Click image to view a slideshow of photographs of the Mi-35 wing of the Afghan Air Force. Photos by Bill Ardolino & MCS2 David Quillen.
The Russian Mi-35 attack helicopter is known by several names: “the Crocodile,” “the Flying Tank,” “the Devil’s Chariot,” and most commonly in the West, “the Hind,” part of NATO’s old naming scheme for enemy Eastern Bloc equipment. As the former Soviet Union’s premier attack helicopter, the airframe looms large in the history of military aviation and the Cold War. Its place in Afghanistan’s past is also iconic; the Hind symbolized Soviet strength and ultimate vulnerability during their war against the insurgency.
The mujahadeen who battled the Soviets during the 1980s had a saying: “We don’t fear the Russians, but we fear their helicopters.” Until the United States supplied the rebels with plentiful surface-to-air-missiles capable of downing the aircraft, nothing was more feared than the Hind. Its sudden appearance over a ridge, bulbous nose angled down like a predatory bird, bristling rocket pods and a Gatling gun poised to fire, must have seemed a stupefying premonition of death.
Decades later, the helicopter’s ability to stun remains intact. When an Afghan pilot recently taxied onto the flight line at the military side of Kabul International Airport for a rolling takeoff, everyone – air crews, civilians, security guards – stopped and stared. Fingers pointed. Cameras appeared. In addition to the Hind’s reliability and attack capability, this resonance is another advantage offered by the legendary machine in its new mission: legitimizing a nascent Afghan Air Force.
A young air force
Though the war in Afghanistan has been fought for nearly nine years, the new Afghan Air Force (AAF) is still in its early development. Reformed from scratch in 2005 and having opened a new headquarters in January 2008, the AAF currently has 3,895 of its projected personnel strength of 8,017, and 49 of its 146 planned aircraft, with staffing and equipment levels expected to reach completion by about 2016. There are two wings in Kandahar and Kabul, and four detachments in Shindand, Mazar-i-Sharif, Heart, and Jalalabad.
Training and aircraft capabilities are divided between fixed wing and rotary wing. The fixed wing element will eventually be comprised of two types of aircraft: the C-27 Spartan will serve as the Afghan Air Force’s medium-sized transporter, while a small, agile airplane to-be-determined (possibly the Czech L-39 Albatross) will fulfill a light attack capability. The AAF fixed wing element currently has six C-27s of an anticipated 20, and by 2012 the American airframe will completely replace one aging An-26 and five An-32 Russian Antonov airlifters in the Afghan arsenal.
But much more developed and arguably more important for the future of Afghanistan’s military is the AAF’s rotary wing component. The country’s sprawling and rugged terrain demands a significant number of vertical takeoff and landing aircraft to fulfill transport, reconnaissance, and attack capabilities. If the Afghan military is to have a chance of sustaining a fight against its enemies without day-to-day ISAF stewardship of operations, it will need helicopters, and lots of them. International advisors have been planning accordingly.
“We start with the mission – what mission capabilities do we want to have? And right now, all of our mission capabilities are built toward COIN (counterinsurgency),” said USAF Major Caleb Nimmo, an embedded trainer with the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing Combined Air Power Transition Force (CAPTiF) based in Kabul. “So we’re looking for airlift capability to do reconnaissance, the ability to protect the ground forces being able to move them, being able to support them with fires, and being able to provide them with the ammunition and supplies that they need.”
The rotary side of the Afghan Air Force hinges on two Russian airframes: the predatory Hind will provide an attack and escort capability before its retirement circa 2016. Until and after that date, the more spacious Mi-17 “Hip,” historically a transport helicopter, will fulfill both an attack role and the range of other requirements necessary for waging war in the geographically challenging country.
The US military’s purchase of new Russian Mi-17s for the Afghan Air Force was criticized by some US lawmakers, who questioned the program’s lack of competitive bidding and the decision to purchase non-American aircraft. The Pentagon purchased 41 Hips for a total of $828 million despite the political controversy, and US advisors “hope to get 56 of them [for the AAF], when all is said and done,” according to Air Force Brigadier General Martin Boera, commander of the 438th Expeditionary Wing.
Click image to view photographs of the Mi-35 wing of the Afghan Air Force. Photos by Bill Ardolino & MCS2 David Quillen.
American advisors assert that the Hip is cheap – each is about half the cost of an American CH-47 Chinook transport – and uniquely suited for the mission. Specifically designed by the Russians for service in Afghanistan, the Mi-17 has capabilities that no American aircraft currently possess: it is very easy to maintain, and its extremely long rotors and light weight generate extraordinary lift, enabling the Hip to fly into the highest reaches of the Hindu Kush mountains. Once some Mi-17s are fitted with offensive weapons (a transition currently in the testing stages), they will be able to go where no other attack helicopter in the world can go, and with comparatively low maintenance requirements.
“Just talking about the rotary wing side, I think the Mi-35 and the Mi-17 are the aircraft for this mission right now, and the Mi-35 is a bridge to an armed Mi-17,” said Nimmo. “The armed Mi-17, I think we’ll look back from the future, and we talk from a historical perspective, the Mi-17 is going to be the moneymaker. And that’s because of all the COIN missions, that’s the utility that it brings. In terms of sheer performance, there is nothing in the world for the cost … that performs like an Mi-17 can.”
There seems little doubt the Afghan Air Force will ultimately acquire the planned equipment. A greater challenge lies, however, in training its administrators, ground crews, and pilots.
Great experience, poor communication
The Afghan Air Force’s strengths and weaknesses mirror those of the Afghan Army: problems with communication, advanced tactics, centralized command and control, and logistics are juxtaposed by a willingness to fight and a wealth of combat experience. Many Afghan pilots are in their 40s and 50s, and have experienced warfare with the Russian-backed government against the mujahedeen and beyond.
“The pilots are really good,” said Nimmo. “The only issue we have right now is that they were trained by the Russians – and that training was good – but they learned in Russian. They’re Afghans, so they’ve had to know Dari really well, and now we’re trying to force English on them, and they’ve basically had 20 to 30 years of war in their country, so there has been no stability in the training process. So, the issues that we’re working toward is to try and get good English-speaking pilots to build them up to the international capability so that they can be another ally for the NATO structure.”
Experienced pilots are training in English while conducting missions, and a new generation of pilots – beginning with a handful of recent graduates from the National Military Academy of Afghanistan (NMMA) – is being enrolled in an English-immersion program before being sent to 18 months of flight training in the US.
The first new recruit for the Mi-35 wing is 2nd LT Aminullah Almans, a 24-year-old NMMA graduate who requested pilot training “to serve for Afghanistan and my people,” and opted for the Hind because “it’s exciting.” Major Nimmo bestowed Almans with the call sign “Viper” to reinforce his development of confident, aggressive decision-making. This trait can sometimes seem at odds with deferential Afghan culture, yet it is one that the American considers essential to being a good pilot.
“Being a pilot requires a certain type-A personality regardless of which country you fly for,” explained Nimmo. “By having Aminullah among the Hungarians [trainers], Czechs [trainers], and myself, we are able to mentor him on the characteristics that a strong pilot exhibits. Giving him an aggressive call sign like ‘Viper’ reinforces his personality and that he is on the team as a member of the international family of aviators.”
The young recruit will learn other skills from the older Afghan pilots.
“Afghans have a lot of combat experience: the Russians, the Taliban, the mujahedeen,” said Nimmo. “A lot of the guys I fly with have been shot out of the air by surface-to-air missiles, they’ve had to improvise without proper supplies, proper maintenance. So that’s a lot of talent and organic capability that they’re going to pass on to these young guys.”
On June 18th, Aminullah’s first day on the flight line, Mi-35 Flight Commander Ghulam Mahaiudin walked the young lieutenant around and under one of the aircraft, explaining its various features. The student listened attentively, manipulating portions of the Hind on command. Nimmo stood back and quietly watched the impromptu training exercise.
“This [stuff] gives me chills,” he murmured to another American.
That same day, the Afghans and their American, Hungarian, and Czech advisors stood on alert out at the ‘apron’ which is home to the wing of Mi-35s, as well as at another apron housing several Mi-17s. The alert status was practice for the Kabul Conference due to kick off the next day. Depending on circumstances, the pilots could be called to conduct a combat mission or a training mission. The Afghans have had varied performances in both.
Twice in the past several months, Mi-35 pilots have conducted successful combat missions, routing insurgent or criminal elements from the battlefield. On May 12, several Hinds engaged and chased off a group of bandits running a roadblock just outside of Kabul. And on April 20, the attack wing was called to Kunduz to provide close air support for the 209th Corps. of the Afghan National Army during an engagement with a large Taliban force. After the ground forces had marked the enemy lines with heavy machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades, the Mi-35s swept the enemy lines in formation, shooting about 200 rockets and over 900 rounds from the 12.7 mm Gatling guns. Afghans and their American advisers estimated that 25 Taliban foot soldiers and one regional commander were killed.
“They have fought in combat already,” said Nimmo. “And basically, the ground forces’ eyes were opened about what attack helicopter capability can be brought to the fight.”
The Mi-17 wing has also begun civil affairs, supply, transport and humanitarian missions. Four AAF Hips are currently assisting with flood relief efforts in Pakistan, and two Mi-17s recently rescued over 2,100 Afghans from flooding that spilled over into the Jalalabad area of Afghanistan. The trip to Pakistan marks a milestone in ISAF training efforts.
“[The relief effort] was done purely Afghan-to-Pakistan coordinated effort,” said Brigadier General Boera. “We don’t have any US air advisers with them. We did that for a reason. They have progressed and are good enough that they can go out and do this.”
Training missions take several forms: the Mi-35s are now practicing to take over the presidential squadron from the Americans – US Cobra and Apache pilots currently escort Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Hinds also conduct a variety of attack and escort exercises, from simulated medevacs to responses to ambushes and IED strikes. Overall, their performance remains slow and spotty, hampered by an imprecise and exclusively vocal methodology of passing orders from the highest levels to the pilots and ground crew staged at the tarmac. Often, the communication resembles a version of the child’s game ‘telephone,’ in which instructions become garbled as they pass down the chain; and the process can be further impaired by the centralized tendencies of the Afghan command structure. It is not uncommon for senior politicians and generals to issue orders directly to pilots, in lieu of passing their wishes through subordinates. The resulting confusion can muddle the orders.
On June 19, the call came in: the day’s mission would be a training exercise that simulated a medevac after an IED strike in downtown Kabul. Two Mi-35s would escort an Mi-17, which would set to down to pick up the wounded and bring them back to Kabul International Airport for treatment. The escort by attack helicopters serves the tactical purpose of protecting the escorted aircraft in two ways.
“One, it’s a deterrent,” said Nimmo. “Two I’m going to position myself between [the escorted helicopter] and that threat physically. And if someone starts to shoot at us, [the escorted aircraft is] going to break away as I engage that threat. It’s suppressive fire and I’m trying to take out the target.”
This was only the second time the Hind and Hip pilots have practiced this mission. The first exercise was excruciatingly slow, taking “4 or 5 hours just to get out the door.” Nimmo, who will tag along and merely observe on this mission, is hoping for a significantly better performance, as he drives an SUV from Afghan Air Force headquarters to the apron.
“The Mi17s are getting the coordinates now for the improvised LZ [landing zone], and then we’re going to meet up with them in flight,” he explains. “I’ll speculate we can get the bird off the ground within 15 minutes of getting there, so 30 minutes total.”
Once at the apron, the wait took longer than expected. The mission was slowed by nearly an hour because of the difficulty of coordinating a takeoff in Kabul after a recent increase in international traffic. The Mi-35 pilots cooled their heels as Afghan and Hungarian flight crews readied the birds for flight. While waiting, Major Nimmo drilled the NATO phonetic alphabet with Colonel Furooghullah, an Afghan pilot whose mostly bald pate and grey hair speak to his experience. Though Furooghullah has been flying Mi-35s on and off for 24 years – since Nimmo was nine years old – he has never learned the international English phonetics recognized by most of the world’s pilots.
The elder officer brings other skills to the table, however. After learning to fly from the Russians in Kabul, he flew many missions against the mujahadeen, once landing in a hostile area to pick up a wounded comrade whose helicopter had been shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. During the period of Taliban rule, Furooghullah returned to his hometown of Mazar -i-Sharif to become a shopkeeper. Soon after the 2001 invasion, “when the Taliban regime was destroyed and the American and Afghan soldiers came to Kabul” the old pilot returned “to train others to help my country,” as well as to resume a job he loves.
“I want to fly, I don’t want to be a shopkeeper,” he said with a laugh.
Furooghullah began to catch on after a half-dozen run-throughs of the English phonetics. The final call to launch the birds eventually came and the pilots headed to their aircraft.
Nimmo took the front gunner’s seat to observe the mock escort mission, while Furooghullah hopped in the rear pilot’s seat. Captain Mohommed Zheershuah, another Afghan pilot, took the controls of the second Hind that would serve as the escort. The men hit ignition switches and the Mi-35s’ powerful rotors thumped to life. The two helicopters taxied out to the runway for a rolling takeoff, and there was a moment of confusion.
Zheershuah had taxied out facing the opposite direction from the planned flight, and Nimmo told him (through Furooghullah’s Dari translation) to orient correctly. The message was garbled, and the pilots improvised after the brief delay by switching the lead role. In the mission debriefing, it was later discerned that Zheershuah had been merely taxiing out to turn and orient correctly before Nimmo’s mediation, but the delay and confusion of translating from English to Dari and back again had complicated the affair. This incident demonstrates one of the most difficult challenges for embedded NATO advisors and trainers, and it also illustrates a primary reason why they hope to get Afghanistan’s pilots trained in English.
“When I interjected through Furooghullah, it got lost in translation,” explained Nimmo.
The mission progressed well from there, however. The two Mi-35s quickly joined up with the Mi-17 in flight. The three aircraft flew a sleek, circuitous route around the edges of the wide valley that holds the sprawling city of Kabul and its outskirts. The flight of the Hind felt unusually smooth for a helicopter; one of the aircraft’s unique design features is its long, swept wings, which help generate lift and cause it to fly almost like an airplane at sufficient speed. Furooghullah’s skill also seemed to factor in a remarkably smooth takeoff, flight, and eventual landing.
Within a few minutes of circling Kabul, the aircraft cut into the middle of the city, the Hip setting down at the designated coordinates and simulating an evacuation of wounded. The two Hinds maintained a watchful loop overhead. As the practice medevac reached completion, the Mi-17 leapt into the air, and the two Hinds fell into their easy formation around it for the flight back to base. The two classes of aircraft split up toward their respective aprons once over Kabul International Airport, and the Hind pilots completed their mission with a rolling landing, which is a standard procedure in Afghanistan’s scorching summer weather. When the mercury rises, the molecules in the circulated air lose density more quickly and the rotors generate less lift. Rolling takeoffs and landings circulate fresh air under the aerodynamic wings of the aircraft, increasing fuel efficiency while reducing strain on the engines.
Despite the brief miscommunication and the length of time it took to take off after receiving orders, Nimmo was modestly pleased with the training mission.
“Overall, they did really well,” he explained. “Last time we did this, the first time that we did it, because they’d never done it before, they probably took about 4 or 5 hours just to pass down the information and get the people out the door. Today, they got the information and they stepped quickly, but then there was some miscommunication and there was probably about a 30-minute delay past what it should be. But just getting the information from the top to the bottom is a huge job, that’s like a (new) plateau. The next time, maybe we get to the point where were simply working on how fast we can do it.”
Stranger in a strange land
The 33-year-old Nimmo, whose call sign is “Slim,” finds the job of training Afghanistan’s pilots and administrators tough but rewarding. The laid-back Oklahoman’s career has taken some unusual twists and turns over the past 11 years, with flying a Soviet-era attack helicopter on combat and training missions topping his eclectic resume.
He began his Air Force career flying Hueys on security and insertion missions around the missile fields of North Dakota, then transitioned to piloting T-6 trainers as a fixed wing instructor. Nimmo was later loaned to the Marines so he could learn to fly Hueys and Cobras as an attack helicopter pilot, and he ultimately ended up as an instructor for the unique V-22 tiltrotor Osprey, which blends the versatility of a helicopter with the speed of an airplane. Nimmo’s attack helicopter-plus-instructor experience is rare in the Air Force, and it made him a natural fit for the Mi-35 training mission.
“It’s awesome the Hind is a great performer,” said Nimmo. “It’s got a lot of speed and it’s very smooth and stable when you’re flying low level. The other thing I like about it, especially as a US guy, is it’s basically the opportunity of a lifetime, to be able to fly this particular aircraft that means so much when it comes to Russian airpower.”
Nimmo also relishes working with Afghan pilots. His enthusiasm is clear when he describes the job.
“The other piece of it that’s really neat is working with Afghans and having them giving me information, teaching me things they learned from combat, and me giving them information that they haven’t used before, [like] GPS’s, computers, and things like that. Some things that I consider rudimentary and some things that they consider rudimentary, but we both get to benefit, it’s a symbiotic relationship. But the most important thing you’re seeing now is Afghans training up other Afghans and US mentors, because they’re getting good enough in their English to be able to.”
Time will tell whether the Afghan Air Force can progress quickly enough to sustain itself without day-to-day ISAF involvement. Current strengths remain equipment procurement, progress in staffing, and the quality of the pilots. The nascent air force still needs significant improvement, however, in the areas of communications, advanced tactics, logistics, performance of maintenance functions, and the consistency and localization of Afghan training. Overall, American advisers project optimism, though specifying that it is contingent upon continued Western involvement over the next few years.
“As an adviser, you work very hard and the change is very slow,” said Nimmo. “But every once in a while, you see a plateau jump, you have a paradigm shift, and they’ve achieved a whole new capability. And to see, for example, Ghulam Mahaiudin out there training up Viper it gives you a sense of hope for their future when you leave, that basically your work here is for something.”