Trainers Scramble to Ready Afghan Air Force

Sgt. Mohammed Shafi scans for threats from the door of an Afghan Air Force Mi17 helicopter during a training mission in Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan in June 2013. (Stars and Stripes photo)

KABUL — For Air Commodore David Cooper, time is running out.

The British Royal Air Force officer has the unenviable task of making the tiny Afghan air force self-sustaining by the end of the year.

“Because we’re unsure about what’s going to happen after 2014 and we can make no assumptions, we have to put as much as we can into this year,” said Cooper, director of air operations for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

The re-establishment of the Afghan air force got a late start in comparison with the country’s army and national police, as the ISAF focused on building the country’s ground capabilities to combat an entrenched Taliban insurgency.

Rebuilding from scratch

Afghanistan’s air force dates to the 1920s, reaching its zenith during the 1980s Soviet occupation with nearly 500 fighter planes, bombers, transport aircraft and helicopter gunships.

In the 1990s, the air force became inactive and its aircraft fell into disuse. The fleet was finally destroyed by U.S. bombing in 2001.

When the corps was reformed, it had to start from scratch.

Now, the ISAF is scrambling to train a core group of pilots, maintenance crews and personnel who can train the next generation without foreign help.

“That level of investment over that amount of time has not been put into the Afghan air force for a whole host of reasons,” Cooper said. “It’s less mature ... and we have to recognize that, but what we can’t do is leave the Afghan air force at the end of 2014 unable to sustain itself.”

Unlike in Iraq, where the U.S. inherited a cadre of experienced pilots to form into a new national force, in Afghanistan international trainers had to start from the beginning in the midst of a war. Although the ISAF’s combat mission is ending in a few months, the war in Afghanistan, now mostly between Afghan forces and insurgents, seems nowhere near over, making a viable air force crucial.

“No one’s ever been asked in history to build an air force while fighting and flying,” said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. John Michel, commander of the NATO Air Training Command in Afghanistan.

Many experts are concerned about the ability of the Afghan National Security Forces to stand on their own against an entrenched insurgency, especially if they must do so with meager air support.

Planning, funding gap

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies chided the ISAF for its lack of planning for building the Afghan air force

“There is no indication of how the Afghans could manage air assets effectively, or deal with the problem of civilian casualties,” according to his report, released in April.

President Barack Obama has said all foreign troops will leave Afghanistan by 2016, a timeline that has many in the Afghan air force and across the security services nervous.

Adorning the office of Afghan air force Gen. Mohammad Barat, who commands the Kabul Air Wing, is an aspirational painting. It show Afghan MiG fighter jets downing enemy aircraft in a fierce dogfight. Barat knows those capabilities are years away, and he’s counting on the international community to continue funding the air force for many years.

“The Afghan air force is becoming empowered, but to expand its power it needs money and it needs more time, because to train a pilot takes two to three years,” Barat said.

Transport has been a struggle for the Afghan air force — getting troops to the battlefield and getting the dead and wounded off it in a timely manner. The force has fewer than 60 transport helicopters to serve a fighting force of about 350,000 that has taken heavy casualties while assuming most of the war’s day-to-day fighting.

$600M boondoggle

The casualties of a $600 million plan to build up the Afghan air force’s transport capabilities sit next to Kabul International Airport. There, visible from the airport’s jetways, are 16 perfectly intact twin-propeller C-27J planes, all of which were grounded for good after the U.S. canceled the plane contract because of lack of parts and maintenance.

The C-27Js, purchased in 2008, replaced a fleet of Antonov An-32 tactical transports the Afghans had successfully used.

The scrapping of the fleet was a major setback for an air force that, with the ISAF’s withdrawal, is getting less and less air support from its international allies. Late last year, the Afghan air force acquired two C-130s, a larger four-propeller transport plane, but its pilots must be accompanied by an ISAF mentor in the cockpit.

ISAF officials are leery of discussing the C-27 debacle. “It’s something I’ve been asked not to talk about,” Cooper said.

But Afghan air force officials have plenty to say about the program. They say they were not consulted on the purchase and that the planes should never have been bought in the first place. They have numerous stories of close calls, with fires breaking out midflight, engines going out and planes depressurizing, causing passengers to lose consciousness.

“We were worried the C-27s would eat some of our pilots,” said Afghan air force spokesman Col. Mohammad Bahadur Raeeskheb.

For now, the Afghan air force relies largely on a fleet of 58 Russian Mi17 helicopters and 26 single-engine Cessna 208 planes for most of its transport needs. It hopes to receive two more C-130s in the coming months.

Critics have pointed out that the C-130s are more complex and therefore more expensive to maintain and operate than the C-27Js — which proved more than a match for the Afghans. The C-130s also are four times more expensive to operate than the discarded An-32s.

One thing the Afghan air force is sorely missing is ground-attack capabilities, with just five Russian Mi35 helicopter gunships. Barat, the Kabul Air Wing commander, said the air force relies on the ISAF to pay for maintenance of its five attack helicopters, much of which is carried out in Russia. Still, they can’t keep the five Mi35s in the air because of a lack of spare parts.

Instead of close air support, the ISAF has focused on improving the army’s use of mortars to provide cover for ground troops, knowing that any serious attack capabilities -- let alone fighter jets -- are years away. For now, most air support and surveillance is provided by ISAF, and the potential loss of that has many worried.

“We need someone to keep supporting us,” said Afghan air force Col. Rahmatullah Mirzaye, 46, a long-serving helicopter pilot. “We are not afraid of any situation; we can do our job, but we need continued support.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

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