Friday, October 31, 2014

NATO Promises Afghans Air Support After 2014

The A-29 Tucano was supposed to be in the AAF by
now but Congressional meddling held up the program.
The international military coalition says it will continue to provide air support to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) after the last combat troops leave Afghanistan in December 2014. According to General Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, there was a recent agreement between Afghanistan and NATO on continued aviation support until the Afghan Air Force (AAF) has the sufficient capacity - likely to occur at the end of 2016. Some observers might make note that this is a bit of a reversal by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). During the past two years (2013 and 2014) ISAF's stand was that the Afghan security forces need to be able to conduct operations without air support (close air support, movement of equipment and personnel, and MEDEVAC) and that the Afghan Air Force would be able to support the ANSF by itself after ISAF departs (December 2014). A few factors have probably altered that stance. The Afghan Air Force is taking a lot longer to stand up. The AAF has been plagued by misuse drug running, corruption and illiteracy, and mismanagement by the United States Air Force. One of the few bright spots has been the Special Mission Wing (SMW). Despite the promise of air support many feel that it is a hollow promise; the lack of a robust ISAF air support presence will limit ISAF's ability to provide the air support needed by the ANSF. (See "NATO Defense Spending Cutbacks May Hurt Afghanistan As Air Support Dwindles", International Business Times, October 29, 2014).

Transport Capability of AAF. The Mi-17 helicopter program is just now coming up to the 87 ship strength but the crews (flying and maintenance) are still not able to conduct all-weather and night-flying operations (only a few can, like the SMW) and maintain the aircraft. In addition, the U.S. Congress is hot about the use of Russian helicopters in the AAF. The Afghans are still not able to maintain their own helicopters to a sufficient degree and will need help in the future years in this area. The C-27A program of 20 light transport aircraft has been an extreme embarrassment to the U.S. Air Force - 16 of the 20 were recently scrapped for 6 cents a pound; four are still at an airbase in Germany yet to deploy to Afghanistan. Plans to replace the 20 C-27As with four C-130s have fallen into question - the first two delivered had a utilization rate of 48% because of the lack of Afghan crews. The third was just delivered and delivery of the fourth C-130 is now on hold.

Close Air Support. The ability of the AAF to support the ANSF is very limited. There are about 11 Mi-35 Attack Helicopters of which only a few can fly; and those crews are not very experienced. The Mi-35s are to be replaced by the A-29 Tucano but that deployment was stalled for two years by Congressional members who favored a U.S. built aircraft from a competing company. The first Tucano arrived at Moody Air Force Base in September 2014 to start the initial training. Recent news reports indicate that the U.S. is going to "weaponize" the MD 530F helicopters currently in the AAF; good news but a little late.

2014 Fighting Season. In addition, the ANSF had its worst fighting season ever in terms of numbers of casualties and the Taliban threatened some districts with fighter formations in the hundreds. ISAF was forced to assist the Afghans during August and September 2014 with a significant number of air sorties; a large increase over support provided over the past two years. So . . . we now see a reversal on the decreased use of air support which is the right thing to do; we should never had withheld the air support in 2013 and 2014. We do want the Afghans to win; don't we?

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