Saturday, September 26, 2015

U.S. Is Struggling in Its Effort to Build an Afghan Air Force - nytimes

KABUL, Afghanistan — Col. Qalandar Shah Qalandari, Afghanistan’s most decorated pilot, recently took command of what was meant to be the building blocks of his country’s new air force: a squadron of shiny American-made attack helicopters, intended to solve the chronic lack of close air support for Afghan troops.

Sixteen of the armed MD-530 scout helicopters were rushed here this year to great fanfare, and a dozen more are to join them. But Colonel Qalandari was not impressed. “This plane is a total mess,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t know why we have this plane here.”

An Afghan public affairs officer tried to shush the colonel as he spoke to a journalist at the Afghan Air Force base at Kabul airport. A United States Air Force public affairs officer looked on aghast.

But Colonel Qalandari kept on: “I will tell the truth. This is my country, and these are my men, and they deserve the truth.”

He tossed a map on the table, showing the effective range of the helicopter from its Kabul airfield: It cannot even reach areas where the Taliban normally operate. In summertime, its maximum altitude with a full load of fuel and ammunition is only 7,000 to 8,000 feet, he said — meaning it cannot cross most of the mountain ranges that encircle Kabul, which is itself at an elevation of about 6,000 feet.

“It’s unsafe to fly, the engine is too weak, the tail rotor is defective and it’s not armored. If we go down after the enemy we’re going to have enemy return fire, which we can’t survive. If we go up higher, we can’t visually target the enemy,” Colonel Qalandari said. “Even the guns are no good.”

Each helicopter carries two .50-caliber machine guns, mounted on pods on either side of the craft’s small bubble cockpit. “They keep jamming,” one of the colonel’s 10 newly American-trained pilots said.

Colonel Qalandari is not the first Afghan official to complain about the woeful state of efforts to build an air force to replace the Americans in carrying out airstrikes, medical evacuations and transport missions in a country with poor and dangerous roads. United States officials have long seen the aspirations as unrealistic, while Afghans have complained that their allies have ignored their views about what they need to fight the Taliban.

In the past, efforts were focused on reconstructing the air force left behind by the Soviets, or at least the helicopter transport and gunship parts of it. During the Soviet era, the Afghan Air Force even had MiG-21 jet fighters with Afghan pilots. What the Afghans have had lately is a fleet of prop-driven Cessna transport planes, and aging Russian MI-17 transport helicopters and MI-35 helicopter gunships, the kind Colonel Qalandari flew in the past.

American efforts to rebuild the Russian fleet stalled after the conflict in Ukraine brought Western sanctions on the Russians. That has made spare parts difficult to obtain and new Russian helicopters all but impossible to buy. - Read More at nytimes

U.S. Is Struggling in Its Effort to Build an Afghan Air Force


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