U.S. Congress Advised Against Afghan Aircraft Buys

 - July 5, 2013, 12:05 PM
An Afghan Special Mission Wing flight crew prepares for a training mission aboard a Mil Mi-17 in Kabul last October. (Photo: SIGAR)

An inspector appointed by the U.S. Congress recommended that $772 million in contracts awarded by the Pentagon for 30 new aircraft to support an Afghan special aviation unit be suspended because the unit is unprepared. The Afghan Special Mission Wing (SMW) “lacks the capacity, both in personnel numbers and expertise, to operate and maintain its current and planned fleets,” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) stated in a June audit report.

The Afghan National Army created the SMW from a former Interior Ministry air interdiction unit last July to provide air support for Afghan special forces that conduct counternarcotics and counterterrorism missions. The wing operates 30 Russian Mi-17 helicopters, including 20 obtained from the U.S., the UK and Germany, and 10 on loan from the Afghan Air Force. According to SIGAR, it has been supported under a 2008 task order the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command awarded to Northrop Grumman for maintenance and logistics support of Afghan interior ministry and defense ministry air assets; and a 2009 task order awarded to Lockheed Martin for procurement of materiel and spare parts.

The NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan developed a concept of operations for the Afghan SMW requiring that the unit be equipped with 30 new helicopters and 18 fixed-wing aircraft, organized in four squadrons. Last October, the DOD awarded Sierra Nevada Corporation a $218 million contract for the foreign military sale of 18 “uniquely modified” Pilatus PC-12 turboprops to equip the wing. Last month, the department awarded the Russian export agency Rosoboronexport a $554 million contract modification to supply 30 new Mi-17s, spare parts, test equipment and engineering support. SIGAR notes that the Fiscal Year 2013 defense authorization act prohibits contracting with Rosoboronexport. However, the DOD “concluded that it was legally able to proceed with this purchase” by using funds from Fiscal Year 2012.

In the audit report, SIGAR found that only about half of the Afghan SMW’s current fleet is mission-ready at any given time, and that DOD contractors perform half of the unit’s maintenance and repairs and 70 percent of “critical maintenance and logistics management.” The NATO concept of operations calls for the SMW to have 806 pilots, flight engineers, mechanics and security personnel at full strength. Two Kabul-based squadrons were to be established by this summer. However, as of January, the entire wing had just 180 members. The progression of Afghan trainees from initial rotary-wing training at Fort Rucker, Alabama, to Mi-17 training in the Czech Republic “has been slow and uneven.”

In a June 28 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel contained in the audit report, SIGAR said the DOD disregarded its recommendation that the new aircraft purchases be suspended until the Afghan government takes steps to ready the SMW. “We maintain that moving forward with the acquisition of these aircraft is imprudent,” the IG said.