Friday, 4 November 2022

One Year On: The Taliban Air Force


By Lukas Müller in collaboration with Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
 
This article summarises the development of the Islamic Emirate Air Force or the 'Taliban Air Force' as the service is popularly known as in the West, and attempts to answer oft-asked questions such as: 'Who are the Taliban's pilots?', 'What aircraft does the Taliban operate?' and 'How can they maintain these aircraft?' For an inventory assessment of the Islamic Emirate Air Force click here.
 
The year 2021 brought about a radical shift in Afghan history. Following the Doha agreement in which the U.S. promised to withdraw their forces in exchange for peace and dialogue between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the Taliban began a large offensive against the Afghan military. After several months of fighting, over the course of which many Afghan units fled or surrendered while some others put up a stiff yet futile resistance, on the 15th of August 2021 the victorious Taliban entered the capital of Kabul, abruptly finishing the existence of the Republic of Afghanistan. To the surprise of many, only days after these events, the Taliban were spotted flying ex-Afghan Air Force (AAF) aircraft, including U.S.-made UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. What might at first have been considered highly unlikely soon proved to be a reality: the Taliban not only started operating airplanes and helicopters that they had captured intact in the summer 2021, but even managed to repair some damaged or stored machines. Throughout 2022, the number of aircraft operated by the Taliban-created Islamic Emirate Air Force (IEAF, the official title of the service) even appears to have been slowly increasing.
 

A Mi-17V5 serial 733 flying over the city of Herat in August 2021. A small Taliban flag can be seen hanging out of the side door.

Perhaps the most important question many were asking was how the Taliban – a radical movement that had been employing mostly unsophisticated weapons – learned to fly their newly captured mounts. The answer was an easy one, though: as had happened in Afghanistan several times before, in the times of a regime change, part of the Afghan Air Force would simply side with the winning party, which this time happened to be the Taliban.
 

A Soviet-trained Afghan Air Force pilot along with Ahmad Shah Massoud’s mujahideen examining a Mi-25 helicopter at Bagram air base in 1992. As the government collapsed, the whole Bagram garrison sided with Massoud, providing the mujahideen with dozens of aircraft. 29 years later, history repeated itself when part of the AAF personnel sided with the Taliban.

An Air Force in Tatters?

In the months following the start of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Afghan Air Force began to deteriorate rapidly. Many of the much-needed foreign contractors who helped to keep the air force going began to leave as well, and it soon became evident that the diminished force that was now solely reliant on Afghan service personnel couldn't keep the previous pace of operations. Apparently, in the first months of 2021 the number of active aircraft already began to decrease and by June 2021, the fleet's operational readiness reportedly dropped to just 30% of its previous strength. [1]

However, to the yet-to-be-created 'Taliban Air Force', the decline of operational readiness of the Afghan Republic's aircraft arguably represented the development with the least serious consequences. Two other events that were to drastically reduce the size and operational capabilities of the IEAF right from the very first days of its existence were yet to come. As Taliban forces began entering Kabul and the last remnants of the Afghan National Army were falling apart, the Afghan Air Force pilots based at Allied-held Kabul International airport made their 'great escape', significantly reducing the number of aircraft present in the country. According to news reports, at least 46 aircraft managed to escape to Termez airport in Uzbekistan and a further eighteen reached Tajikistan. On board of these aircraft were over 500 pilots and other air force personnel while many other pilots and mechanics went into hiding inside the country or fled Afghanistan using land connections. Thus, the number of aircraft left in Afghanistan was reduced by more than 60 pieces and the number of pilots and mechanics decreased by hundreds.

The second blow came with a last-minute ravaging action of the withdrawing U.S. forces. A team of around 100 soldiers was tasked with locating all the remaining Afghan military aircraft at Kabul International airport and render them unusable. As the team wasn't allowed to use explosives, they were left to perform their task using sledgehammers and similar tools. Major Frank Kessler, the team's leader, later claimed in an interview that his men located 73 Afghan aircraft but didn't go into details of how many machines his team actually managed to render inoperable. Based on available photo and video material, it's certain however that this action managed to reduce the number of operational airframes by several dozen. [2]
 
Nonetheless, soon after their victory, Taliban officials claimed that they planned to re-establish the country's air force. [3] Technicians that remained in the country could be seen repairing damaged machines at Kabul airport already soon after the Allied troop withdrawal and those pilots who sided with the Taliban continued flying the few aircraft that remained operational. Taliban officials also proclaimed an amnesty for the former air force personnel and encouraged them to return to their bases. Although it was by now clear that the times of military aviation in Afghanistan weren't over and that some sort of an air force would certainly continue to be active over the country, the question remained of what size it would be and and for how long it could manage to keep its aircraft operational. 
 

A group of technicians working on one of three HAL Cheetal helicopters supplied by India at Kabul airport in November 2021. The fruits of their labour soon became apparent as five months later, they succeeded in returning one Cheetal to service.

A Short Historical Excurse

The new Taliban Air Force that emerged in August 2021 wasn't the first military aviation service that the movement inherited and decided to maintain. The Taliban began using Mi-8/17 transport helicopters very soon after the movement's emergence in Kandahar in 1994 and a year later it even started operating MiG-21s. As the civil war raged on and the Taliban captured more airports from their opponents (indeed, there were something like 8-10 separate air forces or small air arms in 1990s Afghanistan), they got their hands on diverse aircraft types such as Su-22 fighter-bombers, L-39 Albatros jet trainers, An-26 transport aircraft and Mi-24 gunships, eventually becoming the largest operator of aircraft of all Afghan civil war parties.

It's important to note that according to all available sources, the Taliban Air Force of the 1990s and early 2000s depended solely on Afghan personnel that had switched sides and joined the movement. All speculations about foreign mercenaries or volunteers flying for the Taliban have so far proved to be unsubstantiated rumours, although the presence of a small number of foreign pilots and technicians can't be completely ruled out. However, it is unclear why the Taliban would need the help of foreigners in the first place. The sizeable Afghan Air Force of the 1970s grew even larger after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with thousands of new pilots and mechanics manning hundreds of aircraft delivered from the Soviet Union in an attempt to create a strong and functional anti-insurgent force that would have given the communist government a sufficient leverage over the mujahideen. It's not surprising therefore that after the central government's fall in 1992, a relatively large pool of military specialists of all kinds, including pilots, mechanics and radar operators was readily available to the warring parties. The situation in today's Afghanistan seems to be similar: although many former service personnel emigrated abroad or went into hiding, there are still some who are willing to continue serving, no matter what government sits in the capital.
 
The Order of Battle of the Post-2021 Taliban Air Force
 
The U.S. Train Advise Assist Command–Air (TAAC–Air) reported that in December 2020 the Afghan Air Force possessed 167 aircraft, of which 136 were operational. The 'great escape' of Afghan pilots and their mounts and the damage caused by sledgehammer-toting U.S. forces considerably reduced the number of aircraft available to the new Afghan rulers. After a few months of settling in, the Taliban authorities created a commission tasked with inventorising the aircraft scattered over airports all over the country. According to a Taliban report published in January 2022, the Islamic Emirate Air Force possessed a total of 81 aircraft of which 41 were said to be operational. [4]

This freshly painted IEAF Antonov An-32 '350' is a true survivor: delivered from the Soviet Union to the Afghan communist government in the late 80s or early 90s, in 1992 it was captured by Massoud’s forces whose pilots flew it to Uzbekistan in 1996 to avoid capture by the Taliban. Uzbek authorities confiscated the aircraft and donated it to General Dostum, whose air force used it for the next five years. After the Allied invasion and the Taliban defeat in 2001, Dostum gave the machine to the newly established Afghan National Army Air Force and in August 2021 it was finally captured by the Taliban. Thus far, this An-32 has served in five different air forces.

What wasn't clear to the outside world was the degree to which the IEAF was capable of maintaining its machines. According to the TAAC-Air report, the capability of AAF crews to maintain aircraft varied considerably: the Afghans reportedly had zero capacity to independently maintain UH-60s and C-130s (contractors performed 100 percent of maintenance), moderate capacity to maintain A-29s and C-208s (Afghans performed some maintenance) and were independent for Mi-17 and Mi-171 which were planned to be phased out and fully replaced with UH-60s. The report didn't mention Mi-24 and other old Soviet types. Given this assessment, the actual ability of the IEAF crews to repair and maintain their aircraft has been rather surprising: according to various sources (mostly photo and video evidence combined with several media reports), during the period of August 2021 – August 2022 the number of individual IEAF airplanes and helicopters that were actually seen flying certainly wasn't going down. On the contrary, the IEAF's technicians not only succeeded in repairing some of the aircraft that had been damaged by the American troops in Kabul but also brought back to service several old Soviet-made machines that had been in a long-time storage and hadn't been flown in years. In June 2022, the spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defence claimed that the IEAF had over 50 aircraft available. [5] According to a DOI report, however, Afghan mechanics have to cannibalise inoperational airframes to keep the rest of the fleet operational.  
 

A group of Taliban soldiers board a Mi-17 helicopter. The Mi-8MTV/Mi-17/Mi-17V5s have been the workhorses of the IEAF, operating from bases all over the country.

What's still unclear is the number of IEAF personnel, especially pilots. While some of them never left the service and continued flying immediately after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, many others fled the country or went into hiding, returning only gradually. While a Taliban commander claimed that at least 4300 former AAF service personnel, including 33 pilots, joined the IEAF under the Taliban's offer of amnesty, total numbers including those who never left the country are unknown.
 

A former AAF pilot who is now flying for the Taliban.

Over the first year of the IEAF existence, there have been three verified crashes: in January 2022, an MD-530 pilot crashed his helicopter into water near the city of Kandahar, in June a transport helicopter (probably a Mi-8MTV-1 or Mi-17V5) went down in the province of Jowzjan and in September one UH-60 crashed during a training flight near Kabul. [6] [7] While the MD-530F crash was most probably caused by pilot error, the MoD claimed technical issues as the cause of the two other crashes. In addition to these accidents, one Mi-8MTV-1 was damaged by small arms fire from the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front and forced to make an emergency landing in the Panjshir province. [8]
 

Although the Taliban proudly claimed that they have succeeded in repairing one C-130H Hercules, there is no photo or video evidence verifying that the airplane is actually airworthy. As this picture shows, it at least serves serves the role as a training or ceremonial tool on the ground.

Taliban officials' claims about the number of operational aircraft should be taken with a grain of salt however. The Taliban almost certainly counts some machines as 'operational' or 'airworthy' even if in reality these aren't actually flown. Especially the case of Mazar-e Sharif-based A-29 Super Tucanos raises questions. As far as is known, local pilots who intended to escape in August 2021 did so literally in the last moments before the Taliban arrived at the base's gates and failed to sabotage the resident aircraft, which apparently survived these dramatic events unscathed. However, A-29s that have been left at Mazar base haven't been seen in the air at all. The reason might be that the IEAF – which is known to be keen on showing its air assets in front of television cameras and which certainly wouldn’t hesitate to feature 'hot' A-29s if they could manage it – simply has no pilots qualified for this type. 
 

Two A-29s attack aircraft based at Mazar-e Sharif airport, November 2021. Though believed to be undamaged, these aircraft do not appear to have flown since the Taliban takeover.

Since the Taliban victory, several of the movement's officials have demanded the return of the aircraft that escaped to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Unsurprisingly, these requests proved to be in vain; instead, it seems likely that the two countries will include these aircraft into their own air forces at some point in the future. [9] [10] Similarly, those Mi-17V5s that were still on U.S. soil when the Taliban entered Kabul weren't returned to Afghanistan. After some negotiations, the U.S. have donated the machines to the Ukrainian Air Force as a part of the huge packages of military aid that the Americans have been providing to war-torn Ukraine. [11]
 

Maulvi Amanuddin Mansoor, the Commander-in-Chief of the IEAF. He is a son of Akhtar Muhammad Mansour who served as the commander of the 'first' Taliban Air Force in the period of 1995-2001.

Already before their victory in 2021, a Taliban special unit operated a number of militarised civilian drones that proved effective anti-personnel weapons. [12] As the Afghan Republic collapsed, the Taliban captured an unknown number of U.S.-made Boeing Insitu Scan Eagle 2 reconnaissance UAVs that had been used by the Afghan Army. According to a video published online in May 2022, the Taliban's 217 Omari Corps in Kunduz actually managed to get at least one ScanEagle 2 back into the air. [13] However, the efficiency and intensity at which the Taliban operates its captured ScanEagle 2s remains unknown. 
 

An ex-Afghan Army Scan Eagle photographed in Kunduz in May 2022.

While the Islamic Emirate Air Force operates a number of aircraft and helicopters, the country lacks any meaningful air defence capabilities. As the probability of aerial threats remained low over the past 20 years, restoration of the Afghan Republic's air defence had been given the lowest priority and the Allied countries that were involved in rebuilding the nation's military focused their resources primarily on building anti-insurgency capabilities. The only anti-aircraft weapons currently in use in Afghanistan are the ubiquitous 12.7mm DShK, 23mm ZU-23-2 and 14.5mm ZPU-1/2 and smaller numbers of 37mm M-1939s (61-K) and 57mm AZP S-60s.  
 

23mm ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns mounted on M1152 HMMWVs. The ZU-23 is primarily employed in the direct fire role in Afghanistan.

An old 37mm M-1939 (61-K) anti-aircraft gun preserved at the grounds of the Gardez garrison.

A Year of Constant Activity
 
Although the overall activity of the IEAF obviously is much less intense than what the AAF was capable of performing, the IEAF has been far from idle: available evidence suggests that Taliban's aircraft and helicopters have been routinely used for transporting military personnel and cargo, have taken part in a number of exercises and military parades and have seen at least limited action in surpressing anti-Taliban forces in northern provinces. 
 
Especially in the first weeks after their victory, the Taliban were busy collecting damaged airframes with the intention of using them as sources of spare parts for machines that were in a better state. For example, in September 2021 at least one damaged MD-530 and one UH-60 were transferred from Ghazni by road to Kandahar and several other helicopters that had been heavily damaged by the Taliban upon their capture (one of only a few known such cases were reported; Taliban fighters normally seemed to be disciplined enough not to touch captured machines) were moved from the Panjshir valley to Kabul.
 

One of the Kabul-based Black Hawks used in training of members of General Command of Police Special Units.

One of four IEAF Mi-24s that made a flypast during a huge military parade held at Bagram air base in August 2022. This former Indian Air Force helicopter had been supplied to Afghanistan in 2016.

Throughout 2022, the IEAF has deployed in disaster relief operations on numerous occasions. As large areas of Afghanistan have been hit with either floods or earthquakes, Afghan Mi-8MTV-1s, Mi-17V5s and UH-60s rescued stranded people and flew in relief supplies. [14] The fact that the IEAF even uses UH-60s for missions of this kind suggests that the type's maintenance apparently isn't considered a problem – or that the people in charge simply hope that the inevitable accident will occur at some later date. Available evidence suggests that the most intensive flying activity has been conducted at Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif and Kandahar airports. The situation at Shindand and Bagram air bases and Herat airport currently remains unknown.
 

A group of IEAF pilots and Taliban leaders at Kabul airport in August 2022. A Cessna C-208B/AC-208 can be seen in the background.

Camouflage and Markings
 
All but a few aircraft of the Islamic Emirate Air Force retained their pre-2021 Afghan Air Force camouflage patterns, the only exception being three An-32 and a single An-26 transport aircraft that have been repainted at Kabul airport while being overhauled in the summer of 2022. All of the IEAF's aircraft also continue to carry the serial numbers applied when still serving with the Afghan Republic's Air Force.

The front section of an An-26 that was recently brought back into service and completely repainted.

The Taliban somewhat altered the country's national insignia: while some aircraft still carry the traditional triangle that had been introduced as early as in the 1960s, other machines serving in the IEAF carry the Taliban emblem or the white Taliban flag (now the official flag of Afghanistan). 
 

A Kabul-based UH-60A+ Black Hawks carrying both the old triangle insignia and the Taliban flag.

A UH-60 with the Taliban emblem serving as a national insignia.

Conclusion
 
In August 2021 the Taliban inherited a functioning, albeit severely degraded air arm along with its pilots, technicians, logistical support and facilities. Personnel of the U.S.-equipped and funded Afghan Air Force that were willing to continue serving their country under Taliban rule have been able to do so in a largely peaceful environment. Contrary to popular expectation, the operational inventory of the IEAF only appears to be growing, though uncertainty regarding its safety and longer-term resilience to wear and losses remains. Although the IEAF is certainly no match for the air power of its neighbouring countries, it will likely continue to serve as a useful tool for the transportation of cargo, troops and officials around the country, and also as a valuable asset in fighting the ongoing (though limited) anti-Taliban insurgency.
 

[1] 25% of Afghan Air Force Fled, Remainder in Disarray, Sources Say https://www.airforcemag.com/afghan-air-force-fled-remainder-in-disarray-sources-say/
[2] Special Report: Pilots detail chaotic collapse of the Afghan Air Force https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/pilots-detail-chaotic-collapse-afghan-air-force-2021-12-29/
[4] Officials: 81 Military Aircraft of Ex-Govt Remain, 41 Operational https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-176177
[5] MoD Repairs Two Military Aircraft https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-178417 
[6] Taliban helicopter crashed in Kandahar province Afghanistan سقوط یک هلیکوپتر طالبان در ولایت کندهار https://youtu.be/z8XMd3UDFB4
[7] Black Hawk Helicopter Crashes During Taliban Training Exercise, Killing 3 https://www.voanews.com/a/black-hawk-helicopter-crashes-during-taliban-training-exercise-killing-3/6739460.html
[9] Taliban Demand Uzbekistan, Tajikistan Return Dozens of Afghan Aircraft https://www.voanews.com/a/taliban-demand-uzbekistan-tajikistan-return-dozens-of-afghan-aircraft/6392629.html
[10] U.S. may let Tajikistan hold on to fleeing Afghan aircraft https://www.reuters.com/world/us-may-let-tajikistan-hold-fleeing-afghan-aircraft-2022-06-20/
[11] Transfer of US-Procured Afghan Helicopters to Ukraine Underway https://www.voanews.com/a/transfer-of-us-procured-afghan-helicopters-to-ukraine-underway-/6556878.html
[12] The Drone Unit that Helped the Taliban Win the War https://newlinesmag.com/reportage/the-drone-unit-that-helped-the-taliban-win-the-war/
[13] Scan Eagle servilance dron tested by Afghan Taliban (IEA) in kundoz province https://youtu.be/HsvEQMCYndo