Army logistics units in Afghanistan are spending millions of dollars contracting heavy lift helicopters to move supplies in support of the expected 3,900 additional troops headed for that country in coming months.

U.S. military rotorcraft in Afghanistan are spared the less glamorous missions of delivering mail, food, water and ammunition to distributed bases and instead reserved for high-risk missions in austere locations in direct support of Afghan National Defense Forces and combat operations, according to Army documentation obtained by Defense Daily’s sister publication Rotor & Wing International.

U. S. Army CH-47 Chinook D/F Photo: Boeing
U. S. Army CH-47 Chinook D/F
Photo: Boeing

To perform the routine, less dangerous missions, the Army is paying several companies for heavy- and super-heavy lift helicopter services, according to the “Letter of Justification to Request Validation and Funding to Add Rotary Wing Capabilities to the Current Rotary Wing Flight Services Contract” from September 2017.

The request is signed by Col. Michael Lalor, commander of the 1st Armored Division Sustainment Brigade. During a May-November 2017 deployment to Afghanistan, Lalor’s unit had to beef up the Army’s logistics capabilities in anticipation of additional soldiers and civilians supporting the Trump administration’s renewed military focus on that 17-year-old conflict. He detailed a renewed need for capabilities, like theater-wide fuel and ammunition distribution, that the Army once had in Afghanistan but had withdrawn. 

During the deployment, contractors outnumbered uniformed soldiers by more than 10 times. The unit consisted of 700 soldiers, 135 civilian Army employees and 9,000 contractors from the United States, Afghanistan and other nations, Lalor told reporters during a recent interview at the Pentagon.

“This is a situation where the mission swings and pendulums and adjusts over time and we needed to reevaluate as we went,” he said. “We adjusted as we moved forward and as we see this mission expanding out, I need more ability to reach at longer distance. So, we went back and brought in our equipment.”

Several aircraft services companies provide the Army with heavy lift capability through U.S. Transportation Command, including Columbia Helicopters, AAR Corp., CHI Aviation and Erickson Aviation. They were awarded task orders under a 2016 TRANSCOM indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract now worth up to $225.7 million.

A renewed focus on Afghanistan includes a projected increase of 3,900 additional U.S. military personnel and up to 10,500 additional contractors in Afghanistan, a 35 percent increase based off the current supported footprint, according to the funding request document.

In September at Bagram Airfield – the U.S. military’s “main hub” for contract rotary wing operations – there are seven heavy lift aircraft and one super-heavy lift aircraft, the document says. There are another two heavy lift aircraft at Jalalabad Airfield (JAF) and two at Kandahar Airfield (KAF). 

As of September 2017, the Army’s “increased requirements, based on the increase of personnel and short tons, reveal an additional requirement for four aircraft, two heavy lift and two super heavy lift,” the memo says. Lalor requested $69 million in funding to add two additional heavy lift and two additional super heavy lift aircraft to the current rotary wing flight services contract and pay for their operations form Jan. 1 through Aug. 31, 2018.

Without the additional contract support, the Army would suffer “excessive delays for critical cargo movement for all classes of supply, U.S. mail and … repair parts,” Lalor’s memo says.

“Rotary wing support is critical for subsistence, force protection, and passenger movement,” the document says.  Without the additional aircraft, “the sustainment brigade would be forced to leave 184 passengers, three sling loads and 18,331 pounds of internal cargo “unmoved and unsupported daily.”

Columbia recently won a $35.7 million task order for the period between Feb. 1 and Aug. 31. Lalor’s memorandum seeking authorization for additional contract support is for “contract rotary wing services to reduce the number of military flight hours required by United States Army (USA) and United States Air Force (USAF) aviation to transport mail, critical cargo, and passengers by performing both sustainment and retrograde operations.”

Santiago Crespo, Columbia’s VP of business development, told Rotor and Wing at HeliExpo this week in Las Vegas that  “we’re not involved in any military missions or anything like that. We’re just providing logistic support Class I through Class X supplies — that includes food, water, mail services, people and cargo — from the different bases in the forward operating locations.”

For those routine transportation and logistics missions, “there are no viable alternatives that can be utilized in the Combined Joint Operations Area in Afghanistan (CJOA-A),” Lalor wrote in the September 2017 request for funding.

“The current aircraft capability and capacity enables the Aviation Task Force to conduct deliberate operations that only military aircraft can execute,” the memo says. “ An operational need exists for these contract services to fill the sustainment gap between ongoing aviation requirements and the capabilities and capacity of Department of Defense (DoD) aviation assets.”

The Army baseline authorization for contract aviation service use is a rate of 150 flying hours per 12 airframes, per month, for 16,800 flight total hours throughout the first base period.  The current average utilization rate is 138 percent with the average monthly movement of 15,761 passengers, 280 sling loads, and 1,571,192 pounds of internal cargo per month throughout Afghanistan, according to Lalor’s memo.

“Increases in personnel and missions in the upcoming months will exceed our current capacity,” he wrote. “Additional aircraft capacity supports emerging requirements resulting from increased troop levels. The previously validated requirement did not account for the additional personnel and an expanded advisory mission.  Validation and additional funding is required to add these essential aircraft services.”