Getting Afghans Into the Air

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About two months ago, the American military went into high gear to create an air corps for Afghanistans military. Of course, that seems like a long time in coming, but commanders there wanted to set their priorities on building a robust ground force before switching to the more complicated task of forming an aviation force.

According to the general in charge of establishing the new Afghan air corps which will be the aviation wing of the Afghan National Army the coalition is building the fledgling fleet at a fever pace. In an interview with military bloggers Wednesday, Air Force Brig. Gen. Jay Lindell said his 130 member team got started in earnest to build an air corps for the Afghan military on a pretty tight schedule. Luckily, its not as if the team is building the Afghan air corps from the ground up. Currently, the Afghan air corps has seven Mi-17 Hip transport helicopters; six Mi-35 Hind attack helos; two An-32 Cline and two An-26 Curl fixed-wing transport aircraft and two Czech-made L-39 Albatross training aircraft - used primarily for flight demonstration shows.

But the coalition isnt stopping there. The air corps is in the process of receiving several Russian-made troop-carrying helicopters from allies. The list includes: six Mi-17s and six Mi-35s from the Czech Republic; one Mi-17 from Slovakia; 10 Mi-17s from the United Arab Emirates and four An-32s from the Ukraine. All of these aircraft should be here in Kabul in the next six months, Lindell said.

The coalition trainers are also checking out whats available to boost the Afghans medium lift transport inventory. That procurement will be handled through the U.S. foreign military sales accounts, but Lindell said he likes the looks of the C-27A Spartan, though Lindell is looking at refurbished versions of this Italian-made transport.

So who exactly is going to fly these birds, you ask? Well, Lindell said there are 165 Afghan pilots currently in the Afghan air corps. Theyre Soviet trained, run about 2,500 flight hours each, but theyre on average about 43 years old. Theyre actually very capable pilots. Theyre not too current. Thats why we need to get them the aircraft to fly in, Lindell said.

The air corps has its own crew of instructors and they have a Soviet-era flight training syllabus theyre already familiar with, so getting them up to speed wont be too difficult. Its the night and foul-weather operations that are going to be the toughest to train. The plan is to establish mobile training teams manned by Eastern European NATO pilots who fly the same types of aircraft to mentor the Afghan pilots on all-weather, day-night tactical flying.

Lindell hopes to set up a training program for new pilots to ascend through the ranks from the Afghan National Military Training Academy in Kabul, so a fresh generation of Afghan air corps pilots can take over for the vets.

Of course, logistics is what makes a functioning air corps and Lindell is bullish on the Afghans capabilities there. Hes seen a knack for keeping aircraft aloft with even the most rudimentary resources (just ask the spooks who flew into Afghanistan in 2001), but a good inventory of spare parts and modern maintenance equipment will also be needed.

The Afghan air corps has ability and desire. They need resources to give them capability, Lindell said.

-- Christian

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