KABUL — After nearly a year of relying on helicopters for the bulk of its air cargo transportation, the Afghan Air Force will receive its first C-130H Hercules transports early next month.
The U.S. Air Force is slated to give the Afghans four C-130H aircraft. Two of those aircraft will be delivered on Oct. 10, the NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan announced on Wednesday.
The U.S. military scrapped the Afghan air force’s entire fleet of 16 Italian-made C-27A cargo planes last year after maintenance problems grounded the aircraft.
The U.S. spent nearly $600 million on the C-27A program, but the contractor was unable to maintain the planes. Many of the Italian-made twin-turboprop C-27As now sit unused at the airfield in Kabul. The C-27As replaced a fleet of Antonov An-32 tactical transports the Afghans had successfully used.
The U.S. has promised to deliver at least four of the larger, four-engine C-130 aircraft. The next two aircraft are scheduled to be delivered in 2014, according to NATO officials.
In the meantime, the nascent Afghan Air Force has been using Russian-made Mil Mi-17 helicopters to haul most of the supplies, soldiers and wounded to and from the bases scattered around the country. Smaller, fixed-wing Cessna C-208 turboprop aircraft also chip in by flying to more established airfields.
Due to Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and poor road networks, a strong fleet of tactical transports — both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft — is seen as crucial in keeping isolated military outposts supplied without the danger of Taliban ambushes.
Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi said C-130s have played a vital role in supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the Afghans are looking forward to fielding aircraft of their own.
“It is very important for the Afghan national security forces to have C-130s because right now the American forces are using the C-130s so effectively,” he said.
Aircrews for the C-130s have been training in the U.S. since this spring. But the complexity of the new transport and the large crew size of five people per aircraft needed mean it will take about two and a half years before Afghans fly the C-130s completely on their own, NATO officials said.
NATO training officials say C-130 parts will be easy to find because the aircraft is used around the world, but critics have pointed out that the C-130s are more complex, and therefore more expensive to maintain and operate than the C-27As — which proved more than a match for the Afghans. For example, a C-130 costs four times more to operate than an AN-32, according to Afghan military officials.
As international air forces have reduced their support for Afghan army and police units, the Afghan Air Force has been forced to scramble to keep up. The air force is on track to fly more than double the number of casualty evacuation missions this year compared to 2012, with 933 flown as of mid-September.
International advisers remain heavily involved in the Afghan Air Force. All-Afghan aircrews are flying more and more operational missions, but the whole force is not expected to be fully independent for several years after NATO combat troops depart at the end of 2014.
Three brand-new Mi-17 helicopters were delivered to Kabul earlier in September, and 20 propeller-driven A-29 Super Tucanos are supposed to be delivered by the U.S. Air Force later in 2014, and become fully operational by 2018. The Tucanos will be used as ground attack aircraft to replace the small and aging fleet of Mi-35 helicopter gunships currently used by the Afghans.