Too Little, Too Late

Not since the coming of the Baby Yeezus has a new arrival been so heralded: buried in the news that the US had driven another nail into the global democracy coffin in Kabul was the delivery of the first Tucano to the Afghan Air Force. And lo, there was jubilation, as the first A-29 began slouching toward Bagram to be born. But like everything else the US has done in the graveyard of common sense, the Tucano is more cautionary tale than cause for celebration.

I’ve made mention of my concerns for the Afghan Air Force (AAF) in the past, as well as the “solutions” the US has proposed in the event that said force doesn’t come to full fruition. I put “solutions” in “quotes” because like most “answers” the Americans offer, this falls firmly in the “more-harm-than-good” territory. This is not to cast aspersions on the fine men and women charged with standing up the AAF — like most people in uniform, they’ve done the best with what they had.

The AAF, like all things with wings, is the kind of solution to security problems that has a distinctly American flair. It’s not nearly as fun to stand up a functional, professional army as it is to point to the skies as they echo with the sound of freedom. Which, if freedom can be measured in decibels, ISAF helos are freeing the absolute shit out of Kabul.

We Need It Because…Air Force!

The existence of the AAF pre-supposes that all good military forces should have an aerial component. Not so long ago the AAF was part of the Afghan army, but Karzai put a stop to that, seeing the need for a separate aerial fighting force. I suspect that this “need” was driven by American “dollars,” and the prestige that comes with being the sort of president that has an air force at his disposal.

Back in the days before the world discovered Afghanistan, the country had a functional air force. During the most recent civil war, this force was put to all kinds of good uses, namely converting structures and their inhabitants from a solid to a mist. Since, well, it was a civil war, which wars tend to make non-civil wars look more like Tupperware* party by comparison.

Getting an air force up and running is good for optics. Nothing takes people’s minds off of spotty electricity, failing health care, and unstaffed schools like seeing jet fighters streaking through the sky. Jet noise cures all kinds of things: hunger, illiteracy, and impotence. Especially that last one.

Good Enough for South America

But the problem with putting the “air” in an “air force” is that they’re expensive. And complicated. And expensive. And if you’re fighting an enemy who’s pretty happy in his flip flops and his Pakistani knock off of a Chinese copy of a clunky Russian rifle, air forces are a bit of overkill. Sure, they provide battlefield superiority, make it easier to kill more bad guys, and they do put on a great airshow for the kids, but a first world air force is…right: expensive.

Enter the Light Air Support (LAS) program. The point of the LAS was to give the Afghans something that would be “good enough,” and wouldn’t end up either rotting on a runway at Bagram or end up across the border in Pakistan. Or Iran. Or if it did end up across the border, people would be less upset about that than that one time they canceled Family Guy.

This aircraft is uniquely capable to support the light air support mission and defend the people of Afghanistan against the terrorists and insurgents that they face every day. — Taco Gilbert, spokesperson

The winner of the LAS competition was the A-29, a purpose-built counterinsurgency aircraft in use by several militaries in places south of Mexico. If you’re like me, your geographic acuity is generally tied to whether we dropped bombs on it lately, but I’m given to understand that there’s an entire continent with the word “America” in it that’s not terribly “American.” The A-29’s a proven airframe, in other words, and with its speed, range, and the fact that it’s not a super expensive jet meant that it was ideally suited for use by the Afghans.

Perhaps You Don’t Get What “American Made” Means

Except that Embraer, that makes the Tucano, is one of those “other” American companies, and this gave Beechcraft, which is a real American company, a case of patritotic heartburn. They had a competing airframe, a modern day version of the venerable T-6 Texan, which, they thought would make a dandy airframe for the AAF. Despite the fact that it’s been in service with no one whatsoever. So they protested the selection of the A-29 on ‘murican grounds.

Which ignored that rarest of all creatures: a “fact.” Actually several of them, to include:

  • The A-29 was going to be built in the US
  • Several US based companies were subcontracted along with Embraer
  • The T-6, while ‘murican, had not been used by any air force

All of which makes it sound like I’m more of a fan of the Tucano than I led you to believe. I am, in some respects: yes, there are better, more cost effective solutions out there. Yes, the Americans should have opted for one of those, preferably from a donor nation closer to Afghanistan than the United States.

On a Wing and a Prayer…Or a Budget Mod

But if they’re going to pick the Tucano, then they need to go all the way with the selection and make sure the Afghans have an airframe they need to fill the vital role of providing aerial firepower to fight the Taliban. That’s assuming that the Afghans need an air force at all, but if that point is moot, then what needs to happen is to ensure that what’s in the inventory will be there for a long, long time. But that’s not what’s happening.

The deal for $427.5 million — covering 20 aircraft as well as training, support and spares — was anticipated to be the first tranche of work. However, amid constant protests from Beechcraft and declining budgets, the Air Force has not opted for a second buy. But team officials expect the Afghan forces to buy the systems in the future.

The way the LAS program works is this: the Americans (in this case the US Air Force) orders the aircraft, then delivers them to the Afghans. The Afghans then are expected to come up with the money in the future to buy more of them on their own. These would be the same Afghans who currently need an immediate cash infusion to pay their own civil servants. The same Afghans that just swore in a President whose first official decree was investigating corruption at a bank.

I’m all about battling corruption, and it’s what Ghani needs to do to calm international donor fears that their money is going to finance more condos on the Palm in Dubai. But it underscores the fact that the Afghans have a lot to deal with in a very short period of time, and figuring out what kind of aircraft they’re going to buy next isn’t terribly high on their list of priorities. And it shouldn’t be.

20 Sounds About Right(ish)

It’s true that the Afghans are getting 20 aircraft. 20 Tucanos isn’t a bad deal if you’re talking about close air support for a country the size of Texas. But if the insurgency opts to open up a multi-front conflict…sorry…I can’t finish that sentence. Let me rephrase: Since the insurgency’s opted to open up a multi-front escalation in the festivities, those 20 aircraft are going to be…busy. And they’re only going to be showing up 2 at a time between now and next summer.

At which point there will be Afghan pilots super ready to fly them and drop high explosives near their compatriots. Because once the planes show up, half the problem’s solved, right? There’s some kind of air force training that probably has to happen, and bippity boppity bippity boo…you’re going full Oprah.

The failure of the mission here in Afghanistan has been well documented, but this week’s Tucano delivery sounds a recurring theme: you can’t build on assumptions. Or magic. Even Oprah magic. You build on plans. Plans with timelines. And measurable goals.

But from Commander Emergency Response Funds up through massive funding of infrastructure leviathans, the plan was that someday the Afghans would catch up. That if we built enough, eventually the fiscal processes would come. But from the roads to nowhere through an air force that’s not quite good enough, it’s 2014, and we’re still stuck on a maybe.

* This post is in no way endorsed by Tupperware