Afghan Air Force helicopters during training in April 2007.
Afghanistan’s burgeoning air force received a morale boost this week as several donated Czech helicopters, including gunships, were inaugurated in a ceremony at the newly constructed $22 million military hangar called Aviation Facility 1. President Hamid Karzai, several military leaders, and other Afghan officials attended the event.
“This is the rebirth of the Afghan air force,” Karzai told reporters. “God has been kind to us again and has blessed us with the rebirth of the air force.” The donated helicopters, combined with Afghanistan’s current fleet, will bring the total number of Afghan aircraft close to 50.
Aviation Facility 1 is the first part of a US-funded $183 million plan to build a sprawling state-of-the-art Afghan air base adjacent to the international airport in Kabul. The new site already contains some hangars, offices, and other housing accommodations. The air force hopes to recruit up to 3,500 personnel over the next three years and expand the total number of aircraft to 61, all of which would be housed at the new facility.
Although only three of the promised 22 helicopters are currently in country, the remaining six Mi-17 transport helicopters, six Mi-35 helicopter gunships, and four Ukrainian An-32 transport planes are expected to arrive by this spring, according to The Associated Press. Ten additional Mi-17 transport helicopters donated by the United Arab Emirates are also expected to arrive sometime this spring.
The United States also pledged to donate 180 aircraft to Afghanistan’s air force but dropped the number to 120 in a meeting before Thursday’s event. “It is good but 180 is better,” Karzai urged. “We encourage them to the figure [of] 180.”
Afghanistan hosted one of the most formidable air forces in the region during the 1980s with a Soviet-supplied arsenal that included hundreds of transport and attack helicopters, fighter jets, bombers, and transport planes. After the Soviets withdrew, years of civil war, maintenance cutbacks, and the lack of money for spare parts degraded the Afghan air force considerably throughout the 1990s. Massive air blitzes at the start of the US-led invasion in October 2001 destroyed all remaining functional aircraft. The head of the Taliban’s air force, Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, was believed to be among those killed in those initial aerial attacks.
The Afghan air force has been slow to rebuild, essentially starting with nothing more than a few worn-out Mi-17 and Mi-8 transport helicopters left over from the “Northern Alliance.” The growth and evolution of the Afghan National Army into a more suitable force over the past three years prompted US and Coalition military advisers to begin investing more time and energy into rebuilding the Afghan air force. The resurgent insurgency and greater demand for troop transport also played a role in jump-starting the drive to re-establish the Afghan air corps.
“In a lot of cases, some of the districts fall, and you cannot react quickly to the situation,” Afghan Defense Minister General Rahim Wardak said at a Pentagon press conference last October. “The result is that the district’s fallen and then — Afghanistan is a mountainous country; it takes a long time, I mean, to reach by ground.”
Last March, the Afghan government received two Mi-17 transport helicopters modified for President Karzai’s executive air charters. The US purchased and donated the two Russian-made helicopters that are “equipped with wireless communication, TV and armored plates and were bought from the Czech Republic for $5 million,” according to a Pajhwok Afghan News report. Around the same time, Poland defense officials awarded a grant to Afghanistan indicating they soon would provide an undisclosed number of military aircraft and helicopters to the Afghan air force.
Despite the donations of aircraft and America’s willingness to purchase used helicopters, the plan to rebuild Afghanistan’s fledging air force has not been an easy one. Locating refurbished Soviet-era aircraft in satisfactory condition and acquiring spare parts has hampered the effort, frustrating both the US donors and Afghan recipients.
“We are grateful for what America and the West are doing, but we need to rebuild our air corps faster,” Afghan flight commander Colenol Kheir Mohammad told NPR. “We should have jets, helicopters and cargo planes, so that we can defend our borders ourselves.”
The Coalition officer in charge of advising and providing material support to the Afghan Air Force, US Air Force Brigadier General Jay H. Lindell, also expressed concern about Afghan aircraft. “I guess what I’m not happy with is the state of where we are, the existing equipment that we do have, the state of the supply system to furnish spare parts for the equipment,” Lindell said in an interview with the AP. “We’re going to work to improve that to try to maintain what they do have as long as we can until they can get the new, more modernized equipment.”
Currently, the Afghan air force has seven Mi-17 transport helicopters and six Mi-35 gunships that are operational, two of which are reserved exclusively for President Karzai. The United States has spent more than $20 million on spare parts for these helicopters, which has helped keep the fleet properly maintained.