For most U.S. and NATO forces, the war in Afghanistan will be over by the end of 2014.
But for nearly 800 coalition airmen and contractors now in Afghanistan — including roughly 300 American airmen — their mission could continue for years after the 12-year-old war is technically over. Those airmen are helping stand up the Afghan air force, and their mission is expected to continue until the Afghan air force becomes fully independent in 2017.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, who oversees NATO’s air mission in Afghanistan, said those airmen won’t see much difference when Operation Enduring Freedom turns into the post-2014 NATO training and advisory mission, called Resolute Support.
“The training, advise and assist mission doesn’t really change” after 2014, Wilsbach said in a Sept. 12 interview. “Our responsibility is to grow up the Afghan air force. That’s what we’re doing. We’ve got Afghan airmen in pilot training, doing aircrew training, learning how to do maintenance, and doing support missions. That will continue.”
The biggest change, Wilsbach said, will be the type of aircraft being used by the Afghans. And that will require coalition forces to bring on airmen who are experts in the new aircraft and who can teach the Afghans how to operate and maintain them.
Wilsbach said maintenance crews on the C-130 transport aircraft have already begun arriving, in anticipation of the two C-130H aircraft expected to arrive Sept. 30. More maintainers and instructors are expected by the end of the month, along with Afghan crew members who have been training at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. Another two C-130s are expected next spring.
Coalition forces also will need to bring on instructors and maintainers for the 20 A-29 Super Tacanos that are expected to start arriving in Afghanistan — two each month — next fall. Afghans will begin training on the A-29s, which are propeller-driven light aircraft, in the spring, Wilsbach said.
“Those are parts of the overall mission, which is to get the Afghan air force to a point where it’s self-sustainable,” Wilsbach said. “What that means is, they have enough crews and enough instructors so that they don’t need us. They’ll be able to train their own people and continue to grow to the point where can leave, and we expect that to be in 2017.”
Royal Air Force Air Commodore Christopher Brazier, director of air operations for NATO’s day-to-day command in Afghanistan and the equivalent of a U.S. brigadier general, said the Afghan air force now has about 6,000 airmen, and he expects it will reach its goal of 8,000 airmen soon.
The Afghans have been using five Russian-made Mi-35 helicopters effectively lately, Brazier said, such as in an operation last month when they took out insurgent heavy machine gun positions with Mi-35s. And the Afghans have been fitting dual guns and rockets to their Mi-17 helicopters, he said, and starting to use them for air assault.
Brazier said receiving the A-29s will help the Afghans maintain attack capability as the Mi-35s go out of service. Wilsbach said they will also help provide the Afghans better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
“It dovetails nicely with the end of the 35,” Brazier said. “The A-29 is the future.”
Wilsbach and Brazier said the Afghans are becoming more self-sufficient and relying less on coalition support. For example, in the second quarter of 2013, Afghans flew about 460 casualty evacuation missions — a 139 percent increase from the first quarter of 2013, and a roughly 300 percent increase over the same time last year, Wilsbach said.
A year ago, Wilsbach said, it took Afghans up to three days to evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefield in a helicopter. Today, he said, the Afghans’ casualty evacuations are always done in less than three hours, and most are around an hour.
“They’re very close to achieving the ‘golden hour’” on a regular basis, Wilsbach said. The so-called “golden hour” refers to the amount of time in which wounded people must receive medical attention to have the greatest chance of survival. “That means their soldiers are surviving their wounds.”
Wilsbach said the Afghans also are showing increased technical proficiency, as they showed when a flash flood hit an area in the eastern Nangarhar Province on Aug. 3. Two Afghan-operated Mi-17 helicopters were retasked in the middle of a resupply mission and moved 232 trapped Afghan civilians to higher ground.
“They would not have been able to do that six months ago, and certainly not a year ago, because they didn’t have the command and control,” Wilsbach said. “This air force is maturing, not just by getting more aircraft and not just by recruiting new crews, but they actually have leadership and command and control and a way to task their forces to respond to the battle as it’s happening.”
And by the time the non-combat Resolute Support mission begins in 2015, Brazier said, Afghans will be doing the fighting.
“We don’t envisage there being lots of F-16s and [RAF] Tornadoes flashing around the place, attacking insurgents,” Brazier said. “We will have got the Afghan security forces, including the air force, to a position where they can deal with the forces themselves. We’ll just be here to make sure that some of the higher technology capabilities, such as developing a logistics system [and] combat engineering.”
Efforts to stand up the Afghan air force have been challenged by the stunningly low levels of literacy in Afghanistan, where only about 20 percent of the population can read. But Wilsbach said that is improving. Afghanistan’s chief of general staff — the Afghan equivalent of the American chairman of the joint chiefs of staff — issued a decree in early 2013 ordering the Afghan air force to only hire literate recruits.
About 460 Afghan airmen are in English language training, Wilsbach said, which will help them communicate on radios and allow them to read the English instructions in maintenance manuals.
He said he hopes 30 percent of the Afghan air force’s maintainers eventually will to have enough English proficiency to read technical manuals, and then supervise the rest of the force that can’t read English.