An Afghan air force Mi-35 fires 23 mm rounds. The Afghans have six Mi-35s but don't have final approval to fire missiles in combat. (Air Force)
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With most NATO troops expected to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the Afghans are learning how to fight the Taliban without relying on the biggest advantage NATO brings to the table: close-air support.
NATO has largely stopped dropping ordnance to support to Afghan troops, said Royal Air Force Brig. Gen. Christopher Brazier, director of air operations for NATO’s day-to-day command in Afghanistan.
So far this year, about 90 percent of the NATO air missions flown in support of Afghan troops have been “show of force missions,” Brazier said in an emailed response to questions. He could not provide an overall number of the missions flown.
As the Afghans take the lead in finding, fighting and finishing the Taliban, they are relying on what they have to get the job done, such as artillery, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, Deputy Chief of Staff-Air, International Security Assistance Force Joint Command.
“We saw this just last week where they got into a firefight, and we started hearing about they’re requesting CAS [close-air support], and we started working because we have the ability to support them with ISAF CAS. In the meantime, they brought in some mortars, and they fired off some mortars and basically took care of their threats.”
The Afghans also have more than 350,000 troops and police, so they have the numbers to overwhelm the Taliban without using air power, he said.
Getting close-air support from its own air force is still in the future for the Afghans, Wilsbach said.
The Afghans have six Mi-35 attack helicopters, but they don’t yet have final approval from the Afghan government to fire missiles in combat because the entire force was grounded last year for not properly maintaining their aircraft, and all the crews had to retrain and get requalified, he said.
NATO is also developing the syllabus for training Afghan Terminal Air Coordinators, which will be able to call in airstrikes from Afghan but not NATO aircraft, Wilsbach said.
The Afghans are supposed to receive 20 A-29 Super Tucanos, which are propeller-driven light attack aircraft, between fall 2014 through 2015, Wilsbach said. The planes will be fully operational capable by January 2018.
But the Afghans would like the U.S. and other partner nations to accelerate the delivery of helicopters and other aircraftbefore the end of 2014, said Mirwais Nab, counselor with the Afghan embassy in Washington.
“We will take the lead,” Nab said. “When we will take the lead, we will give blood. We will be in the front line. So therefore, in order to do effectively this job, of course we need air support. If the United States and international communities withdraw [in 2014] and we are still without the air support, I think that would be the biggest problem.”
Nab stressed that while Afghanistan appreciates the commitment the U.S. and NATO nations have made to equipping the Afghan air force, the Afghans still need Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters, as well as C-130 cargo aircraft, to replace the C-27As they lost when the Air Force canceled the contract for the aircraft.
“We depend on the air transportation with our special forces, which play a vital part of our struggle against the insurgency,” he said. “For the larger transportation of the troops, we need airplanes like the C-130. If we have injured, wounded and casualty, we want to have the capability to bring them back for the medical evacuation. And of course ... we need the fire support.”
However, the Afghan air force is so small that giving them more aircraft now won’t help, Wilsbach said. The Afghans have 99 pilots, with another 200 in training.
“They need pilots and aircrew, they need maintenance people, and they also need support personnel so they can actually fly and operate and support,” Wilsbach said.
The Afghans have 72 aircraft, and they are slated to get 12 Mi-17 helicopters and two C-130s by the fall, followed by two more in the spring, Wilsbach said.
In the meantime, the Afghan air force is growing increasingly capable with the aircraft it has, he said. In the first quarter of 2013, the Afghans performed 192 casualty evacuations, an increase of 34 percent. They also flew 65 percent more cargo and transported 60 percent more troops during that same time period.
Wilsbach cautioned against trying to compare the Afghan air force’s capabilities to what NATO has.
“Think of it as Afghan-right or Afghan-appropriate,” he said.