An Afghan Air Force pilot receives on-the-job instruction from a U.S. Air Force pilot during a 2012 joint aerial mission at Forward Operating Base Fenty, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. (Spc. Ryan Hallgarth / Army)
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The U.S. Air Force general newly at the head of NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan got the bad news Sept. 13.
One of the best Afghan helicopter pilots the command had helped produce died from injuries suffered when his bird landed on an improvised explosive device during a training maneuver. The young pilot had married less than two weeks earlier.
“People forget it’s not just us,” said Brig. Gen. John Michel, who became commanding general of the NATO command in August. “Now we have a young generation and an older generation [in Afghanistan] losing their lives because they believe in the same things we believe in.”
News of the loss came a day before Michel’s trip to the U.S., where he planned to make the case for expanding a cadre of U.S. Air Force air advisers in Afghanistan through 2017.
As the dozen-year war winds down, the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing in Kabul, Afghanistan, is ramping up efforts to finish a mission begun in 2007: Build a self-sufficient Afghan air force.
The job will require more time, more money and more resources, including nearly twice as many U.S. airmen, contractors and coalition partners now leading the mission — an increase from 650 to 1,100, Michel said.
About 320 U.S. airmen and 200 contractors are currently part of the command, Michel said. Exactly how those numbers will increase hasn’t been determined yet, said Capt. Anastasia Wasem, the command’s chief of public affairs.
The advisers train pilots and teach subjects such as English, contract writing, aircraft maintenance, mission control and command, and air traffic control.
They’ll stay three years after most coalition troops go home.
“We understand there are a lot of people asking a lot of questions right now” about keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Michel said in an interview with Air Force Times during his U.S. visit.
The American public is war-weary. Allegations of corruption abound. There are also security concerns in the command with a tragic history; in April 2011, a trusted Afghan colonel turned his gun on his U.S. counterparts, killing eight airmen and one contractor.
Michel said he knows it’s a tough sell.
“We’re not confused. Job one is and will always be security of our people,” he said. “On any given day, if we don’t have the right amount of security forces, we start degrading our training. There is never a teammate uncovered.
“Our goal is to be able to equip the Afghans to have stability for themselves and future generations. That takes time. We’ve made that commitment. We will make good on it. That doesn’t mean we’re going to be there forever. ... Every day that we’re there doing what we need to do is setting them up for an increased chance of success.”
The vision: Build an 8,000-member “small but mighty” Afghan air force that will transport soldiers and supplies to the vast reaches of the mountainous country, provide close-air support for the army, remove from the battlefield those killed in action, move and care for the wounded and conduct humanitarian missions.
After a series of fits and starts that included safety standdowns and the contract cancellation in December for refurbished C-12A cargo aircraft, “we are producing significant results,” Michel said. C-130s will replace the C-12As, and delivery was set for September.
“I’m not saying it’s a 100 percent guaranteed success. I go all over the country routinely and see a lot of things. A lot of it is hard. But I see these folks, the excitement they have, the sense of possibility.”
The Afghan air force now plans and leads 90 percent of its missions, Michel said, ticking off a list of successes. A year ago, it took them three days to retrieve a wounded person. Now it takes three hours. When a sudden flood stranded nearly 250 Afghan civilians in August, the air force flew a successful rescue mission in a pair of Mi-17 helicopters.
“They want what we want: safety, a family, to be able to provide for their family [in a] country that has known nothing but war,” Michel said.
'The whole package'
The concept of an Afghan air force is nothing new in the rugged, landlocked country, Michel said. But war with the Soviets followed by years of Taliban rule decimated the country’s aircraft inventory, from 400 at its peak to less than three dozen when the U.S. entered Afghanistan.
“We’ve never as a United States Air Force taken on the task of building an air force — while we’re flying it in a war zone — from the ground up and from the inside out. We’re flying and deploying it while we’re training it. We’re building our infrastructure around us at the same time,” Michel said.
If all goes as planned, the Afghan air force will be able to function independently, with members of the force responsible for everything from writing contracts and recruiting and training to flying and maintaining aircraft.
Michel said there are 60 Afghan air force specialty codes being developed.
“Imagine the whole package. We’re writing the doctrine from the ground up,” he said.
Two C-130s and a new Mi-17 were set to arrive by the end of September. Twenty A-29s are scheduled for delivery next summer. Infrastructure is set to be complete by 2015.
“We’re ensuring everything we do is affordable not to us but to the Afghans. We will not do one thing that we do not deem sustainable after we leave in December .”
The current budget to run the air force in the out years, as Michel calls post-2017, is $600 million annually. At around 20 percent of Afghanistan’s total defense budget, he said, it’s a sizable chunk. He said they are working to ensure it’s affordable. If it isn’t, he said, they’ll scale back.
“We’re being real about the challenges but need help in telling this story because we’re going to be there for 39 more months,” Michel said. “We can take this all the way back to our national security interest. We’ve invested a lot of time, precious blood and tangible resources. We know a peaceful Afghanistan is important to being able to mitigate terrorism acts.”
A successful Afghan air force is a crucial piece of that, Michel said.