by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
For several years, the Afghan air force has flown Russian Mi-35 Hind gunships. The iconic, armored helicopters are better known as “flying tanks” for their ability to spew bullets and rockets — while absorbing gunfire.
But the Afghans probably won’t fly their Hinds a year from now. The helicopters are getting old and falling apart — and with Washington’s relationship with Moscow at its lowest point in decades, the Pentagon is buying tiny American choppers to replace them.
On April 9, the Afghan air force received six American-made MD-530F gunships. In 2014, the Pentagon decided to send a total of 12 armed MD-530Fs, and added guns and armor to five helicopters already in Kabul’s hangars.
The United States is putting up the money for the dozen choppers, spare parts and training for Afghan air crews.
“American policy is to push American goods,” a U.S. Army aviator familiar with the program told War Is Boring on the condition of anonymity. This helps explain why U.S. officials settled on the MD-530Fs over larger, more heavily armed helicopters.
The MD-530F — produced by U.S. company MD Helicopters — is nimble and fast, but carries fewer weapons than the Hind. It can’t take nearly as much punishment.
The chopper could potentially carry rockets, but official photographs depict the MD-530Fs in Afghanistan only carrying guns. Each of the chopper’s two FN HMP gun pods contains a single rapid-firing .50-caliber M-3 machine gun.
By comparison, Kabul’s existing Mi-35 gunships pack both a 12.7-millimeter Gatling gun and 57-millimeter rocket pods. Afghan crews also have devastating 23-millimeter cannon pods for both their Hinds and Russian-built Mi-17 transport choppers.
The Mi-35 is a modernized version of the Mi-24 Hind — a feature of the Afghan landscape since the Soviet invasion in 1979. In recent years, the Pentagon has also bought dozens of Mi-17s through Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-owned arms broker, for Kabul’s air arm and commandos.
But to put it mildly, Washington and Moscow don’t get along so well these days. Even before the recent crisis in Ukraine, American legislators had become increasingly uncomfortable with buying choppers from Moscow.
“We write to oppose any continuation of the Department of Defense’s … business relationship with Rosoboronexport, … an enabler of the ongoing mass atrocities in Syria,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro and nine other representatives wrote in an open letter to then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in March 2014.
Hagel declined to intervene and the purchase went ahead as planned. Afghanistan still relies heavily on these durable transports—and wants more.
But the Kremlin backs separatist rebels fighting Kiev, and American and Russian forces are locked in a near constant succession of tit-for-tat war games in Europe.
Washington has avoided sending weapons to help Ukrainian troops fight the separatists, but the State Department has imposed sanctions on a number of Russian nationals and government-run businesses.
As a result, American officials have reasonable fears that Moscow might delay the delivery of any Hinds to Afghanistan because of policy decisions in Washington, the Army officer noted. The Kremlin could hold spare parts hostage as a negotiating tactic, too.
Unfortunately, authorities in Kabul and their American benefactors don’t have the luxury of waiting to see if these problems become realities. The Afghan air force’s Hinds are in bad shape and need replacing now.
The so-called “fighting season” is beginning as the country comes out of its frigid winter. On April 22, the Taliban announced its spring offensive called Azm, or “determination.”
“There aren’t enough Mi-35s to support the Afghan National Army alone,” an Afghan air force spokesperson, identified only as Col. Bahadur, told U.S. Air Force reporters in March. “As coalition air support is withdrawn, the ANA must still conduct operations and hold territory,” an American adviser added, referring to the Afghan National Army.
In 2010, the Afghan air force had approximately nine Hinds in working order. “Only two of six Mi-35s with remaining service life are available at any time due to a shortage of spare parts,” Pentagon officials reported three years later.
To keep those choppers in the air, Afghan crews and private contractors had to cannibalize five other Hinds for their vital components. American advisers in Kabul expect the massive gunships to be completely gone by next year one way or another.
The Pentagon’s goal is to get the new MD-530 fleet up and running “by the middle of 2015 as a partial stopgap until the A-29 light air support fleet is fully operational in 2018,” according to the Pentagon’s most recent review of operations in Afghanistan.
A series of contract disputes has repeatedly delayed the arrival of these single-engined turboprop light attack planes. And even if Afghan pilots finally get their A-29s, the aircraft won’t be able to support Kabul’s ground forces all by themselves. Gunships such as the MD-530Fs will likely be as important in the future as they are now.
To be sure, the MD-530F isn’t as capable as the Mi-35. But the smaller gunships are much easier to fly and repair. More advanced American helicopters, such as the AH-64 Apache, are too complex for Afghanistan’s forces.
Though not as heavily armored, insurgents might find the nimbler choppers much harder targets to hit than the lumbering Hinds.
The U.S. Army’s own elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment favors a chopper related to the MD-530F — the A/MH-6M Little Bird — because of its good maneuverability and diminutive profile.
The MD-530F “costs much less per flight hour than the Mi-35” and is still a “very capable aircraft” too, the Army aviator added. The officer described the whole endeavor as “one of the better programs” the Pentagon is running for Afghanistan.
As the fighting season in Afghanistan picks up, Afghan crews and American advisers will both see just how well the new gunships fill in for the tired, old Hinds. Those flying tanks probably won’t be around much longer.