by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Afghanistan’s Air Force has strapped weapons onto cargo aircraft and thrown them into the battle against insurgents, according to a report by the country’s Khaama Press.
Relying on transports for close air support is a bad sign. Despite more than a decade of Western help and millions of dollars in foreign aid, the Afghan Air Force is still dangerously understaffed, poorly equipped and insufficiently trained to launch effective air strikes.
Worse, the deteriorating situation all comes during the Taliban’s latest offensive — and there’s not enough helicopters, planes and pilots to go around.
The Pentagon echoed these concerns in a new review of Afghanistan’s military released on June 16. Coalition air strikes for Afghan forces “has been drastically reduced,” the report noted. “The responsibility … now falls almost entirely to the AAF.”
To cover an area almost as big as the state of Texas, Kabul has a dozen Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopter armed with 23-millimeter cannons and rockets — and five Soviet-era Mid-35 Hind gunships. Beyond that, Afghanistan’s air arm doesn’t have many options.
So it’s no wonder why Afghan air crews have turned to armed transports. But Gen. Afzal Aman, the Afghan military’s chief of operations, did not specify which cargo haulers had been pressed into combat in his interview with Khaama.
The news outlet included a picture of an Mi-17 in the piece, suggesting Aman was talking about the cannon-armed choppers. Or the general could have been referring to Kabul’s fleet of Cessna C-208 planes.
Enterprising aircrews could easily mount machine guns or cannons in the tiny C-208’s main cabin. Other countries such as Iraq and Lebanon already fly C-208 variants armed with Hellfire missiles.
And with only around 100 aircraft in total, the Mi-17s and C-208s account for more than two thirds of Afghanistan’s entire aerial arsenal, the Pentagon’s review noted.
Kabul received six small MD-530 gunships in March, but pilots are still training to fly them in combat. The Pentagon doesn’t expect the country’s single-engined A-29 ground attack planes—a derivative of the Brazilian EMB-314 trainer—to arrive over the battlefield for another six months.
But even if the Afghan Air Force gets the necessary aircraft, there’s still other hurdles. For one, there’s not enough pilots.
At the moment, Kabul’s air arm has approximately 150 pilots available for combat missions. To make matters more complicated, Afghan commanders have sent the most experienced C-208 pilots to learn how to fly the new A-29 … in the United States.
Finding new recruits is a challenge. Suitable candidates must meet strict literacy requirements — in a country where less than a third of the population knows how to read and write in any language.
“The Afghan Air Force needs training which could not be achieved with short-term courses,” Khaama reported from Aman’s remarks. “He insisted that it would be difficult to have a proper air force within a short span of time.”
In the past, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense poached chopper crews and Mi-17 helicopters from the Air Force for the separate, more prestigious and better funded Special Mission Wing. This unit serves as the country’s aerial commando force.
But the lack of training can cause its own — and potentially more serious — problems. Without the proper skills, Afghan air strikes could be just as deadly to friendly troops and innocent civilians as Taliban fighters.
The Pentagon shares these concerns. Some time after December 2014, American advisers taught Afghan Mi-35 crews how to avoid “collateral damage” when shooting off 57-millimeter rockets.
“The AAF subsequently employed its first Mi-35 rockets in more than three years,” the Pentagon proudly declared in their review, without explaining who had taken the rockets away in the first place or why. During this same period, official photos have depicted Afghan Hinds firing rockets in training.
The next sentence offered one clue. “Additionally, the crews have been demonstrating restraint when it comes to potential civilian casualties,” the review added.
Then there’s the lack of spare parts. Over time, these shortages can add up and force Kabul to ground its aircraft. “Logistical sustainment will make or break the AAF in the long-run,” the Pentagon report concluded.
The Afghan Air Force has already seen how big an issue this can be with its fleet of twin-engined G.222 cargo planes. With Kabul unable to care for the aircraft, even with help from private contractors, the Pentagon decided to scrap them … for cents on the dollar.
Afghan crews received three larger C-130s as replacements, but they’ve had similar difficulties making the most of them. For the 2015 fighting season, the Pentagon hopes the four-engined transports will be flying 80 percent more missions than they did the year before.
The new A-29s have advanced flight computers and powerful infrared cameras, but this makes them even harder to maintain. If the little attackers are grounded, Kabul’s troops will have to again fall back on its small fleet of armed transports.
By the end of 2016, American advisers still hope the Afghan Air Force will have 20 A-29s and nearly as many MD-530s to back up forces on the ground. If everything goes smoothly, the Hinds will be gone and transports can go back to hauling cargo.
But if problems—new or old—continue to crop up along the way, Afghan soldiers could find themselves calling on armed transports for the foreseeable future. Who benefits? The Taliban, mainly.