Izvestia’s military analyst Anton Lavrov on whether foreign intelligence will benefit from American weapons abandoned in Afghanistan.
Donald Trump’s latest claim that Russia and China gained access to the American Apache helicopters abandoned in Afghanistan surprised both Moscow and Washington. At a rally on Saturday, Aug. 9, the 45th U.S. president said that “great” helicopters are now being thoroughly disassembled to examine how they work. The Pentagon has already denied this information. According to official sources, not a single Apache helicopter was left in Afghanistan. Nor did they ever appear in numerous photos and videos where extremists posed with the newly acquired war trophies.
Russia’s Federal Service of Military-Technical Cooperation also refuted Trump’s words. The former U.S. president may have confused the heavy AH-64 Apache with the MD 530F Cayuse Warrior, a small rotary-wing aircraft named after another Native American tribe. But, most likely, it was just another baseless and irresponsible statement.
The reality is that during the fall of the Afghan government, there were simply no equipment and weapons that could arouse the burning interest of foreign military-technical intelligence.
Perhaps the most interesting aircraft that the extremists acquired were seven old CH-46E Sea Knight tandem-rotor helicopters. However, those are more valuable as museum exhibits than for their scientific and technical intelligence. Although the helicopters have undergone several upgrades, they were still around during the American evacuation from Saigon in 1975, and some even took part in it.
American military vehicles may have had modern navigation equipment and digital closed-loop communication systems installed. But the American troops had several days to carefully and selectively remove or destroy the most valuable or secret components.
Furthermore, it is no longer necessary to infiltrate the territory controlled by the Taliban (an organization banned in Russia) to get acquainted with the American aircraft used by the Afghan army, as most of them were relocated to neighboring countries in August. Moreover, the Afghan Air Force was equipped with cheap aircraft based on widely available civilian models, which do not present much intelligence interest.
According to official information, 22 planes and 24 helicopters of Afghan government forces have been relocated to Uzbekistan. Among them are small American reconnaissance and combat helicopters — MD 530F Cayuse Warriors. They weigh less than 1.5 tons each and are based on civilian helicopter models. Another type of helicopter now stationed in Uzbekistan is the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk used for military transport. It is also hardly interesting to anyone, as it is a standard model akin to the Russian Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters.
There is no detailed information on the airplanes moved to Tajikistan, Russia’s ally in the CSTO. However, at least 12 Cessna AC-208 Caravan light attack aircraft and one Pilatus PC-12NG surveillance aircraft were reported as having been relocated there. The Pilatus PC-12NGs, small Swiss helicopters, were in service with the Afghan special forces. But, once again, they present little interest. For example, in Russia, several of their civilian versions are being used privately.
The Afghan scouting equipment, also manufactured by Pilatus, is only suitable for guerrilla warfare, limited to good-quality infrared cameras and simple radio interception technology.
Afghan pilots and troops who fled abroad on their aircraft were given refuge at one of the American bases. But nothing has yet been reported about the fate of the machines used. They were returned neither to the Taliban nor to the U.S. Both Chinese and Russian specialists may have already had the opportunity to examine it. But this is a standard procedure.
During the Cold War, both the U.S. and USSR planned the most complex operations to acquire samples of weapons from potential adversaries. They did this to learn to win — by studying weapons’ actual characteristics beyond those advertised and finding their strengths and weaknesses.
So, any visitor to the Kubinka Tank Museum in Russia saw those foreign-made weapons collected from various battlefields of the second half of the 20th century. Similar exhibitions on Russian technology can be found in foreign museums. Much of the equipment has never been shown to the public, ending up in vaults and closed storage facilities.
There are numerous examples concerning other types of military equipment. The American military and engineers dismantled the MiG-25 interceptor, flown to Japan from the USSR by a traitor pilot in 1975. In search of secrets, they even raised sunken Soviet submarines. When a damaged American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft made an emergency landing in China in 2001, it was returned to its homeland only a few months later, in a completely disassembled state.
A special research squadron was created in the U.S., which brought together MiG-17, MiG-21 and even MiG-23 fighters from all over the world. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. continued to actively buy up and test the USSR’s military equipment. As a result, it managed to get its hands on such models as Su-27 fighters from Ukraine and T-80U tanks from South Korea.
After the Russo-Georgian War victory in 2008, the Russian military could get acquainted with foreign-made equipment in service with the Georgian army. Among the trophies were Turkish armored cars, Israel-upgraded T-72 tanks and fighting vehicles used by the Ukrainian infantry. In addition, American off-road HMMWVs equipped with communication systems were also seized. Of course, Russia did not reproduce those vehicles but carefully analyzed their characteristics and combat capabilities.
Trump’s views on the modern world seem to be quite outdated. Undoubtedly, China lingered at the stage of careful copying and licensed production of foreign designs for much longer than the USSR. However, it has already moved on to the national development of an almost full range of its own military equipment. Therefore, even a fully functional seized Apache would hardly have encouraged China to clone it immediately. Moreover, the entire military arsenal of the Afghan troops is now only capable of arousing mild interest and nothing more than a normal desire to see it in action during firing drills and on shooting ranges.
The author is Izvestia’s military analyst. The author’s opinion may not reflect the views of Izvestia’s editorial board.