Recently over at War is Boring, University of Kentucky professor Robert Farley made the case for eliminating the United States Air Force, but not for the elimination of U.S. military airpower. Instead, he advocates for closer integration of that airpower, one of the keys to winning in modern war. But in 2013, “winning” is not on the table for coalition troops in Afghanistan, and developing airpower for the Afghans is no longer a priority for a NATO mission that’s just looking for the exits.
This week Major General McConville,whose 101st Airborne Division is in charge of Regional Command East, answered reporters’ questions about U.S. operations in Afghanistan. At one point he was asked about the current state of the Afghan Air Force (AAF), crucial to the success of Afghan security forces post-2014.
I’ve written about this before, on my own blog and also for the Afghan Analysts’ Network. I make the point in both cases that the AAF is nowhere near ready to provide the required effort in two key areas: medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) and close air support (CAS)—neither of which the Afghans need, if we take McConville’s word for it.
Why fly when you’ve got this perfectly good road?
In addressing the MEDEVAC question, McConville acknowledged that coalition forces are reliant on air assets to get casualties off the battlefied. Since, as he put it, “we’re not from the area.” From the briefing:
When we have a wounded soldier in our military, we send a MEDEVAC helicopter, because we’re not from the area.
But when I’m back in Boston, I don’t get in a helicopter. I go to a local medical facility, unless it’s a real serious type incident or in a place where I can’t get to it.
For them, we’re developing the same type thing. If they get hurt, and they’re in their village, or they’re in their town, the first thing we want them to do is go ahead to use the amublances that they have and the vehicles to go ahead and move their casualties to the local medical facility and then get treatment there. And then if they need to go further they can bring in helicopters and do those type things.
Comparing anywhere in Afghanistan to Boston makes less sense than turning chicken and waffles into potato chips, but this falls apart for three reasons:
- Quality of medical care: There’s a reason that severely wounded Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) casualties are moved as quickly as possible to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) facilities, and that’s because the Afghans are incapable of providing the same level of trauma care that the coalition can.
- Accessibility of the battlefield: According to the latest Department of Defense report on progress in Afghanistan, “80% of ‘enemy initiated attacks’ occur where 20% of Afghans live.” While ISAF is using those figures to demonstrate that the majority of the Afghan population is living in safety, it illustrates the remoteness of most of the battles that the ANSF have to fight.
- The IED threat: ISAF has dodged transparent public reporting of enemy attacks in Afghanistan (to include IEDs) for years. That got worse beginning in January of this year: ISAF stopped its monthly reporting of Enemy Initiated Attacks (EIAs) completely, citing irregularities in the reporting by Afghan forces. Consequently, ISAF no longer reports monthly IED figures,instead relying on the vague information conveyed by graphs and charts in a bi-annual report to US Congress. But what’s evident from the data they do provide is that the IED threat has not reduced over the last several years. That’s not as significant an issue for the coalition in its MRAPs, but it is a deadly consideration for the Afghan forces in their predominantly unarmored vehicles.
Given the distances they have to travel to get effective trauma care,or any kind of trauma care at all, suggesting that the Afghans just need more ambulances gives a pretty strong indication of where the U.S. effort is heading. But what about close air support (CAS)?
Great ideas, lowered expectations
Currently the Afghan Air Force (AAF) has two flyable helicopter gunships. Two. While they’re in the process of retrofitting some of their 39 functioning Mi-17 transport helicopters to serve in that CAS role, the Afghan National Army (ANA) still needs something to tip the scales in their favor, like artillery. Per McConville:
They now have the capability to shoot D-30 howitzers. And they can shoot them in the indirect mode. They also have 82mm mortars and they have 60mm mortars which allows them to get overmatch with the indirect fire systems against the enemy. So in some cases that can help them out where we may use close air support, they can use their howitzers and their mortars to make up for that.
To tip the balance against the insurgents and achieve “overmatch,” or the advantage on the battlefield, the Afghans need, in this case, more artillery. To be fair, there is nothing wrong with artillery if your opponent is armed with a Pakistani knockoff of a Chinese copy of a Russian rifle.
But where ISAF failed was in providing the level of air support that it has for so long. They trained the ANSF how to fight with airpower on call, and then took most of that airpower away before alternatives had matured. The Afghans should have trained all along with that artillery support. Besides a less painful transition, it also would have allowed for a more sustainable (read: less expensive) post-2014 security effort on the part of foreign donors. Instead?
But long term will they want more close air support? Absolutely. Do they want more attack helicopters? That would give them much more overmatch in the future. And that’s going to take some time for them to get there.
That last statement is key: Given the current pace of the ISAF drawdown and withdrawal, there is no more time, so getting there seems less and less likely.
Nice watch, but do you have the time?
The Obama administration and Congress seem increasingly disinclined to provide the kind of robust defense aid that Afghanistan’s military (particularly its air force) needs. And as an alternative to airpower, artillery is less expensive, both to purchase and to maintain. The current US approach of weaning the Afghans off the air support “enabler” seems poorly planned at best, a hamfisted approach that is leaving them less prepared than they should be.It’s the result of an administration increasingly dissatisfied with the war, but if the coalition and the ANSF had been better prepared for the pace of the drawdown, the implementation of artillery could have been considerably more effective.
For Obama, ending the war by 2014 means getting back at least some of the credibility he’s lost since his second election. While he no longer needs that credibility on a personal level, that still matters in the pursuit of Democratic agendas in D.C. So by 2015 the AAF will have nowhere near the assets it requires to support ground forces, since for the Democrats, ending yet another costly war and its questionable achievements means votes.Which means less money for a country perceived by many of those voters as ungrateful and irredeemably corrupt. And that means that, as far as Washington is concerned, the Afghans don’t need an air force.