Parked at a military runway in Afghanistan near other aircraft used in the fight against the Taliban, the grey-green helicopter appears unremarkable at first blush.
A second look at the UH-60 Black Hawk reveals a vital distinction: the US Army’s insignia has vanished, replaced by the triangular logo of the Afghan security forces.
The fully refurbished chopper arrived here at Kandahar Airfield last month, the first of 159 the United States plans to give the Afghans to help turn the war in their favor.
“What you have here is a tried and true capability,” US Air Force Colonel Armando Fiterre told reporters on a recent visit to the Kandahar air base in southern Afghanistan.
With the Afghanistan war turning 16 this month, the United States is looking to flip what officials have been calling a “stalemate” with the Taliban into a winning strategy that will force the insurgents to the negotiating table.
US President Donald Trump has ordered the deployment of more than 3,000 additional troops, on top of the 11,000 already there, to train and advise Afghan security forces.
And Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has overseen a loosening of restrictions on when the US military can attack insurgents.
But key to any durable gain is the ability of the Afghan security forces to lead the fight, instead of relying on guidance from the US and NATO, and a big part of that is a US-funded, seven-year modernization of their air force.
Replacing Russian helicopters
The plan to modernize the Afghan air force will provide vital firepower and mobility to the Afghans, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews told AFP.
These are “significant offensive factors” enabling the Afghans to “break the stalemate with insurgents.”
In the past, Aghan security forces have relied on the coalition for air support.
“While the coalition is still present, (the Afghans) can also rely on their own countrymen overhead,” Andrews added.
Under the program, the Afghans will phase out their 45 or so Russian Mi-17 helicopters and replace these with Black Hawks, a US military workhorse first produced in the 1970s.
The US says parts for the Russian choppers are hard to source, and US politicians want American aircraft to be used.
The helicopter Fiterre showed off is a training vehicle, but the Afghan Black Hawks eventually will include 58 of the attack variants that can be fitted with rocket pods and machine guns.
Others will be used to ferry troops, cargo and aid.
This “becomes a sustainable capability to increase the Afghan government’s forward presence in a lot of these isolated locations,” Fiterre said.
Between now and 2024, the Afghan Air Force will more than double their fleet of aircraft.
Some of this buildup could be seen at Kandahar, with a couple of US-provided Super Tucano attack planes taking off for combat missions in the Taliban heartland only 30-minutes away.
Over the past year, the Afghan air force has increasingly taken on combat missions to provide air support to ground troops and conduct surveillance.
But fighting an insurgency where the Taliban operate from civilian areas comes at a high cost.
On October 1, an “erroneous” Afghan air strike killed 10 security forces in volatile Helmand.
The number of civilians killed and wounded was at a record high in the first nine months of 2017, a new UN report shows, made worse by the Afghan air force carrying out its own air strikes along with US forces.
The UN mission report documented 466 civilian casualties — 205 deaths and 261 injured — a significant increase in air strike casualties compared to the same period a year ago.
The report found 62 percent of these casualties stemmed from Afghan air strikes, and most of the casualties were women and children.
US Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie insisted the Afghans’ performance “was only going to improve” as additional US trainers and advisors flow into Afghanistan under Trump’s plan.
“It’s not going to be easy, because that’s a tough place to operate aircraft… but I think we are on a positive trajectory,” he said.
Last week, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hailed the Trump-era loosening of rules that make it easier for US air power to proactively target the Taliban, but insisted standards to protect civilians had not been diminished.
“We will never fight at any time, especially in these wars among innocent people, without doing everything humanly possible to protect the innocent that the enemy purposely jeopardizes,” he told senators.
Afghan pilots who will fly a Black Hawk will undergo a six-week pilot training program, followed by another 10 weeks of mission training, meaning they will start conducting operations next year.