New U.S. he­li­copters mark change for Afghan air force

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - NATION - By Josh Smith

Se­nior Afghan and Amer­i­can of­fi­cials wel­comed the ar­rival of new U.S.-made mil­i­tary he­li­copters on Satur­day, be­gin­ning a process that will rad­i­cally trans­form the young Afghan air force.

While the plan for new UH-60 Black Hawk he­li­copters has been in the works for some time, it forms a ma­jor part of the U.S.-led mil­i­tary coali­tion’s train­ing ef­forts, which were ex­panded un­der pro­pos­als ap­proved by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in Au­gust.

“It’s a mod­ern­iza­tion of their pro­gram that will al­low them to project power through­out Afghanistan,” said Lieu­tenant Colonel Trent Alexan­der, a U.S. mil­i­tary ad­viser to the Afghan air force.

“While tran­si­tion­ing to the Black Hawk will not be a quick task, it will not be a dif­fi­cult task.”

At a cer­e­mony at Kan­da­har Air­field in south­ern Afghanistan, Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani for­mally ac­cepted the first new he­li­copters, call­ing it a “his­toric day” that would al­low the air force to bet­ter re­spond to the de­mands on the se­cu­rity forces.

The Rus­sian-de­signed Mi-17 he­li­copters that cur­rently form the back­bone of the Afghan air force worked well for crews used to Rus­sian equip­ment, but de­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­la­tions be­tween Moscow and Wash­ing­ton meant that the Amer­i­cans were un­able to pro­vide new parts and air­craft to re­place the over­worked air­craft.

“The Mi-17 was a great air­craft and it brought the Afghans the abil­ity to be ca­pa­ble, how­ever, with the in­tro­duc­tion of the UH-60 they are now sus­tain­able,” Alexan­der said.

By 2024 the U.S. plans to pro­vide the Afghans with at least 159 Black Hawks, in­clud­ing 58 fit­ted with ex­tra rocket pods and ma­chine guns to pro­vide close air sup­port, a fleet that will dwarf the fewer than 40 Mi-17s cur­rently op­er­a­tional.

The Black Hawks will cost the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment al­most $8 mil­lion a piece, of­fi­cials said, after a process that com­pletely re­fur­bishes and up­grades U.S. Army sur­plus air­craft.

Re­train­ing an Afghan pi­lot to fly the Black Hawk takes about five to six months, Alexan­der said.

Omar Sob­hani Reuters

Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani in­spects a Black­hawk he­li­copter dur­ing a trans­fer cer­e­mony of he­li­copters from the U.S. to Afghan forces at the Kan­da­har air base, Afghanistan.

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