FORWARD OPERATING BASE FENTY, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's air force will be getting its first block of fixed-wing aircraft in early 2016, expanding the force's limited close-air support capability, defense officials said.
The delivery of the first four A-29 Super Tucanos, a turbo prop light attack aircraft, will arrive in Afghanistan in January, and a total of eight are due before the end of 2016. A fleet of 20 will be in place by 2018, according to a senior U.S. defense official.
"In the next few months the Afghan air force will start to take off with greater firepower into the air. A-29s arrive and provide close-air support, which will be a key element to increasing the superiority of Afghan forces over Taliban forces," U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said during a visit here Friday.
For the past 15 years the Afghan military has mostly relied on U.S. aircraft to provide close-air support for combat units on the ground. But the U.S. military scaled back its commitment to provide that air support when it formally ended the American combat mission here in December 2014.
The arrival of the new aircraft will give Afghanistan a chance to develop its own close-air support capability. "I think it's going to be a really important component in how they do aerial fires next year and the kind of overmatch they need to be able to have against a Taliban insurgency," the senior defense official said.
Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Masoom Stanekza said his country's military will continue to rely on U.S. aircraft for some time to contain the array of insurgent forces roiling the troubled nation.
"Building the air force of Afghanistan is not going to happen overnight. It's going to take a long time and a lot of investment," he said Friday in a joint press conference with Carter
Currently the U.S. military is providing pilot training at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, where the U.S. Air Force's 81st Fighter Squadron plans to train 30 Afghan pilots over the next five years.
"The critical piece of this is making sure that they have the human capital, the pilots, available to fly the platform," the defense official said.
For now the Afghan military is unable to provide the kind of logistics and maintenance support that A-29s require. The U.S. has helped arrange and pay for a logistics and maintenance contract support for those aircraft.
While there is a long-term plan for the Afghans to develop self-sustaining logistics and maintenance capabilities, for the near future the contract support will be "absolutely critical," a senior defense official said.
The Pentagon purchased the Super Tucanos in a $427 million contract with Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer, a Brazilian aerospace company. The aircraft are manufactured at Embraer's facility in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Super Tucanos carry two 12.7mm machine guns in the wings, and can be configured with additional underwing weaponry of up to 1,500 kg. They will augment the Afghan forces' Russian-made Mi-17 'Hip' helicopters and American-made MD 530F Cayuse Warrior helicopters that can also provide ground attack and close-air support.
The aircraft are designed to operate in high temperature and humidity conditions in extremely rugged terrain.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.