General: US Moving More Airpower to Afghanistan in Strategy Shift

Four A-29 Super Tucanos arrive at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Jan. 15, 2016. (U.S. Air Force/Sgt. Nathan Lipscomb)
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The U.S. military has begun shifting resources to Afghanistan as the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria winds down, a top official said Wednesday.

Afghanistan "has become [US Central Command's] main effort thanks to the recent successes in Iraq and Syria," said Air Force Maj. Gen. James Hecker, commander of NATO Air.

Command-Afghanistan. "This has allowed CENTCOM to shift more assets our way," he told reporters during a televised briefing from Afghanistan.

The assets include more MQ-9 Reaper drones for overwatch and strike missions, additional combat search-and-rescue squadrons, and A-10C Thunderbolt IIs ground attack aircraft, which recently arrived at Kandahar Airfield, for close-air support strikes, Hecker said.

Even so, the latest military build-up in Afghanistan is only a sliver in the South Asia strategy to put pressure on the Taliban and other extremist groups.

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"While U.S. air power is destroying Taliban support elements in the deep fight, Afghan A-29 [Super Tucanos] and MD-530 helicopters provide quick, lethal support to Afghan ground forces in the close fight," Hecker said. "This growth has already started but is going to continue."

In 2017, the Afghan Air Force conducted roughly 2,000 air strike sorties -- or roughly 40 strike sorties each week, Hecker said. The AAF had a record high in October with over 80 missions in a single week.

"The Afghan Air Force air strike sorties are now almost double of what the US Air Force conducts in Afghanistan," Hecker said. "When they do a mission and they actually do a strike [during] a mission, they average about 40 ... a week ... contrasting this with what the US Air Force does and our coalition aircraft, we average about 25 a week where we actually drop a munition," he said.

However, according to the latest Air Forces Central Command Airpower Summary, the Air Force dropped 455 weapons in the month of December alone. The service conducted more airstrikes in 2017 in Afghanistan than in 2015 and 2016 combined, with 4,361 munitions dropped.

Hecker clarified, most of the Afghan's munitions come off of the MD-530 Cayuse Warrior light attack helicopter. "When an MD-530 is in direct support [of ground forces] and shoots rockets...that counts as a strike mission."

Hecker did not specify how much MD-530s account for in total ordnance dropped, but said the platform does account for the "majority."

"When you look at the totals of who's doing the most shooting, [the AAF is] roughly double compared to what the coalition air force is doing," he said.

Growing the Afghan Air Force

The goal for NATO Air Command is to almost triple the Afghan Air Force over the next few years, Hecker said.

The Air Force in December first said the Afghans "will more than double their fleet of aircraft over the next seven years" with plans to "include the introduction of AC-208 attack aircraft and UH-60 Black Hawk assault helicopters, along with additional A-29 attack aircraft and MD-530 attack helicopters," according to a news release. Currently, the AAF has roughly 8,000 troops.

"Right now the Afghan Air Force has 12 A-29s, but that's going up to 25," Hecker said. "Three A-29 pilots are now trained to drop laser-guided munitions."

The light attack aircraft dropped its first laser guided bombs in December.

The fleet is also comprised of 24 C-208s with an airdrop capability, but will add 32 AC-208, which is an attack model -- to include laser-guided rockets and a gun -- of the Cessna C-208 single-engined turboprop aircraft, he said.

The MD-530 Cayuse Warrior light attack helicopters, also equipped with rockets and a gun, will increase from 25 with an additional 25 annually, Hecker said. The AAF has eight UH-60s with the goal of acquiring 159 helicopters total.

There will be 28 UH-60 pilots by the end of the year, he said.

With the ongoing boost in training and additional assets coming, the Taliban has become "desperate as we ratchet up the pressure in increased airpower," Hecker said.

"With the new South Asia strategy, the Taliban now know we have no timetable for when we're going to leave Afghanistan, it's condition based. They see the resolute commitment from the United States and the coalition," he said.

The general added, the Afghan military is in step to "take back their country, restore stability and secure their homeland."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.