The Afghan Air Force (AAF) is being equipped with the MD-530 Cayuse Warrior helicopter.  This rotary-wing aircraft is a variant of the “Little Bird” that is used extensively by U.S special operations aviation units. The MD-530, a cost-effective aircraft for the AAF, was initially used for pilot training by the AAF but is now being pressed into service as a close air support (CAS) platform.

With the significant troop reduction of Coalition forces in Afghanistan a serious capability gap developed for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Now that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission has ended (December 2015) and the Resolute Support (RS) mission has begun (January 2016) there are only 9,800 U.S. military and a few thousand troops from other nations. Along with that huge personnel reduction is a corresponding decrease in air support provided by the Coalition nations to the Afghans. In addition, restrictive Rules of Engagement (RoE) have crippled the U.S. ability to attack the Taliban (although these have been relaxed in the last few weeks).

The Afghan Air Force is poorly postured to fill this air support capability gap. One serious short-fall is the lack of aircraft that can provide close air support for the Afghan security forces. In an attempt to fill this CAS gap, the U.S. has been providing the AAF with a few CAS options. These include the A-29 Super Tucano, outfitting existing Mi-17s helicopters with armament, and fielding armed MD-530 Cayuse Warrior helicopters.

The MD-530 provides a good bridging CAS platform until the A-29 plane is fully fielded (2018?). It is highly maneuverable, carries rockets and guns [1], and can perform a variety of missions. In addition, it is easier to maintain than some more complex helicopter gunships that are on the world market. The primary mission of the AAF MD-530 is pilot training, close air attack, and aerial escort (for the Mi17s).

The first armed MD-530s were provided in the spring of 2015. It took a while to train up the crews and integrate these armed choppers into combat operations. News reports indicate that the aircraft are fulfilling the mission; but there just is not enough to spread around the many regions of Afghanistan. Five new MD-530s were recently delivered to the Afghan Air Force in June 2016. This brings the total inventory of the MD-530s to 18. In addition, there are plans to provide an additional nine more in the later part of 2016 bringing the total number of MD-530s to 27.

The MD-530 Cayuse Warrior is a good aerial platform to fill the gap until the A-29 Super Tucano is fully deployed. It will be interesting to see how effective the armed helicopter is on the battlefield during the 2016 Summer Campaign. It is unfortunate that it is only now being fully fielded in 2016 – fifteen years after the United States invaded Afghanistan.

[1] The MD-530 is armed with the FN Herstal Heavy Machine Gun Pod (HMP) with a rate of fire of 1,100 rounds/minute and a seven-tube M260 launcher for 70mm (2.75 inch) rockets.

Photo of MD-530 by Tech. Sgt. Quinton Russ, 438th Air Expeditionary Wing, Afghanistan on October 16, 2012.