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Jeremy White Headshot

Flying the Devil's Chariot

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Russia's latest annexation of the Crimea has left many old hands in Washington longing for the days of the Cold War when things just seemed so much simpler. As clichéd as it sounds, there used to be rules to this game called global politics. Intrigue and espionage were par for the course, but when one side stepped over the line, all it took was sliding open the hatch of a nuclear silo somewhere in the American mid-west to let the Soviets know they had crossed a line. Today the game is much more complex simply because neither side has any reason to take each other's threats seriously. So as the Russian Bear creeps further into what was once Ukraine, lawmakers in D.C. are left asking themselves "how do we do something, without having to really do anything?" Enter the Russian Mi-17 transport helicopter.

For the last few years the Mi-17 "Hip" helicopter has been the U.S. Congress' favorite pawn when it comes to registering irritation with the Russian government. Under a 2011 agreement signed between the U.S. Department of Defense and the Russian arms export agency Rosoboronexport, the American government agreed to pay $1 billion for sixty-three Mi-17 transport helicopters for use by the Afghan Air Force (AAF). In 2013, Congress instituted a ban on further helicopter purchases from Russia following President Putin's refusal to suspend military sales to the Assad regime in Syria. A ban, by the way, that has been entirely ignored. And again yesterday, just like clockwork, five members of Congress called upon the president to terminate all helicopter contracts with Russia.

As we saw in "The Afghan Money pit," a segment on last week's season premiere of VICE on HBO, American tax dollars have -- to put it mildly -- not always been wisely spent in Afghanistan. When it comes to the decision to buy Russian as opposed to American made helicopters, however, the larger and far more disturbing issue is that the Afghan Air Force lacks the basic capability to operate and maintain any aircraft fleet regardless of their country of origin.

Before Afghan pilots can sit in the cockpit or make repairs on any aircraft they must meet two basic criteria: be able to read and speak English (the international language of aviation). Amongst the recruits who show up at the Pohantoon-e-Hawayee, training academy, only an estimated 28 percent are literate up to the minimum standard third grade level. The U.S. military has made a considerable effort to shorten the AAF's learning curve, even going so far as to translate flight and mechanical manuals from English to Dari at their Thunder Lab facility outside Kabul. However, with a severe lack of qualified recruits and a requirement for hundreds of pilots and thousands of mechanics, the Afghan Air Forces prospects appear bleak.

Regardless of the Afghan Air Force's numerous personnel problems, I remain convinced that the U.S. military's decision to purchase the Russian Mi-17 helicopters remains the right one. While I am neither a pilot nor an Afghan I once had the pleasure of being schooled by someone who is both.

Upon my arrival in Afghanistan in the summer of 2010, I had the dubious pleasure of having to hitchhike for the very first time in my life when the military escort I had been promised failed to arrive. After rebuffing several nefarious types who seemed all too eager to get me in their cars, salvation came in the form of a retired Afghan Air Force General named Mateen Farhang who offered me a lift to the nearest American compound. I am not quite sure how long the ride was from Kabul airport to Camp Phoenix, but however long it took was enough time for me to get an extensive education on what the Americans were doing right and wrong when it came to Afghan air power.

In 1979, the Soviet Union introduced the Mi-17 to the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. Based on the original airframe design of Nikita Khrushchev's VIP transport helicopter, the Mi-17 came to be known by Afghans as the "Devil's Chariot" for the precision with which it rained destruction down from the sky. The Mi-17 is ideally suited for the mountains of Afghanistan, where high-density altitude is especially problematic for rotary-wing aircraft. As any pilot will attest, air density is perhaps the single most important factor affecting aircraft performance and while the Mi-17 is not immune to shifts in atmospheric pressure, it has proven to be a very reliable platform in "hot and high" environments like Afghanistan.

General Farhang acknowledged that while the American-made Chinook is a comparable platform to the Russian Mi-17 in terms of speed and vertical lift capacity, this does not make up for the fact that the Mi-17 has functioned as the backbone of the Afghan Air Force since its introduction in the early 1980's following the Soviet invasion. While graybeards like General Farhang are well past their flying years, they remain the institutional memory of the Afghan Air Force and are the only real hope for the AAF's continued survival after the American withdrawal is complete. Insisting that the Afghans abandon an air platform that they have relied on for over thirty years for an entirely new -- and much more complex aircraft -- with which they have zero operational experience, is an absurd risk that will generate relatively few jobs back in the United States.

While it may turn the stomachs of some to learn that American tax dollars are going to buy helicopters from the very same Russian arms exporter that has been supplying Assad's military in Syria, when it comes to decisions of military necessity, logic must occasionally prevail. Of much deeper concern is the fact that over a billion dollars has been spent on aircraft that are destined to sit unused, rusting on the tarmac.