Warplanes: Afghanistan Adopts Little Bird

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September 18, 2016: In August the Afghan Air Force received the last four of 27 MD-530F armed helicopters. The first six arrived in 2011 followed by twelve armed ones in 2015 that had a fire control system that was difficult to use with the two 12.7mm machine-guns on the helicopters. A new fire control system was installed on later MD-530Fs and is being added to the earlier models as well as the unarmed models that were upgraded earlier in 2016 to handle weapons. The new fire control system made it possible to effectively used two rocket pods each with a seven 70mm rockets each, instead of the two 12.7 machine-guns or one of each. The MD-530F can also carry three passengers in the back. Two MD-530Fs have been lost, one to a bad landing and the other one that landed on a landmine.

Early on some Afghan Air Force officers complained that the MD-530F did not have a powerful enough engine for flying over the mountains surrounding Kabul, where the MD-530Fs are based. That may make a great headline for foreign journalists but the low cost and simplicity of the MD-530 was the main reason the United States bought then for the Afghans. The Americans had learned, by trial and error, that more powerful, complex and expensive aircraft cannot be effectively operated or maintained by the Afghans. What some Afghan officers would like is the sort of helicopters used by the American commandos. But these aircraft use systems Afghanistan does not have the people, or cash, to maintain or operate.

Most Afghan air force personnel who operate and maintain the MD-530s are satisfied. The ground troops the MD-530s are called on to help are satisfied as well. Most MD-530s fly several sorties a day doing reconnaissance (especially along convoy routes to spot ambushes) and to provide ground support for troops who need some help fast.

The MD-530 is the civilian version of the U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) MH-6. Used for scouting and commando operations the MH-6 (and the similar AH-6) were developed from the 1960s era OH-6 light reconnaissance helicopter. Developed in the early 1980s, the MH/AH-6, or "Little Bird" is a 1.6 ton helicopter with a crew of two and a top speed of 280 kilometers an hour. Sortie length can be as long as three hours but more often are one or two hours. Nearly 5,000 MD-500 type helicopters have been built and they are particularly popular with police and military users.

The MH/AH-6 was designed so it could be armed with two 7.62mm or 12.7mm machine-gun pods, or two 70mm rocket pods (seven or 12 rockets each) or four Hellfire missiles. The current MH-6 model is often equipped with a day/night targeting system, including a laser designator and laser guided missiles. Without weapons, the MH-6 can carry six troops (usually Special Forces operators) externally.

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