The Afghans, Their Lousy Planes and Why It Matters

A long-running saga of waste and incompetence in Afghanistan has about ended and the numbers are in.  It turns out a fiasco involving 20 cargo planes the US bought for the Afghan air force is going to cost us almost $500 million.
The program to procure the planes cost $489 million and we just sold 16 of the 20 aircraft to a local scrap merchant in Kabul for $32,000.  That’s for all 16 of the planes, not each one.  That’s the total return on our investment.  (The remaining four aircraft are reportedly at a US base in Germany).
So we have effectively turned $489 million in brand new dollar bills into a well-equipped Honda Accord.

_DSC7577PSsmallC-27As sitting idle after being mothballed at Kabul airport, Spring 2013.

To put this in perspective, here what $32,000 will buy you in Afghanistan:
– Six and a half new classrooms (at $5,000 each).
– A complete new school (if the Afghans pay for it).
– Half a new school (if the US pays for it).
– Feeding and housing one US soldier in Afghanistan for 11 days (keeping a US soldier costs $1 million a year).
– Paying one Afghan army soldier for 142 months (at $225 per month).
– 640 sacks of wheat (at $50 per sack)
So if that’s what $32,000 buys, it gives you an idea what wasting $600 million is like.  It’s a heck of a lot of money if spent wisely, and not much money at all if spent stupidly.     And this saga has broader lessons for Afghanistan’s future.
The idea with the planes was that the Afghans have a poor road system.  They need to move men and material around the battlefield, which is effectively the border areas to the east, the south and now the north.  Enter the new cargo planes.
We found the Afghans one of the few planes in the world that was almost totally unsuitable.  The Alenia Aermacchi G222, rebadged as the C-27A, is an Italian plane that hardly any other air force flies, anywhere.  That’s because it’s a dog.  Which makes it hard to find parts, harder to find expertise to install the parts, and makes the Afghans guinea pigs in whether anyone can make the plane work at all.
Turns out the Afghans can’t.  Nor can the very costly US corporation tasked with maintaining and running the planes.
The US Department of Defense offered a half-hearted explanation. It told ABC News: “aircraft and contract performance limitations occurred, making it increasingly difficult to keep any of the aircraft operational.”  It added that parts were hard to find, “resulting in significant supply chain challenges that became difficult to overcome.”  Limitations equals failure.
Now the US has bought four C-130 Lockheed Hercules planes for the Afghans. Lockheed has been making them since the 1960s and they are used throughout the world.  Of course it’ll take tens of millions more dollars to get that up and running.
In the meantime the US is pulling out of Afghanistan and the Afghans are largely on their own.  The C-130s are slowly being put into service.  Remember, the planes were ordered in the first place because the Afghans need them.
This sad story is not an isolated one.
The Afghans also need a close air support plane.  The US Air Force has selected the A-29 Super Tucano.  At least this plane is used by a number of air forces and isn’t a dog.
But will it be serviceable?  Looking at another aircraft purchase, the US special inspector general for Afghanistan said that the Afghans will likely not know how to fly nor maintain the planes.  It issued a report in June 2013 report titled, “Afghan Special Mission Wing: DOD Moving Forward with $771.8 Million Purchase of Aircraft that the Afghans Cannot Operate and Maintain.”  So the A-29s will be a fun project to follow too.
Why is this surprising? A month ago, in November 2014, the same inspector general issued a report noting the US military has misplaced $420 million worth of equipment over there. That’s about 15,600 items.
In the grand scheme of things, this probably isn’t that big a deal. The US is expected to remove 600 million pounds of equipment and 8,000 containers from the country in 2014.  So 15,600 items is chump change.
No, the grand scheme could be much, much worse.  And it is.  According to the Commission on Wartime Contracting, waste and fraud might amount to somewhere between $31 billion and $60 billion for both Iraq and Afghanistan. (This figure lumps in aid to the security forces as well as new roads, wells and schools).  Astounding.
Even worse, the real cost of this waste and inefficiency isn’t just the money.  Dollars are dollars are dollars.  The human cost is much higher.
In one district in Helmand Province where police struggle to keep control, the district police chief recently decided to cut back.  He doesn’t have enough hand grenades to go around for all his combat outposts, where attacks by 20 insurgents are not uncommon.  So each outpost, he decided, could make do with three hand grenades.  That’s all he had to hand out.
This year the Afghan army lost men at an “unsustainable” rate, according to US commanders.  Over 4,600 Afghan soldiers and policemen died this year alone (roughly what we lost in Iraq in nine years; in Afghanistan about 2,200 Americans have died since 2001).  The Afghans cannot bleed this much for years to come.
So stupidity isn’t just about wasting money. It saps resources that soldiers need to survive.  It costs the lives of men who are fighting a war that’s already plenty tough to win.

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