WASHINGTON — Afghanistan’s air force now responds to medical evacuation requests on average within three hours, down from an average of three days last year, according to military statistics.
It is seen by U.S. officials as a key benchmark, coming as Afghan soldiers and police are taking significant casualties in their first fighting season leading the fight against Taliban.
“This year their survival rate is going up because they’re able to respond quicker,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, the top coalition air officer in Afghanistan, said in a telephone interview.
It is not yet up to U.S. standards. The United States generally responds within an hour to medical evacuation requests, which is considered critical in improving survival rates for serious injuries.
Afghanistan’s air force has conducted 133 air evacuation missions last month alone, a sharp increase from previous months. Last year, the U.S. military provided most of the air evacuations from the battlefield.
But coalition forces are racing to develop Afghanistan’s military as the number of U.S. and coalition forcesdeclines. There are about 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now.
Afghanistan’s military is far from self-sufficient and still relies on U.S. forces for some medevac and bombing missions.
Afghanistan’s air capabilities are still small relative to the size of the country and the number of police andsoldiers it must support.
The Afghan air force has only 28 Mi-17 helicopters, which are used for most evacuation missions. They will use turboprop planes and helicopters in an attack role.
Their police and armed forces number almost 350,000, many of whom are engaged in heavy fighting across a mountainous battlefield.
“They don’t have a lot of capability thus far but they’re working in the right direction,” Wilsbach said.
Wilsbach said the Afghan military is also expanding plans for ground evacuation when aircraft cannot respond to a request for an evacuation.
To compensate for a lack of attack aircraft Afghan troops are being encouraged to use artillery and mortars if aircraft are not available.
The objective is to create an air force that is built to respond to the threats Afghanistan’s military faces and not an organization built in the image of the U.S. military, Wilsbach said.
Washington and its European allies plan on leaving a residual force after 2014 that will be capable of providing some assistance to Afghanistan’s military.
But the size of the force will probably not be sufficient to provide regular air support for bombing and medical evacuation for Afghan forces, leaving a potential gap in capabilities.
The ability to provide that type of support is considered critical as Afghanistan’s military assumes a leading role in the fight against the Taliban.
Afghanistan military has had weeks where more than 100 of its soldiers were killed, according to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan.
“They’re taking a significant number of casualties this spring and this summer,” Dunford said in a recent briefing with Pentagon reporters. “We are doing all we can to mitigate it.”
Dunford said coalition and Afghan commanders are attempting to analyze the casualty rates and figure out ways to reduce them.
“Afghan casualties are among my top concerns,” Dunford said.