with which taxpayer dollars are wasted and the collateral damage that’s likely to ensure — in this case, the potential grounding of a desperately struggling allied air force. “Decisions about which weapon to use can be subjective,” notes the Project on Government Oversight. “But logic has its own requirements, and once it’s ignored you start down a slippery slope that too often ends in disaster.”
A bit of background: For years, the Pentagon has been grappling with what to do with the Afghan Air Force’s fleet of aging Russian-made Mi-17s helicopters. The machines are tough, cheap, easy to fly, and capable of operating in the country’s highest mountains. They’ve been in use in Afghanistan since the 1970s to transport troops, ferry cargo, evacuate casualties, and in limited attack roles. Given that generational familiarity, Afghans currently perform 80 percent of the maintenance on the Mi-17s themselves.
The problem with the Russian helicopters, which are used by 60 other nations? They’re made in Russia. The congressional delegation from Connecticut, where the Black Hawks are made, has been pushing for years to buy American. In 2013, Congress stopped a $1 billion buy of new Mi-17s. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Barack Obama signed an executive order halting arms purchases from Russia.
But low English literacy rates make finding a pilot and mechanical workforce for the American helicopters difficult. When the Mi-17 fleet is replaced with 159 of the more maintenance-heavy Black Hawks, that work will become entirely reliant on private contractors, the Inspector General found. The refurbished Black Hawks will cost taxpayers $8 million each.
Other countries that operate the Mi-17 — India and Australia, for instance — could have helped with an end-run around the Russia restrictions, but the Pentagon doubled down on Black Hawks. “Doing the switch essentially from the Mi-17s to the Black Hawks, given the current environment, really looks more like a political profiteering exercise on the part of some US politicians than having the Afghans’ interest at heart,” a Pentagon analyst told Stars and Stripes last year.
Afghans will notice — and Americans should too.