* Black Hawk helicopters to replace Mi-17s under Pentagon
* Deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations led to sanctions
* Switch would require new training for Afghan air force
* Funding still needs congressional approval
By Josh Smith
KABUL, Nov 29 The U.S. military wants to replace
Afghanistan's well-worn fleet of Russian helicopters with
American-made aircraft, according to a new budget proposal, a
decision aimed at reducing the Afghan air force's decades-long
reliance on Russian equipment.
The Afghan air force, trained and assisted by NATO advisers,
has slowly gained strength, but remains too small to meet the
needs of security forces struggling to combat a stubborn Taliban
Now the U.S. Defence Department is requesting funding to
refurbish and update 53 older-model U.S. military UH-60 Black
Hawk helicopters for the Afghans, enough to replace the current
fleet of Russian-designed Mi-17 helicopters.
Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential election,
and the prospect of warmer U.S.-Russian ties, could yet impact
the proposed move, but were it to go through, it would cost
hundreds of millions of dollars and require retraining
potentially hundreds of Afghan pilots to fly the new craft.
Roughly 50 Mi-17 transport helicopters form the backbone of
the air force, flying missions including troop and supply
transport, medical evacuation and close air support.
Heavy fighting, hard conditions and maintenance problems
have taken their toll on the fleet, however, and the U.S.
military has faced legal barriers to providing new Mi-17s and
parts amid deteriorating relations with Russia.
"The Department of Defence has determined that procuring
U.S.-made helicopters is a more sustainable long-term solution
to meet the requirements," spokesman Adam Stump said.
Among the reasons were "legal restrictions on spending DoD
funds to maintain or buy more Russian helicopters."
NEW FUNDING REQUESTED
The $814 million request, made in a budget amendment
submitted this month, would also provide money for other new
attack aircraft for the Afghans.
It would help push the total funding for Afghan security
forces to $4.2 billion for 2017, surpassing the $1.2 billion
requested for arming and supporting local forces in Iraq and
Under the proposal, UH-60A helicopters earmarked for the
Afghans would be taken from the U.S. Army's inventory and
upgraded to a UH-60A+ variant, which Stump said was "suitable
for the challenging Afghanistan environment."
Military planners hope to begin fielding the Black Hawks in
Afghanistan, already a common sight during America's 15-year war
there, within two years of Congress approving funding, he added.
The budget also requests funding for 30 additional armed
MD-530 attack helicopters, six A-29 fixed wing close attack
aircraft and five AC-208 aircraft for the Afghan air force.
Altogether, the military may order as many as 159 Black
Hawks for the Afghans, said U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, who
represents Connecticut, home of the helicopter's manufacturer
Sikorsky, and other lawmakers in a statement.
Of roughly 3,000 Black Hawks in use in the world, the U.S.
Army operates at least 2,300, according to Sikorsky Aircraft
Corporation, which was acquired by military aviation giant
Lockheed Martin last year.
Afghan officials in Kabul said they had yet to be officially
informed of any decision, but would welcome Black Hawks.
"They have been tested in Afghanistan and can support our
forces on the ground," said Mohammad Radmanish, a spokesman for
the Afghan Defence Ministry.
Russia's state-owned Rostec, parent company of the main
Russian military helicopter manufacturer, and Rosoboronexport,
the Russian state arms export agency, declined to comment, as
did the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation,
which is the state regulator for arms exports.
Since 2010, the United States has provided at least $3.7
billion to develop and support the Afghan air force, which has
struggled to field enough trained crews to operate its aircraft.
Stump said there were now enough personnel. But switching to
more complex Black Hawks would require retraining potentially
hundreds of pilots, crew chiefs, and maintenance workers.
Captain Jason Smith, a spokesman for the coalition training
wing in Kabul, said the military mission was still waiting for a
decision from Congress, but "stands ready to work with our
Afghan Air Force counterparts no matter what recapitalization
looks like once approved."
While many vehicles, aircraft, and weapons provided to
Afghan security forces by the United States are American-made,
military officials originally favored the Mi-17 because Afghan
pilots and mechanics were already familiar with it.
That decision was made at a time when the United States and
Russia were cooperating on a range of Afghanistan-related
issues, including a major supply route for the NATO coalition in
and out of the country.
Since then the relationship has soured over conflicts in
Syria and Ukraine.
Under pressure from Congress in 2013, the Pentagon scrapped
a plan to spend more than $1 billion on new Mi-17s, and in 2014
President Barack Obama issued formal restrictions on doing
business with Russian arms manufacturers.
With the U.S. military's endorsement, India has been
involved in helping provide a handful of Russian helicopters to
Afghanistan, but the Pentagon's decision would almost entirely
supplant the Afghans' Russian aircraft.
While incoming president Trump campaigned on promises of
protecting American manufacturing jobs, he has also signalled a
desire to repair relations with Russia.
"Given President-Elect Donald Trump's desire to improve
relations with Moscow, the Mi-17s could be making their return
not too far down the road," said Michael Kugelman, an analyst
with the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
While Mi-17s represent one of the most visible signs of ties
between Russia and Afghanistan, Kugelman said the impact of a
switch to Black Hawks would be limited, with Moscow looking at
other potential arms deals and back-channel outreach to the
(Additional reporting by Gleb Stolyarov in MOSCOW; Editing by