I travelled to Shindand air base in western Afghanistan last month to cover the Afghan Air Force’s pilot training school, which will qualify all AAF pilots and flight crew from now on.
Although the Afghan Army Air Corps has been functioning since I arrived in 2009, the Air Force is relatively new, only stood up officially in 2010. Since then, it’s faced a number of challenges, not least the acquisition of light air support planes to replace the fighter MI-35 helicopters (known to many by their cold war NATO designation - “Hinds”).
Many of the pilots of the AAF qualified initially during the Soviet occupation, during extensive training in Moscow. They’re familiar with the MI-35s and MI-17 transport helicopters (aka “flying tractors”), as well as the AN-32 cargo planes. These aircraft are popular, because they’re easy to maintain. This commentator advocates de-mothballing the Antonov cargo planes, currently sitting at Kabul airport (I’ve walked among them).
However, the AAF support mission by the international community is mainly US funded, up to at least 2017. That means there’s a lot of resistance to obtaining spare parts and mentoring flight crews from contracting companies that are outside of the US.
The other problem is sustainability. MI-35s and MI-17s are very expensive to run - up to $6000 per hour, whereas light aeroplanes go further and run much cheaper. The Cessna 208s currently being trained on at Shindand are very reliable and rarely break down (the only maintenance I saw was the result of a trainee pilot taxi-ing into a fire extinguisher). Add to that a light support aeroplane, such as the Super Tucano and you have a pretty comprehensive capability - MI-17s for landing in remote areas, C208s for longer cargo runs and a bit of light air support, thrown in.
But, as seen by the disastrous acquisition of C-27 cargo planes, which ended in the entire fleet being ground, sometimes it’s just better to stick to what you know. I waved off a number of pilots in 2009, who were embarking on a 3 year course in the United States to fly the C-27. I have no idea what became of them.