Warplanes: Little Bird Flocks To Afghanistan

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September 30, 2017: In mid-2017 the United States decided to pay for a major expansion of the Afghan Air Force and that led, in September, to an order for 150 MD-530F armed helicopters for about $9.25 million each. This includes delivery, pilot and maintainer training, maintenance equipment, spare parts and tech support. This is part of another program to equip the Afghan Air Force with all non-Russian aircraft. This was made necessary because of the 2014 Ukraine related sanctions on Russia. These sanctions made it difficult to keep the Afghan Air Force Russian helicopters operational. By early 2017 two of the four Russian made Mi-35 helicopter gunships are grounded because of this and there are problems getting technical support for the 26 Mi-17 transport helicopters as well. The solution for this problem was to replace the Russian made helicopters with American helicopters, mainly UH-60s and MD-530Fs. Some Afghan Mi-17 pilots have already received training for this and report that the “conversion training” is not a problem and for experienced pilots is quite easy.

The Afghan Air Force expects to be receiving at least 18 UH-60s by the end of 2018. The U.S. had already supplied twenty MD-530F helicopters armed with machine-guns, missiles and rockets and at first the U.S. agreed to supply 30 more. These MD-530F “gunships” were found to be easier to operate and maintain than the Mi-35s and cheaper as well. Since UH-60s can also be armed that will be the solution to the grounded Mi-35 problem and the shortage of helicopter gunships.

The Afghan Air Force had been planning to increase its helicopter force from 71 now to 214 by 2024 and replace all the Russian helicopters with American ones in the process. With the new order for MD-530Fs the size of the Afghan helicopter force will get faster sooner because the 150 new MD-530Fs will all arrive by 2022.

In August 2016 the Afghan Air Force received the last four of 27 MD-530Fs that were already on order. 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 (to handle weapons) earlier in 2016. 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. MD-530s can also be equipped with 70mm air-to-ground missile. These APKWS II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) have been used, successfully, on MH-530s. The APKWS is the same size as the 70mm unguided rocket and require a modification to the 70mm rocket launcher and the addition of laser aiming equipment. Afghans are already using this system in fixed wing recon aircraft.

The MD-530F can also carry three passengers in the back. So far the Afghans have lost two MD-530Fs; one to a bad landing and the other one that landed on a landmine. 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. The SOCOM version showed up 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 so far 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.

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 first MD-530Fs were 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 MD-530s 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. Moreover American special operations troops had been using a version of MD-530 in Afghanistan for over a decade before the Afghans got theirs and managed to adapt. This experience was passed on to the new Afghan operators.

Most Afghan air force personnel who operate and maintain the MD-530s are satisfied with the performance of this helicopter. The ground troops 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. Because of their short range MD-530s are meant for local support and American troops had learned since 2002 where this model of helicopter could, and could not operate in Afghanistan.

 


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