Talibans have captured more than 100 military helicopters, Russia says

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Fleet of Russian-made Mi-17 transport aircraft had been procured by US for Afghan armed force

An Afghan air force Mi-17 helicopter flies past commandos during a military exercise on the outskirts of Kabul in October 2017

The Taliban have captured more than 100 Russian-made helicopters in various states of operability, the head of a Russian state arms exporter has said, but will be largely unable to use them with little access to maintenance crews and spare parts.

As the Taliban overran the Afghan army and took control of large stores of arms and vehicles, it also captured at least 100 Mi-17 Hip helicopters, a Russian-made transport aircraft procured by the US for the Afghan armed forces because it was comparatively cheaper and easier to fly than US-made UH-60 Black Hawks.

“The helicopter fleet there is large – more than 100 Mi-17 helicopters of various types,” said Alexander Mikheev, the head of the Russian state exporter Rosoboronexporter, according to the Interfax news agency. “Of course, this fleet requires repair, maintenance and spare parts supply.” A large portion of the fleet could already be grounded, he said.

Mikheev’s estimate for the number of Russian-made helicopters in Afghanistan is significantly higher than the reported inventory. A July report from the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (Sigar) said that the Afghan military had 56 Mi-17 helicopters, of which just 32 were usable and in the country. The Mi-17 is the export version of Russia’s Mi-8 helicopter, which is manufactured at two plants in Kazan and Ulan-Ude in Russia.

How many of those helicopters are now in flying condition is unclear, as the US drawdown of its armed forces and the Taliban onslaught have taken their toll on the Afghan air force’s readiness. Videos had surfaced of Taliban fighters flying in an Mi-17 earlier this month. But there are no signs yet that the Taliban are deploying the helicopters in combat operations.

An Afghan air force Mi-17 helicopter pilot prepares to depart Kabul International airport in November 2014
An Afghan air force Mi-17 helicopter pilot prepares to depart Kabul International airport in November 2014. Photograph: Us Air Force/Reuters

The US had shifted to providing Black Hawks to Afghanistan in recent years, in part because of restrictions on working with Russian weapons manufacturers and exporters of the Mi-17. But far fewer Afghan crews had been trained to maintain the aircraft. According to Sigar, the readiness of the Black Hawk fleet fell by half to just 39% in the period from April to June as aircraft maintenance contractors were pulled out.

For years the fleet of Mi-17s made up the backbone of the Afghan air force, working regularly to transport troops, deliver ammunition and evacuate casualties. The US began procuring Mi-17 helicopters in 2005, buying at least 50 from the Russian state exporter before plans to buy an addition 30 helicopters ran into opposition in Congress in 2013.

The Pentagon had pressed for the deal to go through. “They’ve been using it for years,” the then-defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, said in house testimony in April 2013, the Washington Post reported. “Easy maintenance, unsophisticated. We can get it pretty quickly. That’s the one they want.”

US armed forces personnel assist with security at an evacuation control checkpoint at Hamid Karzai international airport.

While Afghans had increasingly been able to take up maintenance of the comparatively simple aircraft, obtaining spare parts amid cool relations between Moscow and Washington had become a problem.

“As soon as the servicing personnel stop working, the equipment according to Russian standards becomes non-flying,” Mikheev said.

As the Taliban closed in on Kabul, dozens of Afghan pilots fled with their military aircraft across the border into Uzbekistan. A statement by the Uzbekistan government said that 46 Afghan aircraft, including 24 helicopters, had been forced to land in the central Asian country. Analysis of satellite photos of the aircraft shows that 19 appear to be Mi-17s and nine are Black Hawks.

Russia on Wednesday announced that it would begin evacuating as many as 500 of its citizens from Afghanistan on four transport planes. The country’s foreign ministry has said it will not close its embassy in the country and has held security consultations with Taliban officials since the fall of Kabul last week.(The Guardian)