Afghan Air Force Struggles to Stay Aloft as U.S. Leaves and Taliban Advances

Afghan Air Force Struggles to Stay Aloft as U.S. Leaves and Taliban Advances

Mechanics who have long worked with U.S. contractors now use texts and Zoom calls to get help fixing helicopters; ‘what should we do next?’

First Lt. Ali Rezaie stood by a gutted Black Hawk helicopter in a hangar at the Afghan Air Force headquarters, explaining why the aircraft is broken and can’t be flown.

The Black Hawk was damaged in June in combat against the Taliban in Kandahar, its fuel bladder shot up with holes. Afghan aircraft mechanics known as maintainers patched the leaks well enough to fly it back to Kabul, where it has sat for weeks in need of more serious repair. Soon, American contractors will replace the fuel cell and the helicopter will be off and running again.

But Lt. Rezaie, who leads a small unit of Afghan Black Hawk helicopter mechanics, says when the American contractors depart as expected in coming weeks, a helicopter in need of this level of repair may not get fixed. The contractors’ know-how will disappear, and the morale boost they brought to the hangar each day will be gone, too.

“Right now, they are here, it’s OK, everything is cool,” Lt. Rezaie said of the U.S. contractors. “The aircraft is getting repaired and getting fixed. But once they leave, when we are confronted with major issues that are above our knowledge, that’s a problem.”

President Biden said in April that the U.S. was removing not only all its combat forces but also the thousands of contractors who have quietly supported American troops for years.

More than 1,000 contractors have worked with the Afghan Air Force, one of the few relative success stories in the U.S. effort to develop a viable Afghan military force. But U.S. defense and Afghan officials say it isn’t quite there yet.

Much is riding on the Afghan Air Force as the Taliban seeks to expand control over hundreds of local government districts across the country and poses a threat to more than a dozen of the 34 provincial capitals. The U.S. has re-entered the battle to blunt the Taliban gains, conducting about 20 airstrikes, including around Kandahar.

U.S. military officials say the Afghan Air Force has been stepping up, too. Since June 1, it has conducted several hundred airstrikes across Afghanistan, according to U.S. military officials.

The development of the Afghan Air Force was predicated in part on the expectation that the U.S. likely would always be here to help the Afghans maintain and repair their aircraft. Pilots were taught how to fly, but maintainers—wrench turners, in military parlance—were purposely trained to a certain level of competence, U.S. and Afghan officials said, a move designed to conserve training time and resources needed elsewhere.

Under that approach, the Afghan maintainers would always have back up for the bigger problems, like replacing the damaged Black Hawk fuel bladder. By the end of August, when the U.S. and allied withdrawal is scheduled to be complete, that will no longer be true.

The Black Hawk is one of the most sophisticated aircraft the Afghans operate, and thus one of the hardest to maintain. It is also one of the newest additions to the Afghan Air Force and mechanics have had only a few years of experience in maintaining it. The dilemma reflects the broader challenge for the country’s security forces as they try to take sole responsibility for security in the face of the U.S. pullout.

Approximately 200 aircraft maintenance personnel supplied by defense contractor DynCorp International remain at work in Afghanistan, based at the Air Force headquarters at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Those contractors are scheduled to leave by Aug. 31, under existing plans.

The Biden administration will continue to support the Afghan Air Force, a Pentagon official said, but declined to say whether the support would include any aircraft maintenance personnel.

A spokeswoman for DynCorp International declined to comment on the company’s future plans for its contractors in Afghanistan.

Afghan military officers consider the American-made Black Hawk essential for ferrying troops and conducting medical and resupply flights around the country. But many of Afghanistan’s Black Hawks are in disrepair and sit idle.

Afghan officials estimate that less than half of approximately 40 Black Hawks are capable of flying missions. Nearly half the Black Hawks in the Afghan fleet are being refurbished in the U.S. Mr. Biden has promised another 37 Black Hawks to the Afghan government.

Readiness rates of the Black Hawks have fallen from nearly 80% in the spring to about 40% now, a report last week by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, said. Accidents, battle damage and the withdrawal of American contractor support for the helicopters in recent months is “damaging the health” of the fleet, the report said.

Pentagon officials said the pace of operations has contributed to the problems confronting the Afghan Air Force, and the Black Hawk fleet particularly.

Afghan Air Force hangars once teemed with American contractors and others who advised the Afghan aviation maintainers. Many of the American contractors have left in recent months, to work on behalf of the Afghan Air Force from outside of Afghanistan.

That has meant that some helicopter mechanics must rely on texting or Zoom calls to conduct repairs. In one case, maintainers at an Afghan airfield near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif were working on new MD-530 helicopters, recently provided to the Afghan Air Force by the U.S. They texted contractors based in Qatar. “What should we do next?” one Afghan mechanic wrote.

The U.S. military is scrambling to come up with alternatives that include shipping Afghan aircraft to bases in other countries that house contractors, according to U.S. officials.

Maintenance issues aside, Afghan Air Force pilots are divided over their future. Despite the American withdrawal, some voice confidence. “We must stand on our own two feet,” said one Mi-17 pilot at a hangar at the Kabul airport.

But another helicopter pilot said the conflict is getting harder and the Air Force needs more aircraft, more trained pilots and more maintainers.

“Right now the war is getting much hotter,” said Maj. Yama Andaleb, who also flies Mi-17s. “And that is a really big difficulty in the Air Force.” es un sitio web oficial del Gobierno Argentino