The Afghan air force (AAF) is of critical importance to the success of the Afghan National Security Forces, given the terrain and the continuing threat of roadside bombs. ISAF has been praising the ‘professional Afghan airmanship’ of late. But how accurate is this assessment? What is the Afghan air force’s real ability to provide for security after the end of combat operations by foreign forces in 2014? AAN’s guest analyst Gary Owen takes a look at the state of the AAF and examines three aspects: the current level of operational independence, the aerial attack capability and their capacity to complete medical evacuation missions.
To start with the conclusion: The coalition has exaggerated the current capabilities of the Afghan air force. Simultaneously, it reduced its own air support and failed to prepare the Afghan security forces in time for the withdrawal of coalition air assets. This is creating a potentially fatal capability gap that the Afghan air force is currently unable to fill. Even more troubling is the fact that this gap will probably remain until well into 2015 and beyond, when the Afghan air force is expected to receive the first of a fleet of Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft (see report here), courtesy of the United States.
The level of operational independence
In describing the actions of the Afghan air force, ISAF has recently started using the word ‘unassisted’, particularly related to the air assault capabilities. The following is from a release titled ‘Kabul Mi-17’s Perform Unassisted Air Assault (1) Near Hezarak [sic]’ in Nangrahar province (see here)
‘Additionally, although advisors were present to monitor pre- and post-flight tasks, briefings, and coordination, the missions were flown by the Afghan crews completely unassisted.’
In itself this is not remarkable, but the scope of ISAF’s spin becomes clear in the rest of the release in which it says that there were only two AAF helicopters (Mi-17s) – and they were not even the only aerial assets on the mission:
‘Successful accomplishment of the mission, requiring coordination and air movement phasing with [coalition] Apache and Chinook helicopters as well as off-site troop pickup and insertion points in to a contested area, is a testament to their training, dedication to mission, and professional airmanship.’
Two medium(2) transport helicopters as part of a mission that requires foreign attack (the Apaches) and heavy(3) lift (the Chinooks) helicopters, is a tangible contribution, but it is by no means conducting an ‘unassisted’ air assault. If this release was dated sometime in 2010, there would be less cause for concern, but in mid-2013, the Afghan air force should be contributing a great deal more to even a combined mission with coalition forces.
The aerial attack capacity
Notably absent from that press release was any description of AAF attack helicopter activity. The explanation for that is simple: that capacity barely exists in the AAF, and it is not yet developed to the point where those aircraft are capable of supporting Afghan troops in combat. The US is going to provide the Afghans with 20 Super Tucano Light Air Support aircraft, which are ideally suited to the counterinsurgency mission, but again, the first delivery of those aircraft is not due until April 2015.
In the interim, the AAF has 11 aircraft designed to execute attack missions (Mi-35 Hinds, which are export variants of Russian attack helicopters used extensively during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan), but of those 11, only seven are airworthy.(4) And it is only recently that those seven aircraft were fitted with weapons systems capable of destroying ground targets from the air (https://www.afcent.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123350654). While there are plans in place to retrofit some of the Afghan air force’s Mi-17 cargo helicopters as gunships to fill this gap (see report here https://bigstory.ap.org/article/ap-interview-top-us-general-confident-afghans), these aircraft have yet to undergo that conversion. Even once that conversion is complete, what remains to be done is further training in how to conduct either close air support (CAS) or close combat attack (CCA)(5) missions.
The capacity to conduct medical evacuation missions
Further complicating the air support issue is this: if Afghan troops are wounded in a fight, their best chance for survival is medical evacuation (MEDEVAC). This is a mission of critical importance in a country like Afghanistan, where transport by road is problematic, thanks to a combination of poor infrastructure and the ongoing threat of roadside bombs. As reported in the Washington Post, that capability is tragically lacking as well:
‘The Afghan air force has 60 helicopters, but many are out of commission at any given time, and none is dedicated solely to casualty evacuation.
The United States has invested millions of dollars in training and supplying the Afghan air force, but American officials acknowledge that Afghan pilots will be able to evacuate only a fraction of wounded soldiers and police officers. Last year, the United States evacuated 4,700 Afghan soldiers by air, compared with the Afghan air force’s 400.’
While there are plans to purchase an additional 30 Mi-17 helicopters from Russia (see report here), those are not going to be nearly enough to fill the gap left by the departure of coalition airpower. It is nearly impossible to say how many aircraft the Afghans actually need, since until now they have been reliant on a fleet of aircraft they could not possibly maintain. Presumably that assessment has been part of ISAF’s plans, but if so, they have not released that to the general public. And even those plans may be in doubt, as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) recently castigated the USD 771.8 million purchase, detailing various deficiencies in AAF capabilities that would mean ongoing support from foreign forces for an indeterminate period of time.(6) As the United States and other coalition partners are interested in looking for ways to gracefully exit Afghanistan, these kinds of purchases will be facing even greater scrutiny, and the lack of Afghan capability detailed in the SIGAR’s report makes a strong case for cutting back on defense aid until those capabilities can be improved.
Send in the drones?
So projections for the Afghan air force are bleak, and even with the provision of 20 LAS aircraft beginning in 2015, that will not in any way close the attack capability gap left by ISAF. One solution? Drones, according to Air Force Maj. Gen. H.D. Jake Polumbo, director of the ISAF air component. During a video briefing to the Pentagon from Kabul he said (see report here), and also our dispatch about US drones and counter-terrorism policies here):
‘I come back to the remotely piloted aircraft [RPA]. They can collect intelligence, but they also are armed. And they’re armed to be able to provide force protection to our coalition forces and then when our coalition ground force commanders, when they deem it appropriate, they can control that air-delivered munition capability from the RPAs to be put in support of the Afghans.’
While RPAs (or drones) would provide a lower cost alternative to providing the AAF with a fleet of manned aircraft to accomplish the same mission, what is of greater concern is how this would sit with Afghanistan’s neighbours. Drone strikes are already a contentious issue in Pakistan, and providing Afghanistan – either directly or by proxy – with even greater drone capabilities is not going to be something any of these countries would view with favour. More troubling for Afghanistan internally are recent revelations that drones may be far less accurate than predicted by their proponents. A still-classified study by an American military adviser found that over a 10-year period in Afghanistan, drone strikes caused ten times more civilian casualties than strikes by manned aircraft.
Coalition airpower has provided an undeniable advantage for Afghan forces, and without that advantage, serious concerns arise about the ability of those forces to project power in areas where the insurgents have already established a solid foothold. At best, the result in those insurgent strongholds will be an uneasy stalemate, with both sides realizing that neither can establish an advantage. This would mean a decrease in violence, but it also a corresponding decrease in the ability of the government in Kabul to truly control the entire country. For so long reliant on coalition air support for their success, Afghans are now confronted with the reality that the choppers that once saved them on the battlefield are simply not coming anymore.
Gary Owen is a civilian development worker who has spent the last three years in Afghanistan, working in Ghazni, Gardez, Khost and Kabul provinces. Previously, he spent 21 months in Iraq on two different deployments: in 2004, as an infantry officer in Taji, and, in 2008, as a civil affairs officer in Tikrit. Usually, he blogs here.
(1) According to the US Army, air assault is defined as an ‘operation in which assault forces, using the mobility of rotary-wing assets and the total integration of available firepower, maneuver under the control of a ground or air maneuver commander to engage enemy forces or to seize and hold key terrain’.
(2) The Mi-17 is classified as a medium lift helicopter: It can carry 30 troops or 12 stretchers or 4,000 kg (8,820 lb) cargo internally or 5,000 kg (11,023 lb) externally slung.
(3) The CH-47 Chinook is classified as a heavy lift helicopter: It can carry 33 to 55 troops or 24 stretchers and 3 attendants (for medical evacuation missions) or 12,700 kg (28,000 lb) cargo. The AAF does not have any aircraft capable of carrying the same load, which means it is unable to move a large quantity of troops and supplies as easily as the coalition. There are no plans to provide the AAF with a heavy lift capacity.
(4) From the Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, December 2012 (see link here https://www.defense.gov/news/1230_Report_final.pdf), p. 65.
(5) From the Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, December 2012 (see link here), p. 65.
(6) From the SIGAR’s June 2013 audit of the Afghan Special Mission Wing:
For example, as of January 23, 2013, the SMW had just 180 personnel—less than one-quarter of the personnel needed to reach full strength. The NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan and DOD do not have a plan that identifies milestones and final dates for achieving full SMW personnel force strength to justify the approved fleet. Ongoing recruiting and training challenges have slowed SMW growth. These challenges include finding Afghan recruits who are literate and can pass the strict, 18- to 20-month U.S. vetting process, a process that attempts to eliminate candidates that have associations with criminal or insurgent activity. Further, the Afghan Ministry of Defense (MOD) and Ministry of Interior (MOI) have not come to agreement on the command and control structure of the SMW, which also adversely impacts SMW growth and capacity. In addition, DOD has not developed a plan for transferring maintenance and logistics management functions to the Afghans.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020