MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — Silhouetted against the towering Marmal mountains outside this northern city, a camouflage helicopter bristling with weaponry swooped low over the brown plains Thursday, representing a new phase in Germany’s military mission in Afghanistan.
The delivery of four Tiger helicopters to Afghanistan represents the first attack helicopter deployment in the history of the German army and has been a long time in the making, with pilots training for nearly two years for the mission amid delays and political wrangling.
The Tiger, produced by Eurocopter, can carry both air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, is equipped with a 30 mm turreted gun and reconnaissance capabilities. The $40 million aircraft is also used by the French, Australian and Spanish militaries.
There have been safety concerns surrounding the Tiger, with Australian pilots briefly refusing to fly the aircraft after several incidents of fumes in the cockpit, according to Australian news reports.
Army Lt. Col. Carsten, who by German military custom would only be quoted by first name, is one of the first German pilots to deploy with the Tigers and took part in the choppers’ maiden voyage in Afghanistan on Wednesday. He said he is eager to start flying combat missions, which are expected to start in February.
“We are very pleased by its sensors, its system and its agility,” he said.
Ground forces in northern Afghanistan have relied largely on American Apache helicopters for close air support and those choppers will continue to fly missions in the region, though the Tigers should lessen their workload, said Maj. Eric Hanes, executive officer for Task Force Ready, which oversees helicopter operations out of Mazar-i-Sharif.
“It’s definitely going to reduce the need for our Apaches,” he said. “The key is just integrating them.”
The presence of the Tigers may also boost the pride of German forces, said German army Col. Ulrich Ott, commander of Air Wing Mazar-i-Sharif, which oversees the Tigers.
“It’s quite an important emotional feeling that there are German helicopters protecting them on the mission,” he said.
Ott says he looks forward to working with the Apache pilots and leaning on their lengthy combat experience, which has spanned two wars over the past 11 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We hope to have a close cooperation with them, and I think we can learn a lot,” he said.
While the north has escaped much of the violence of Afghanistan’s southern and eastern provinces, it includes the main north-south artery between Kabul and the Uzbekistan and Tajikistan borders, which are key to both NATO supply convoys and Afghan commerce. Protecting the road is a main focus of forces in the north.