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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Little Steps Turn into Big Strides for Afghan Cause

By Andrew Drwiega

A two-year commitment by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) to train Afghan helicopter pilots and aircrew concluded at the end of March 2010. Project Curium resulted in the training of 18 pilots and nine engineers/aircrew. A pin-prick in the world of global military training you might think, but one that can have an effect out of all proportion to its size.

Project Curium was managed by the United Kingdom’s Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), staffed by members of the Special Duties Squadron (SDS) and fully supported by over 25 engineers from the MoD’s Qinetiq (which provided the Release to Service of the Mi-17s and inclusion of the aircraft on the military register).

Positive initiatives such as this are not cheap, hence the reason the contract was limited to two years and it is being paid for by the UK taxpayer through a supplementary budget allocated to the Joint Helicopter Command, the organization responsible for organizing and managing the training. However, all involved from industry through UK military staff to the Afghans themselves agree it has been very effective.

The Afghan aircrew, who rejoin the Afghan National Army, not only return to their country trained to one of the highest standards available, but they also go back as unofficial International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ambassadors. Afghan pilots openly praised their positive experiences, not only of training, but in living and working alongside those military instructors who have already been to their country and are likely to return. Such positive reinforcement adds greatly to the strategic aim of encouraging the Afghans in the view that ISAF is a force for good.

Two of the pilots, known here as Karim and Saeed (full names not given to protect them and their families back home), told of coming to the UK with little, learning not only to fly but to speak English proficiently, and now had a burning intent to return home, serve their country and bring peace by defeating the terrorists. If this counts as buying positive affirmation—then it is worth it.

They were not selected out of any form of favoritism, and all had to pass the UK training team’s independent aptitude tests before they were allowed to begin the full training program.

While most were young and had not flown a helicopter before, a small number were older, Russian-trained men and had up to 4,000 hours experience—but they too had to re-qualify to UK flying standards before they could continue onto the course.

Two ex-Bulgarian Mi-17s (build during the 1980s) were purchased by the MoD specifically for this task and the British instructors had to be trained on them first. Specialist maintenance support had also to be sourced from Helisota in Lithuania, a company providing spares, overhaul and technical assistance on M-8s/Mi-17s.

They were equipped to allow basic flying within the UK up to the training requirement needs, but not qualified up to full Mi-17 manufacturer’s stated operating capability. These two aircraft are being handed over as a gift to the Government of Afghanistan.

The downside to all this is that having started something so worthwhile—acknowledged by not only by the UK training staff, but also wholeheartedly agreed to by the Afghan pilots who have had the opportunity of a lifetime by being taught by some of the UK’s best Qualified Helicopter Instructor (QHI) pilots—it has now run its course after such a relatively brief period.

Other ISAF members, most prominently the United States, have also been engaged in similar training courses to their own national standards and it is hoped that unlike the very valuable but limited British contribution, these will find the budget to continue.

Surely given the success of this, albeit specialist program, but nevertheless one that will have a direct and positive impact back in Afghanistan, the ISAF deep-thinkers would be better looking to evaluate its success and keep it going—rather than have it as a shooting star project that rises brightly then disappears?

With the ongoing cry for more helicopters and crewmen from European nations and the current premium ascribed to helicopter aircrew deployed to Afghanistan, it is these successes that should be encouraged and grown. Mindful of the need for continued large scale commitment of rotary resources in defeating the IED threat through air movement and resupply, together with an equal requirement to conduct active offensive (not reactive) operations against the insurgents, the sooner these well trained indigenous crews get into the front line, the more effective the National Afghan Army as a self-supporting force will become. And that’s the aim, isn’t it?

Read the full story in Rotor & Wing’s May 2010 issue.


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