The U.S military is scheduled to provide the Afghan government with 159 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters as part of an effort to modernize the Afghan Air Force (AAF) and make the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) less reliant on coalition aircraft for their operations. However, a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) questions the ability of the Afghans to operate the Black Hawks given a lack of sufficiently trained pilots and ground maintenance personnel.

Aside from the AAF, some helicopters are destined for the elite Special Mission Wing (SMW). Established in 2005, the SMW is the cream of the crop of the AAF. With around 800 men, the unit was initially designed to support counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan. Its superb record and the increasing intensity of the Taliban insurgency, however, led to the SMW expanding its mission set to include counterterrorism operations, ferrying Afghan Special Forces and commandos.

The program stipulated for contractors to provide training to both pilots and engineers. Sixteen Black Hawks have already been delivered. The rest are scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan in batches, with the last to arrive by 2023.

“Given concerns that the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing may not be able to fully use all 159 aircraft when delivered,” said the SIGAR report, “the Department of Defense runs the risk of wasting U.S. taxpayer dollars to purchase aircraft the AAF and SMW cannot fly or maintain.”

The project began in 2017 with the training of an initial group of Afghan pilots. By May 2018, the designated deadline for the first qualified pilots, 15 Afghans had successfully graduated the training and were deemed eligible to fly the UH-60 in combat operations. The AAF flew its first UH-60 operational mission in May 2018.

Thus far, the AAF and the SMW have been utilizing the MI-17, which can fly higher and has the capacity to carry a larger passenger load. However, the UH-60 is more maneuverable and smaller than the Russian-made MI-17, making it less likely to be shot down. Furthermore, the AAF’s fleet of around 50 MI-17s is struggling to meet operational requirements.

According to the SIGAR report, one of the main problems facing the project is the inability of the selected Afghan pilots and engineers to achieve sufficient proficiency in English, and particularly in the technical language that is required when operating and maintaining highly complex airframes.

To avoid wasting taxpayers’ money, the SIGAR report recommends that the deliveries of Black Hawks coincide with graduating classes of Afghan pilots.