MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. --
The commanding general in charge of reconstructing the Afghan National Army Air Corps credited Johnny Howard, a civilian avionics technician with the Fleet Readiness Center East at Cherry Point, as instrumental in the monumental task of creating a viable air force for the Afghan military.
“Mr. Howard helped guide the Afghan team to successfully award an open and competitive contract for the purchase of four Mi-17 helicopters,” said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael R. Boera, of the Combined Air Power Transition Force in Kabul, Afghanistan, in a letter of appreciation to Howard. “This complex contract, usually requiring 12-18 months to execute, was streamlined with requirement identification to delivery of the first two helicopters taking an unprecedented 65 days.”
Howard was sent to Afghanistan to serve as the lead electrical engineer for Program Manager Air 207 from July through September 2009. He explained his responsibilities included inspecting the newly acquired aircraft to ensure they were fit for flight.
“Those aircraft are critical,” Howard said. “They are rugged and fit for the terrain, and they use them all the time.”
The use of Russian-made aircraft in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, a largely American project, has recently come under fire from politicians on Capitol Hill who feel it would be more appropriate if American technology were utilized, according to a June 19 report in the Washington Post.
But as the report states, only one pilot from the Afghan National Army Air Corps has graduated from U.S. flight school to date, whereas many Afghan veteran pilots learned to fly the Russian helicopters during years of Soviet and Taliban dominance.
“There’s been some controversy with the Mi-17s,” Howard said. “But they’re the right fit. The Afghans are used to flying them and they were built for the terrain.”
Ironically, in the height of the Cold War, when the U.S. famously equipped Afghanistan with weaponry to repel their Soviet invaders, Afghans used American-supplied Stinger missiles to destroy the Mi-17 helicopters the Soviets had developed specifically for the war.
Afghanistan has become known as the graveyard of empires – the Soviets failed there, explained David N. Gibbs, a professor of history and government at the University of Arizona who has written extensively about Afghanistan. The current use of an aircraft the Soviets developed, which in the end failed, serves as a reminder for U.S. forces of their possible failure through exhaustion and withdrawal.
“It is irrelevant where the helicopters come from,” Gibbs said. “It only matters how well they function in their mission.”
Gen. David H. Petraeus said in a July 4 speech to Afghan leadership in Kabul, “We must help Afghan leaders develop their security forces and governance capacity so that they can, over time, take on the tasks of securing their country and see to the needs of their people.”
Petraeus is the newly appointed commander of the International Security Assistance Force/United States Forces – Afghanistan.
Training and equipping Afghan military forces is one of the key elements of American strategy in Afghanistan. Many experts consider it crucial to provide that military force with the right equipment for the mission and region, rather than potentially succumb to political pressures to use American-made hardware.
“Historically, you can pretty much tell who’s funding a project by the vehicles being used,” said Thomas Barfield, the president of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies. “This is one case where some common sense is being shown.”
“The one thing Afghanistan really lacks is skilled maintenance,” said Barfield.
Howard described the Mi-17s as rugged and durable and the Afghans as crafty at improvising repairs for the aircraft.
“They are probably very familiar with the equipment,” Gibbs said. “They need something they don’t need to work to maintain on a regular basis.”
Howard said he was hopeful the efforts of American troops and civilians would not fall on deaf ears with the Afghans.
“From working with our guys, I think they can visualize the high standard they need to achieve,” Howard said.
Boera seemed to think Howard was a pivotal puzzle piece in a reconstruction effort shrouded in intricacy and controversy.
“His direct involvement in making this helicopter purchase a reality has set the benchmark for all future purchases we plan to make on behalf of the Air Corps over the next few years,” Boera said.