Afghanistan: Can the Taliban fly abandoned US aircraft?

The militants apparently tried to fly a $6 million US helicopter

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The rotor blades spin on the American UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter as it moves down the airfield, but it doesn’t seem to take off in the smartphone footage shared online. On Wednesday, Taliban militants apparently tried to fly a captured $6 million dollar US military helicopter that can be equipped with rocket launchers and machineguns, and ferry soldiers across large areas fast.

In the rapid collapse of Afghanistan’s government, the country’s military may have lost millions of dollars of donated US equipment. Included in the tally is the government’s air power, with implications for Afghanistan and the anti-Taliban militias bedding into the country’s north-east.

Could the Taliban build its own air force and fly sophisticated US planes and helicopters?

The US Department of Defence has said the Taliban are in possession of at least 34 US-supplied aircraft, many of which are Russian-designed Mi-17 helicopters bought for the Afghan army from suppliers in eastern Europe.

They may also have about five Embraer Super Tucano ground attack aircraft and a number of Cessna 208 Caravans, both propeller aircraft capable of firing rockets and missiles.

I can say that some operational Mi-17s in the Taliban air force have been confirmed
Lukas Muller, expert on Afghan aviation history

Scores of other aircraft were flown out of the country by fleeing Afghan pilots, to neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

As many as eight UH-60 Black Hawks are in the hands of Ahmad Massoud, an anti-Taliban warlord who has decamped to the rugged Panjshir Valley in the north-east of the country.

So, will the Taliban or Mr Massoud be able to build their own air force from what remains of the $8bn or so the US spent on training and equipping its Afghan allies? It is a steep challenge.

Military aircraft need not only trained pilots but top-quality ground crews and spare parts as well as armaments.

Even if the Taliban read the instruction manuals for the aircraft, trying to fly them would be fraught with risk.

One US defence audit warned in 2012 that an aircraft manual translated into Dari contained many technical terms that did not easily translate, leading to “concerns over the airworthiness of aircraft” if the guide were to be used.

In other words, anything lost in translation could prove fatal.

The Taliban air force

Forrest Marion, a former US Air Force colonel, worked on the US Air Force’s official history of the Afghan air advisory effort and has written extensively of the country’s air forces.

A key moment came after the Soviet withdrawal, Mr Marion said, with the Taliban’s capture of Kandahar airfield in 1994 during the Afghan civil war.

More than two dozen MiG-21 fast attack jets fell into Taliban hands, Mr Marion writes, and the militants forced Colonel Abdul Shafi Noori, commander of Kabul Air Wing maintenance group, to keep the planes airworthy. Pakistani support also kept operations going.

But not all of the Taliban’s “maintainers” and pilots were forced to collaborate.

Mr Marion recalled that one Afghan pilot who flew in the Soviet-backed Afghan air force went on to fly missions for the Taliban then became a shopkeeper after 2001 and then rejoined the Coalition-backed air force to fight the Taliban once more.

Another pilot flew for the short-lived, anti-Taliban Rabbani-Massoud government, which briefly held Kabul during the civil war, then defected.

“I quit from Dostum’s camp because he wants to dismember Afghanistan,” one such pilot told AFP in 1997, a reference to the brief rule of the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Afghan pilots under threat

Many of the US-trained Afghan pilots today might be unwilling to defect to the Taliban owing to the group’s campaign of targeted killings of airmen which has claimed the lives of their comrades.

But an Afghan air force colonel, Salim Faqiri, told NPR last week there was a risk some pilots could be kidnapped by the group and forced to help.

If any did decide to help the Taliban, the best bet for the militants would be using Russian Mi-17s, helicopters with which most Afghan air force helicopter pilots are very familiar.

“What’s sure is that they have at least several Mi-17 of different versions operational,” said Lukas Muller, the author of Wings Over the Hindu Kush, a book on the history of the air war in Afghanistan.

“I bet that this would make the ‘core’ of the Taliban air force in the months to come. It’s relatively easy to maintain and spares are widely available on the open market, as there are non-military versions of this type. Actually, this type was the most common aircraft used in the 1990s civil war, when even very small factions with limited foreign contacts could operate it,” he said.

Even with the Mi-17s, the Taliban would face huge challenges.

“The United States provided at least two aircraft types to the Afghans that were too complex for most, if not all, developing countries to expect to maintain or sustain without long-term or even permanent outside assistance: the C-130 and the UH-60,” Mr Marion told The National.

“The Black Hawk was far more complex than the rugged, Soviet/Russian-built Mi-17 with which the Afghans were very familiar; also the Mi-17 was more capable than the UH-60 in the Afghan environment. The Mi-17 was built specifically for Afghanistan,” he said.

Mr Marion writes in his book Flight Risk that despite the familiarity of many Afghan veteran pilots and maintenance crews with the Mi-17, many of the aircraft were poorly maintained. Consequently, they could be dangerous to fly.

The Afghan pilots “were flying the Mi-17s at a much higher rate than could be sustained in terms of maintenance. Helicopter overflight was a constant concern,” he said.

“Many, if not most, of the young Afghan pilots were motivated, literate to start with – at least in Dari – and diligent in their programmes of study and training. But for many non-pilots, and older pilots, it was a different story,” he says. He described the challenges the Coalition faced building the Afghan air force and finding literate Afghans, who went on to better-paid jobs if they could read or speak English.

In 2018, a US Department of Defence audit sounded a warning that 20 per cent of Mi-17 maintenance was still performed by the Americans.

If the Black Hawks and the Mi-17s present too great a challenge, that leaves two aircraft that have an attack role – the Brazilian A-29 Super Tucano and the MD 530 helicopter.

“The A-29 attack pilots were the creme de la creme and the most respected members of the Afghan Air Force,” Mr Marion said.

He said the more modern, non-Soviet aircraft attracted younger, more westernised pilots. Perhaps, then, they would be less likely to defect.

And while the MD-530 is “easy to fly, and can carry rockets”, its maintenance was conducted by US contractors.

This means that if Afghanistan faces a new air war, it will be a strange conflict in the absence of outside foreign support. Pilots loyal to the Taliban or Ahmad Massoud, who has decamped to the rugged Panjshir Valley, will be taking huge risks simply by taking to the skies.

“Now, what’s next? It depends on whether the Taliban will be recognised by regional powers and immediate neighbours. In the Nineties, the Taliban were really interested in the creation of a capable air force. If the Taliban feel there’s a real possibility of uprisings and resistance, they’ll probably try to expand their air force with acquisitions from abroad or they’ll at least try to make most of the captured machines operational,” Mr Muller said.

“I can say that some operational Mi-17s in the Taliban air force have been confirmed. We have to wait for the others,” he said, referring to aircraft that, in his estimate, are grounded owing to a lack of maintenance.

Updated: August 29, 2021, 2:54 PM