Afghan air force airmen perform preventive maintenance on Mi-17 helicopters, Dec 1, 2014, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Afghan air force airmen perform preventive maintenance on Mi-17 helicopters, Dec 1, 2014, in Kabul, Afghanistan. U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Perry Aston

Declassified Report Details Afghan Air Force Reliance on Contractors

Watchdog warned that without help, the Afghan Air Force would collapse.

A newly declassified report that warned the Afghan Air Force would collapse without U.S. support underscores the military’s reliance on contractors to operate and maintain sophisticated weapons.

The year-old report was released Tuesday amid multiple government investigations of the Biden administration’s withdrawal of all U.S. troops and thousands of Afghans from Afghanistan.

“[T]he potential absence of both military advisors and contractors before the [Afghan Air Force] and [Special Mission Wing] are able to staff, manage, fund, or maintain their forces puts at risk the entire U.S. investment in the Afghan air forces,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, wrote in the January 2021 report.

The Afghan Air Force flew a dozen different types of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Contractors played a large role in routine maintenance and heavy maintenance.

“Contractors continue to fill important roles in the development and sustainment of the AAF and SMW as U.S. and coalition forces withdrawal [sic] from Afghanistan,” the report states. “Contractors provide mentoring and training in a variety of areas, including aerial resupply, air-to-ground integration, aircrew training, command and control, personnel management, logistics, communications, budgeting, training and force development, intelligence, and engineering. Additionally, contractors provide English language training, as well as pilot and maintainer training and instruction.”

The U.S. military itself relies heavily on contractors for maintenance of its weapons, both stateside and overseas. The Afghan Air Force became even more reliant on contractor maintenance after U.S. lawmakers pushed the Pentagon to supply Afghanistan with UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters instead of easier-to-maintain Russian-made M-17s. As of September 2019, contractors did all Black Hawk maintenance, despite 152 Afghans being assigned to UH-60 helicopter maintenance crews.

The newly declassified report also talks about challenges contractors were having well before the U.S. withdrawal. In 2019, contractors lost access to Shindand Air Base in western Afghanistan because of a rule prohibiting contractors from working  at bases not controlled by U.S. or coalition forces, the report states.

“DOD’s reliance on contractors poses operational challenges and risks, as well as the potential for waste due to the challenging oversight environment,” the report states. “Further, the potential withdrawal of contractors from Afghanistan, in addition to U.S. and coalition forces, may leave the AAF and SMW without the necessary support to sustain and develop the Afghan air forces, if alternative sources are not identified.”

The Afghan Air Force collapsed in August 2021. As the Taliban made its push into Kabul, hundreds of Afghan Air Force personnel flew dozens of aircraft into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.  Some of those aircraft have been returned to the United States.