Sunday, June 20, 2010


By Brigadier Chitranjan Sawant,VSM
Truth is stranger than fiction. But it is gospel truth that the Pentagon of the United States has invested a large sum of money in buying both new and redone Russian helicopters for the fledgling Afghan Air Corps. What happened to the patriotic slogan “Be American Buy American.” The slogan is intact and well set in its place. However, Pragmatic philosophy has carried the day.
Indeed it is a U-turn for the US Pentagon. In the 1980s when the Soviet armed forces were in occupation of Afghanistan, the Pentagon had financed and supplied Stinger missiles to the Afghan rebels to shoot down Soviet choppers and low flying fixed wing aircraft. The Stinger missiles were deadly and effective. Now in 2010, the Pentagon has gone in for a big buy of Russian Mi 17 transport helicopters to equip the Afghan Air Corps. The United States will be spending as much as 648 million US dollars to buy new choppers or refurbish their used ones As many as 31 Mi 17 Russian helicopters are being bought this year and ten more would be bought next year. Over a dozen plus choppers would be bought over aperiod of a decade or so. The American trainers are hopeful that by 2016, five years after the date set for beginning a planned withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan, the Afghan Air Corps would be ready on its own and run the show in the skies. Their strength and that of the choppers would go up many times.
The US Congress is not happy about the deal with Russians on the military choppers. The Congressmen feel that the Pentagon did not go in depth to analyse the issue and push for buying American helicopters. They also have opined that the Russians realised that there was no competition in the arms bazaar and so they charged exorbitant price even for the refurbished helicopters. The loss of face and loss of money could have been avoided with a little forethought and proper forward planning.
The Soviet designers had made Mi 17 helicopters for the Afghan skies. This sturdy war horse is best suited for the Afghan skies. It flies on the heights of the Hindu Kush and negotiates the high altitude desert too. Further the recruits for the Afghan Air Corps are by and large illiterate. They have to be taught both native language as well as English from the scratch. Since the language of the cockpit is English the pilots should be conversant with the language. Listening, understanding and speaking English is not an easy job for the Afghan trainees. India too has been contributing quite a lot in the field of education, especially English and Sciences, not forgetting Maths. The officers of the Army Educational Corps of the Indian Army have been doing the teaching job for quite some time. Two officers attained martyrdom in a dastardly attack by the L eT, egged on by the ISI of Pakistan. Nevertheless the job in hand has to be completed, come what may, so say the Indian Army officers. Commendable attitude they have displayed, indeed.
General Mohammad Dawran, Chief of the Afghan Air Corps has said that most of the trained helicopter pilots are in their forties now. It would be difficult for them to switch over from the Russian machine to the American machine at this stage. It is right from the days of the Soviet occupation that the Russian equipment was introduced and found quite effective in that climate and terrain. General Dawran threw his weight behind the No-changers andhis logic was accepted by the American advisors. Hence in 2010 the decision was made to go in for the Russian helicopters. Brigadier Michael Boera of the US Air Force who is in charge of training the Afghan Air Corps supported the view taken by the Afghan officers and their political masters. The US Pentagon went with them, much to the chagrin of the US Congress.
As of now the Russian helicopters of the Afghan Air Corps are being used in the support role. They carry supplies and ferry officers and troops to and fro. They do go to the combat zone but only to deliver supplies and carry armed forces personnel. The role of these transport helicopters and their pilots has been well appreciated. Top ranking politicians, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai and top ranking US Army General also are flown by the Afghan pilots. However, no combat role has been chalked out for them so far.
In not too distant future the pilots of the Afghan Air Corps may be given a combat role. It is envisaged that again a Russian built helicopter would foot the bill. The Mi 35 gunships have proved themselves in counter-insurgency warfare in Russia and elsewhere. Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and other Muslim dominated provinces of the Russian Federation created law and order problems. The central government in Moscow under the leadership of the ironman, Vladimir Putin dealt with Islamist insurgency very effectively. Reportedly the use of Mi 35 helicopter gunships was found to be very effective. In view of their past performance, Mi 35 helicopter gunships may be introduced in Afghanistan too. Of course, Afghan pilots, gunners, navigators and other personnel will have to be trained thoroughly before they are assigned combat roles. That explains why the American trainers have set 2016 as the deadline for the Afghan Air Corps to act independently without the aid and assistance of personnel of the US Air Force.
Many a time an element of doubt crops up about the competence of the Afghan combat pilots to act on their own. A parallel is drawn from the era of the Soviet withdrawal and collapse of the Afghan administrative and defence infra-structure. That was the time whem the Taliban came in and filled the vacuum. They took control of the country under the guidance of their mentor, Pakistan. Is the history likely to repeat itself? One sincerely hopes not. It is the moral duty of the US Administration to ensure that the control of a country like Afghanistan is not handed over to the Taliban and their mentor, Pakistan on a silver platter. It will be the Dharma of the democratic countries in the neighbourhood to come to the active aid of the new administration of Afghanistan to ensure that the Rule of Law prevails.
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