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Afghan Air Force conducts first Black Hawk operation, one day after crews qualify

Afghan Air Force UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crews conducted their first operational mission in Helmand Province on Tuesday, May 8, just one day after graduating from mission qualification training.

The mission supported Afghanistan’s voter registration process, NATO’s Resolute Support mission said in a Wednesday release, adding that 31 AAF members are now fully-qualified UH-60 Black Hawk Afghan air crew.

“The introduction of the UH-60 marks the dawning of a new age for the Afghan Air Force,” said Brigadier General Phillip Stewart, Train, Advise and Assist Command-Air commander.

“All of those who graduated mission qualification school have shown tremendous hard work and dedication. Not only are these aircraft and students the physical embodiment of progress, but they also represent a generational shift from the older Soviet-trained forces to the younger and more progressive western-trained and educated fleet.”

Afghan Air Force UH-60 Black Hawk pilots
Afghan Air Force graduates from a UH-60 mission qualification course display their certificates in front of a Black Hawk helicopter, May 8, 2018, Kandahar Air base, Afghanistan. image: US Air Force/1st Lt. Erin Recanzone

The first six Afghan Air Force UH-60 Black Hawk pilots graduated from Aircraft Qualification Training on November 20. They all had experience flying the Russian Mi-17 helicopter, making the transition to the American aircraft relatively straightforward.

Of the AAF’s 47 Mi-17 helicopters, 24 are currently unavailable, according to the the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s April 2018 quarterly report to Congress.

AAF UH-60 training will in future be conducted in the United States, Czech Republic and United Arab Emirates. According to the U.S. Air Force, the two main criteria for selection are flight physicals and English language ability.

Late last year, the U.S. Air Force said it will this year train 14 AAF pilots on the UH-60 at Fort Rucker, Alabama, a further 21 in 2019, and then 25 in the following years, with four qualified crews expected this year, and 32 crews by fighting season 2019.

Afghan Air Force UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters
Two Afghan Air Force UH-60 Blackhawks prepare to take off for the first Afghan-led operational mission on this aircraft May 8, 2018, Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan. Image: US Air Force/1st Lt. Erin Recanzone

The UH-60 will eventually replace AAF Mi-17s, which the release said are no longer sustainable. However, Reuters reported in 2016 that military officials originally wanted to use the Mi-17 for the AAF because Afghan pilots and mechanics were already familiar with the aircraft, and the Pentagon planned to spend more than $1 billion on new Mi-17s. This position changed under pressure from the U.S. Congress in 2013, and in 2014 President Barack Obama issued formal restrictions on doing business with Russian arms manufacturers.

The first two UH-60s sent from U.S. Army stock under the Black Hawk Exchange and Sale Transaction divestiture program were delivered to Afghanistan in September, and the Afghan Air Force now has 13 in its fleet. Two more are scheduled to arrive each month until the end of 2018.

By 2024 the U.S. will provide at least 159 one-careful-owner Black Hawks including 58 fitted with extra rocket pods and machine guns to provide close air support, Reuters reported in September. The refurbishment and upgrade costs the U.S. government around $8 million each.

The AAF also has four Russian Mi-35 helicopters, all of which are currently unavailable according to SIGAR’s latest report. In late March, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India, Shaida Mohammed Abdali, told Hindustan Times that India would supply four refurbished Mi-24 helicopters from Belarus to Afghanistan. The Mi-24 and Mi-35 are from the same family of aircraft.

“We recently were able to sign a trilateral MoU … India will be paying for the four Mi-24s (which will be delivered) in the next few months,” the ambassador said. “All the four helicopters (will be) paid (for) by India,” he said. “Afghanistan will have ready helicopters that will be used in the coming season.”

SIGAR does not note these aircraft in its April report.

Afghanistan’s airmen also operate U.S.-supplied MD-530 Cayuse Warrior light attack helicopters, and there are currently 25 in the fleet. The U.S. plans to deliver an estimated 150 more by 2022, under a $1.4 billion September 2017 contract.

Two more A-29 Super Tucano aircraft delivered to US Air Force Afghanistan Program

This post was updated on May 10 to clarify that the mission supported the voter registration process.

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