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BAGRAM AIR FIELD, AFGHANISTAN — With Afghan troops increasingly leading combat operations on the ground, the Afghan Air Force’s fledgling helicopter fleet based in Kabul has learned new techniques to support them from the air.
The U.S. Army’s 101st Combat Aviation Brigade started a new training program at Bagram Air Field for Afghan helicopter pilots to learn how to perform air assault missions. The brigade and its trainers are part of the Fort Campbell, Ky.-based 101st Airborne Division, the Army’s only air assault division.
The ability of Afghan helicopters to quickly drop soldiers into combat is a new and critical role.
Afghan National Army and police have been slowly taking the place of American infantry units in the ground fighting, but they were still relying heavily on American planes and helicopters to support them with medical evacuations and combat operations, said Col. Paul Bontrager, the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade commander.
“They were replacing us on the ground, maybe not the same capability, but in the air, they were just not replacing us where they needed,” he said.
In February, Bontrager sent a four-man team from his brigade to Kabul to teach crew and pilots from the 377th Afghan Air Force. They started with classroom training, then simulator rehearsals and then moved on to air assault exercises. Traditional air assault techniques include rappelling and fast roping, sling loading cargo and providing transportation for infantry units. The Afghan helicopter crews are just now starting to put their air assault training to use in combat missions in eastern Afghanistan.
Capt. Micah DiGrezio, one of the trainers, said the team had to make adjustments to fit the technology and aircraft used by the Afghan Air Force. The Afghans fly Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters, which are larger than the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters used by American units, along with heavily armored Mi-35 attack helicopters.
While DiGrezio’s pilots and crew use computers and printers to coordinate their air assault missions, the Afghans didn’t have access to that technology. So they switched to using white boards to lay out the instructions and each crew member would copy down the plans on their own paper, he explained.
Even the methods for communicating between Afghan units on the ground and the pilots were simplified.
“They will just get on a cellphone and say, ‘Hey, I need you out here,’” DiGrezio said.
The Afghan pilots also had a wide range of experience and backgrounds. Some of the older pilots were trained by the Soviets decades ago, while some of the younger Afghan pilots had learned to fly at the U.S. Army’s aviation training school at Fort Rucker, Ala., DiGrezio said.
But he said all were eager to learn the new skills that would help them assist the ground units on the battlefield.
“There are so many places in Afghanistan you can only get to by helicopter and it is an essential capability for them,” he said. “To be successful in the future, they know they need it.”
The size of the Afghan Air Force, however, continues to limit their ability. DiGrezio said the Kabul-based fleet has only about 30 helicopters and with ongoing fighting this spring in Ghazni and Nangarhar provinces, they are in constant use.
“It’s a transition from a big helicopter force that we provide here to a much smaller one and doing more with less,” DiGrezio said.
The Defense Department said this year it plans to purchase 30 more Russian Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan security forces to further bolster their aviation fleet.
While coalition forces still use aircraft to support and protect their ground troops, Afghan President Hamid Karzai earlier this year banned his troops from calling in coalition airstrikes in residential areas amid growing anger over NATO airstrikes that have killed or wounded civilians.
Bontrager said the continued reliance on American planes and helicopters is a disservice to the Afghan security forces.
“The larger concern is that it’s disingenuous for us to be there protecting them and then sometime in the future just stop,” he said. “There needs to be a weaning of American aviation support to the Afghan forces.”