The Afghanistan Air War

By MSW Add a Comment 19 Min Read


Following the Soviet Union’s direct intervention into Afghanistan in December 1979, the war escalated rapidly, culminating in large battles involving massive use of tactical aircraft.

Soviet interest in Afghanistan dates back many years, and Russian involvement even longer. In the middle of the last century, this rugged, mountainous country was the scene of much of the `Great Game’ between the expanding empire of the Tsars and the imperial might of the UK. At stake were the riches of British India, and the fer­vent Russian desire for a warm-water open-ocean port. While the successors to the Tsars are un­likely to want to conquer India today, they would certainly like to see the subcontinent and South West Asia fall into their sphere of influence. Afghanistan and neighbouring Iran both have long, common borders with the USSR and she would become paranoid if either became (one again, in the case of Iran) a military satellite of the USA. And, of course, beyond these two buffer states lies the Persian Gulf, highway of the Western world’s most vital commodity, namely oil.

In 1978, the Afghan monarchy was overthrown, but the new republican government under General Mohammad Daud remained on friendly terms with Moscow. Aid continued, and the armed forces acquired large amounts of new Soviet equipment. The air force in particular was strengthened: by the end of the 1970s it had strength of over 180 combat aircraft, including Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21 fighters, Sukhoi Su-7BM close-support aircraft and Ilyushin 11-28 bombers.

In spite of this, it was army and air force officers who led the April 1978 coup which saw Daud dead and power in the hands of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) under Mohammad Nur Taraki. The hard-left PDPA was itself split into the Khalq faction (under Taraki) and the Par­cham faction under Babrak Karmal. This division was reflected in the armed forces, particularly the army. Unfortunately for the PDPA, this weaken­ing of central rule and of the instrument by which that rule is enforced created just the kind of situa­tion on which the fiercely independent Afghan hill tribesman thrives. Historically, when central power has been weak, the tribes have gone their own way and in 1978, inflamed by a hastily enacted Marxist land reform programme, their way was rebellion.

March 1979 saw the rebels strong enough to seize the western city of Herat, massacring hun­dreds of government soldiers in the process. Un­fortunately, the mob also slaughtered about 30 Soviet advisers together with their families.

There must have been pressure within the Soviet Politburo to make an intervention at that moment. After all, there were over 1,000 Soviet advisers in Afghanistan, and they and their families were at risk. The immediate action taken did not go so far: Army General Yepishev during a visit to Kabul arranged to bolster the regime with an agreement to supply 100 T-62 tanks and 18 Mil Mi-24 ‘Hind’ assault helicopters. Outsize items such as tanks and artillery were brought into Kabul by the giant Antonov An-22 ‘Cock’ transport aircraft. A guerrilla attack on the base at Shindand convinced the Soviets that more assistance would be required, and a further 18 ‘Hinds’ were supplied, including some potent `Hind-D’ gunships.

Intervention by Agreement

Further guerrilla attacks during that summer, including an attack on Bagram during which Pathan rebels claimed three MiG-21s shot down, seemed to be the start of an inexorable slide into anarchy. Worse, to Soviet eyes, was the fact that many of the rebels seemed motivated by the spirit of Islamic fundamentalism which had so recently top­pled the Shah of Iran. The prospect of a second Khomeini-style theocracy on the borders of the Soviet Central Asian republics (with their large Moslem populations) could be seen as a threat to the cohesion of the USSR itself. Fortunately, the USSR and Afghanistan had signed a mutual friend­ship treaty in December 1978, article four of which states ‘…when the security of contracting parties was endangered they would take appro­priate measures …’. This, in the Soviet view, gave them the legal right to intervene and restore stability, Soviet style, on its southern border.

Whilst the Moslems of Afghanistan will have seen little significance in the date, the mass mili­tary entry into their country took place according to classic Soviet doctrine. After prepositioning troops a few weeks before at the air base granted to them at Bagram and Shindand, the initial Soviet mass airlift of some 6,000 combat soldiers in 300 transport aircraft movements took place over the period 24-26 December 1979, when the entire Christian world was politically and militarily im­potent. Simultaneously, up to 15,000 troops advanced from the Soviet border with armour and air support elements of MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’ fighter-bombers and Mi-24 ‘Hind’ transport and gunship helicopters. When the West returned to normal after Christmas, it found itself facing a fait accompli.

Sledgehammer Ineffective

Not so the fiercely independent Afghans who, aided by deserters from the local army, put up strong resistance in the country areas. During the months following the invasion, ‘Hind-A’ and the more heavily armed ‘Hind-D’ helicopters were using armament such as 57-mm (2.24-in) rockets against guerrillas, whilst Mi-8 ‘Hip’ helicopters (some of them from the nominally civilian airline, Aeroflot) provided logistic support. Realising the strength of opposition, Soviet leaders ordered a build-up of the supply airlift from home bases, aug­menting the workhorse Antonov An-12 ‘Cub’ force with Ilyushin 11-76 ‘Candid’ and giant Antonov An-22 ‘Cock’ transports. In order to relieve government forces under siege at Ishkashin, a paratroop force of 5,000 men was deployed.

The Afghan air force has remained loyal to the pro-Moscow puppet government in Kabul, so that there are no tales to be told of air-to-air combat against Soviet Frontal Aviation. Rather, the con­flict involved close-air support of the army against guerrilla strongholds, often with helicopters as the prime air weapon. High-performance combat air­craft have had their part to play, though pitting a Mach 2 Sukhoi Su-24 ‘Fencer’ against ragged hill tribesmen is akin to, the proverbial case of taking a sledgehammer to a nut and missing.

A brief recorded appearance of the Afghan air force was in February 1980, when MiG-21 and Mi-24 machines (the latter armed with AT-3 ‘Sag­ger’ anti-tank missiles), overflew Kabul during a national strike. Later Afghan MiG-17 ‘Frescoes’, MiG-21, and Mi-24s took part in raids on the Pakis­tan border area, over which countless Afghan refugees and guerrillas had fled.

Helicopters: a Vital Resource.

Early 1980 set the pattern for subsequent years as Soviet troops prepared for the spring offensive, amid claims from the USA that they were using chemical and biological weapons against the Muja­hideen guerrillas, mostly fired in 57-mm rocket rounds from Mi-8s and Mi-24s.

Without the helicopter gunship, the Soviets may have withdrawn years earlier. Its firepower and mobility and initial invulnerability put the guerrillas on the defensive. The Soviets used helicopters extensively and ruthlessly against the unprotected guerrillas. But like all innovations in war, this advantage also did not last long. The guerrillas adapted. They fought at night when the helicopter was least effective. Guerrilla intelligence discovered the time and location of planned Soviet attacks and set up air defense ambushes and dug protective bunkers. The guerrillas received newer and more powerful weapons which they used against the helicopters.

During May, Mi-24s were first seen with rearward-facing machine guns fitted in response to the guerrilla tactic of allowing helicopters to overfly their con­cealed positions before opening fire. Partner of the ‘Hind’ in the helicopter war is the Mil Mi-8 ‘Hip’, which has appeared in both assault and attack versions.

The scale of operations had increased suffi­ciently by August 1980 to involve up to 28 Mi-24s at a time as usual, with Mi-8s in close attendance in a move to crush a mutiny by Afghan troops at Ghanzi, and the guerrillas gained a major propa­ganda victory during the same month when they shot down an An-12 as it was approaching Kabul airport. At first the prime anti-aircraft weapon had been the twin-barrel 20-mm cannon, but further armaments were quickly made available through Pakistan from sources as diverse as Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and Egypt. The Chinese were particu­larly helpful in supplying Soviet-style SA-7 ‘Grail’ shoulder-launched SAMs, whilst Egypt may also have delivered similar weapons amongst the ex-Soviet equipment which it sold to the CIA for onward transmission from the first moment of con­flict. The successes of the SA-7 have been varied, and many Soviet aircraft dispensed flares whilst operating close to the ground to decoy the heat‑ seeking missile. Some ‘old-timer’ Mujahideen gave up their SA-7s whilst attacking helicopters for a more traditional weapon, namely the elephant gun!

A year after the Soviet army arrived in Afghan­istan, its force of Mi-24s had increased fourfold to 240 and six airfields were reported to be under construction for further consolidation (and, claimed the USA, to provide a springboard for sub­sequent adventures farther to the south). Heli­copter gunships proved themselves the most suit­able aircraft for close support, being used to drop small parties after the landing zone had been cleared by the aircraft’s guns. Gunships were also important for clearing side valleys of resistance as Soviet ground forces pushed up main valleys.

‘Frogfoot’ identified

Western intelligence had previously identified a Soviet parallel to the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt and dubbed it `Ram-J’ until it became better known as the Sukhoi Su-25 `Frogfoot’. A trial deployment is said to have been made as far back as 1980, but the type was most certainly used in the spring offensive. Working in conjunction with the Mi-24, this jet attack aircraft experi­mented with methods of co-ordinating the two dis­parate types, and the results will doubtless be noted for potential use in the Western theatre.

Superior Soviet firepower represented by armoured vehicles and aircraft failed to subdue re­sistance, and even the occasional MiG-23 ‘Flog­ger’ was being claimed as shot down by guerrillas. During the siege of Khost, late in 1983, An-12 transports were forced to make some 150-180 sorties per week to supply the garrison. Other An-12s have had to make paradrops of supplies.

This was a disturbing development for the Soviets as the Mujahideen had previously re­treated to their strongholds for the winter. The remedy was seen to be more Mi-8s, MiGs and Su-25s, which had arrived by early 1984, and new tactics of suppression. Twice, early in the year, helicopter gunships indiscriminately strafed and bombed Istalef as a punishment for the village har­bouring guerrillas, whilst a comparatively large force (estimated as 120 Mi-8s) supported 300 tanks moving against Najrab. At the same time, the occupying element had grown to 135,000 men to compensate for an estimated two-thirds deser­tion by the local army.

Air assault tactics and helicopter gunship tactics changed and improved steadily throughout the war. However, the Soviet never brought in enough helicopters and air assault forces to perform all the necessary missions and often squandered these resources on unnecessary missions. Helicopter support should have been part of every convoy escort, but this was not always the case. Dominant terrain along convoy routes should have been routinely seized and held by air assault forces, yet this seldom occurred. Soviet airborne and air assault forces were often the most successful Soviet forces in closing with the resistance, yet airborne and air assault forces were usually under strength. Air assault forces were often quite effective when used in support of a mechanized ground attack. Heliborne detachments would land deep in the rear and flanks of Mujahideen strongholds to isolate them, destroy bases, cut LOCs and block routes of withdrawal. The ground force would advance to link up with the heliborne forces. Usually, the heliborne force would not go deeper than supporting artillery range or would take its own artillery with it. However, the Soviets sometimes inserted heliborne troops beyond the range of supporting artillery and harvested the consequences. And, although the combination of heliborne and mechanized forces worked well at the battalion and brigade level, the Soviet preference for large scale operations often got in the way of tactical efficiency. Ten, large, conventional offensives involving heliborne and mechanized forces swept the Pandshir Valley with no lasting result.

Over the Soviet border, 36 Tupolev Tu-16 `Badger’ bombers and 100 lighter strike aircraft (including Su-24s) took their positions in southern bases during mid-March. A month later, on 20 April, they launched the spring offensive in the guerrilla-controlled Panjshir valley with a series of mass bombing attacks, whilst helicopters flew some 100 sorties per day in follow-up operations. Rotary-wing strength had by now reached about 340, and these were operating at higher altitudes following several successes by Mujahideen using small arms. The introduction of level bombers for counter-insurgency is reminiscent of Malaya and Vietnam.

Airborne Command

As well as the Su-25, the USSR had tried out many other new weapons in Afghanistan. For example, 500-kg (1,102-lb) incendiary bombs proved particularly successful at destroying rebel villages, which burned for days following an air strike. Helicopter-sowed mines were also intro­duced, and these denied the Mujahideen their transport routes. An-12s have been used as airborne command posts in a way similar to the C-130 ABCCC used in Vietnam. Reports from India sug­gest that the ‘Mainstay’ airborne early warning version of the 11-76 transport, carrying its radar in a large rotodome above the rear fuselage, akin to the West’s Grumman E-2 and Boeing E-3, were used along the Pakistani border to provide warning of any impending interception from that country’s General Dynamics F-16 fighters.

Soviet penetration into Pakistan was wide­spread, as both air and ground forces adopted ‘hot pursuit’ tactics to follow bands of rebels across the loosely-defined border in those areas of Pakistan from which they operate. MiGs and F-16s have battled in the air more than once, several MiGs and one F-16 falling. Previously rebels had operated from Iran, but Tehran tried to stop this for fear of Soviet retribution following a particularly deep and heavy ‘hot pursuit’ strike in 1982.

In 1988, in the new Soviet era of peace and politi­cal reform, the Red Army and its attendant aircraft began the long and perilous retreat along the Salang highway back to the Soviet Union, leaving President Najibullah and the Afghan army to face the now co-ordinated Mujahideen. Soviet equipment losses for the entire war included 118 jets, 333 helicopters. Initially the rebels were successful, moving close to Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad.

Finally, the guerrillas received the Stinger shoulder-launched air defense missile-a very effective weapon against low flying aircraft. The masterful employment of Stinger by the Afghan freedom fighters heavily tilted the balance in favor of the Mujahideen.

However, dissention amongst the different factions allowed the govern­ment to regain lost ground, and even with the use of deadly Stinger missiles, the Mujahideen have been occasionally routed by Afghan air force air­craft. MiGs, Sukhois and ‘Hinds’ continue to pin down guerrillas surrounding the cities, and by the autumn of 1989 the situation was one of stalemate. Aeroflot and Soviet air force transports continued to supply Kabul, and the crippling shortages of early in the year have been eased considerably.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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