KABUL — A U.S. government watchdog is questioning the Defense Department’s decision to equip the Afghan air force with C-130 aircraft, saying the Afghans may be unable to use them.
In a letter to military leaders and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko said his investigators had found little evidence that all the cargo aircraft the U.S. plans to provide the Afghans may be needed.
Sopko says the U.S. could save millions of dollars by evaluating whether the Afghans really need the aircraft before they are actually delivered.
“I suggest that, pending a review of the AAF’s medium airlift requirements and its ability to fully utilize the C-130s currently in the inventory, DOD delay delivery of additional C-130s,” he wrote. “If DOD’s review indicates additional C-130s are unnecessary, DOD should not provide them. Even the elimination of one C-130 could save up to $40.5 million through 2017.”
Sopko said that during his visit to Afghanistan in June, he was told that there were problems with training, spare parts, maintenance and other support for the two Lockheed C-130s currently in the Afghan air force inventory. Similar concerns about maintenance and training led Sopko to urge military officials last year not to buy more Russian-made Mil helicopters for the Afghan Special Mission Wing.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, which includes the Air Training Command-Afghanistan, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The C-130 was picked as a successor to the failed C-27 program, which was scrapped last year after maintenance problems grounded the aircraft. Two C-130H transports arrived in Kabul in October last year. At least two more are scheduled to be delivered by the end of 2014.
But Sopko said the two aircraft already being operated aren’t being fully used and are largely hauling passengers and cargo that could be moved with other, existing aircraft.
The nascent Afghan Air Force has been using Russian-made Mil Mi-17 helicopters to transport 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 better established airfields.
NATO training officials have said that C-130 parts will be easy to find because the aircraft is used around the world, but critics point out that the C-130s are more complex and therefore more expensive to maintain and operate than the C-27As. The C-27As proved more than a match for the Afghans.