Building the Afghan Air Force Will Take Years
Will Afghans ever be able to take over from U.S. Forces?
In December 2009, when then President Barack Obama announced the beginning of an exit plan from Afghanistan, the hope was to build up the country’s military to take on the security roles being fulfilled by U.S. and coalition forces. One part of that ambitious plan was building an Afghan air force of some 8,000 personnel and 154 aircraft.
But eight years later, that goal is still a long way off. The plan now is to spend yet another six years building the Afghan air force.
The timeline for the refit of the Afghan air force now goes through fiscal year 2023, Air Force Brig. Gen. Phillip A. Stewart, the general in charge of the effort, told Foreign Policy in an interview this June. “Obviously that exceeds our current authority to be there, so there’s a future policy decision to be made, which I’m not the guy to talk to about that.”
After months of debate at the White House, that future policy should become clearer Monday evening, when President Donald Trump announces the new Afghanistan strategy. His decision is widely expected to be a “stay the course” policy that provides a moderate increase of troops with no firm timeline for drawing down U.S. forces.
But after so many years of fighting the Taliban and training local forces, it’s clear that more American boots on the ground can only do so much. Any hope the United States has for ending its 16-year involvement in the war relies on building and supporting the country’s institutions, to include the air force, which in many ways is a microcosm for the costly, yet mixed, results of U.S. nation-building efforts.
The sooner the air force is able to take over the majority of the airstrikes flown by American pilots, U.S. costs and commitments can begin to subside. But that day is still years away.
The latest plan for the nascent Afghan air force calls for it to grow from its current fleet of 124 aircraft up to 259, and from 8,000 personnel to 12,000, according to Stewart.
Though the number of aircraft currently in inventory is far lower than what was projected back in 2009, the air force has made strides, including the integration of a fleet of A-29 planes, a Brazilian-built light attack aircraft.
“They currently have 12 [A-29s] flying combat operations and that’s one squadron,” Stewart told FP. “They have a number of crews that goes along with that. They’re generating anywhere from two to six or seven combat missions a day.”
U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, told FP that in the Afghan army’s fight to retake the town of Marja in June, the Afghans “integrated their A-29s and MD-530 helicopters,” with their ground operations. “And we helped with coalition assets as well,” said Turner, the commander of the 300 Marines who deployed to Helmand province earlier this year.
The United States has also trained Afghan soldiers to act as ground controllers, capable of calling in airstrikes on targets by talking directly with pilots in the A-29s. During the fight for the Nawa district in July in Helmand province, Afghan soldiers called in airstrikes and used several U.S-supplied ScanEagle drones to pinpoint Taliban targets and walk in airstrikes.
Yet the reality is that even with those advances, a half dozen combat sorties a day doesn’t come anywhere near to what is done currently by U.S. forces, which as of July 31, have flown 2,400 combat sorties in 2017.
And many of Washington’s more ambitious goals for modernizing the air force, such as integrating female pilots, have faltered. Though there were a number of women in the training pipeline back in 2009, there is currently only one woman flying, with just two more in training, Stewart said.
Modernizing the air force is also complicated by the fact that there are seven different types of aircraft, including the A-29.
“We have enough trouble just getting Afghans who can speak English, and vice-versa quite frankly,” Stewart said. “When we’re trying to do our missions you have to take the [flight] publications which are written in Portuguese, translate them into English, and then translate them into Dari. There are little things like that which takes a big endeavor and will make you pull out your hair, but we power through it and we get through.”
The U.S. military is also moving forward with plans to give the Afghans American helicopters, including the Lockheed-built Blackhawk. Stewart said the Afghans are scheduled to start getting Blackhawk helicopters in the next few months.
“That’s the alligator closest to the canoe and that’s what we’re moving out on,” he said.
But aviation experts have long questioned whether the Blackhawk, which has more limited flight altitude than the Russian Mi-17, is the appropriate helicopter for Afghanistan.
“Frankly, I will go on the record to say the Blackhawk program is a bad idea,” said Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, who has recently been pushing his own plan for Afghanistan. “It’s a half as capable aircraft that is three times as hard to maintain. But, Lockheed loves it.”
Prince in recent months had been advocating to send a contractor force to Afghanistan to help train the military there. One component of his plan was to lease “90-ish” aircraft — at least some portion of which would be from Ukraine — for use by the Afghan air force. “The characteristics of it are Afghan badged, Afghan callsigns, with an Afghan on board, flown by a professional pilot,” he said.
That plan, however, at least for now, is dead in the water.
Though Prince’s contractor proposal was not popular with Defense Secretary James Mattis or National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, some of the problems he points to are well established.
Most famously, the U.S. paid for a fleet of C-27Js, which were supposed to provide airlift capabilities for the Afghan military. The aircraft never flew, despite costing the U.S. government almost $500 million, and were eventually sold for scrap.
“Less than 40 percent of the Afghan aircraft function right now,” Prince said. “They have a terrible maintenance problem. The U.S. Army and Air Force have a difficult time maintaining a nonstandard fleet.”
Stewart declined to give readiness rates for the Afghan aircraft, citing security concerns, but emphasized it’s more than just about numbers of aircraft. “I think too many people focus on getting the planes,” he said. “The planes aren’t going to do anything. It’s the people behind the planes.”
In addition to recruiting and training personnel, there is also the need to plan for logistics and maintenance. None of that is easy in Afghanistan.
“That takes time,” he said. “That’s going to take between 5 and 10 years.”
Photo Credit: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images