Shaping the Afghan Transition: The Air Power Dimension


2013-03-18 by Robbin Laird

The Western powers are facing the end game in Afghanistan.  Whether what they do in the next few months is a transition or an exit remains up in the air.  I mean this quite literally.

If the Afghans as a nation are going to work together to shape a counter-insurgency and defense strategy, air power is a crucial lynchpin. 

This is true for multiple reasons.

First, the geography of Afghanistan makes this an air-connected territory, not a road connected one.

Second, the conditions of operation are challenging and require robust and maintainable air systems to support Afghan forces.

Third, the US and NATO have demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt that airpower is a fundamental element of security and defense “ground” operations.  The demonstration effect is palpable in Afghanistan.  Leaving the Afghans with little or no operational air capability would be a statement of neglect by the exiting NATO forces.

As Major General Givhan has put it:

Afghanistan is a mountainous country roughly the size of Texas with isolated valleys and provinces far removed from the capital in Kabul due to its rugged topography.

Afghanistan is also still lacking a modern and comprehensive road network which makes having an effective Air Force all the more important.

Mobility within the country and around the battlefield is a primary mission for the Afghan Air Force, which has already begun to prove itself in humanitarian relief during floods as well as in military operations around the country.

Virtually all of the national American press has discussed the competition for the Light Air Support (LAS) USAF contract to provide LAS aircraft to the Afghans.  Much of the press has focused on what Lenin called Kto Kgo or “Who can do what to whom?”

But the real question was posed by Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journal: U.S. Builds Afghan Air Base: But Where are the Planes?

Shaping an Afghan Air Force is a key element of a transition versus and exit strategy. 

A Russian Mi-26 Halo helicopter airlifts a damaged Afghan Mi- 17 Hip helicopter to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, July 13, 2011. The Halo has the capacity to transport approximately 100 troops or 45,000 lbs. Credit: 16th Mobile Affairs Detachment. 

As the Afghans shape a capability, the U.S. and its allies can find a plug and play force with whom to work and to provide support and escalation options in times of a

Taliban surge or other unpredictable developments.

Airpower is crucial to every aspect of operations in the Afghan Area of Operations, and crucial to hot pursuit of the Taliban who do not respect lines on a geographical map.

Interviews we have conducted with American and French military operators in Afghanistan have hit hard on a key theme: airpower is central to today’s operations in Afghanistan and there is a clear need to arm the Afghan allies with a functional capability along the same lines.

As SLD’s Murielle Delaporte, commented upon her return from Afghanistan embedded with the French forces:

SLD: How important is air support to the Afghans and to the French forces?

Delaporte: It is everything.  It is one of the key elements and will grow in importance as the transition evolves.  The French military helos will become proportionally a greater part of the force as withdrawal accelerates (i.e. remaining at approximately the same level while other units drawdown).  Especially as the Mirages leave the combat theater, the role of the helos in providing air support tends to go up.

The Afghan military population has really come to appreciate air support as a key element of future success, as well as security (a Medevac ability being in particular part of any operation).  One French officer told me that the Afghan helo force should become increasingly significant in enabling the Afghan security and defense forces, as the Coalition forces gradually enable them to take over.

And  Major General Walters, now 2nd MAW commented upon his return from Afghanistan:

SLD: As we face transition in Afghanistan, one option clearly is to rely more on the Special Forces type of support to the Afghans against the insurgency.  Your experience in many ways presages such an effort.  How would your experience shape understanding from a professional military point of view of how to best support the Afghans with a Special Forces type of support?

General Walters:  Our role will be to support the Afghan security forces.  You’re going to have to support those guys, and they’re going to be much more distributed.  You’re not going to have the battalions out there that you support people on the FABs.  It’s going to have to be from a central location.  And the QRF (Quick Reaction Force) is going to have to be good, and it’s going to have to be there quickly.

In the end, we have to be able to prove to the Afghan security forces that if something happens, this platoon is good enough until we get someone in there.

If you ever need more than a platoon’s worth of trigger pullers in a district center, the V22s is how you’re going to get there quickly and decisively enough to matter.

The Afghan National Army and Afghan Security Forces understand from their perspective, how important air is.  We have made them big consumers.

They know that the air is there for them; they’ll go out and operate.  I’ve had more than one brigade commander tell me that if it wasn’t for the medevac, it wasn’t for the resupply, and if it wasn’t for the aviation fires, he didn’t think he could get the battalions out operating like they do.  Because they’ve learned that if they get hurt, we’ll fix them.  They know if they run out of bullets, we’ll get them bullets.  And if they’re hungry or thirsty, we’ll get them food and water.

As the U.S. looks forward to work with allies worldwide in the years to come on COIN and related operations, the U.S. will not be bringing the entire gamut of capability to the party.  Working with allies in current and projected financial conditions requires a new formula: the U.S. supports allies who can fend for themselves, up to a point.

And the model has already been highlighted by the 12th USAF in working with Columbia: what needs to happen is to recognize this model and move ahead in global support for these types of operations with the U.S. providing its complement to those allies willing to field counter-insurgency airpower.

As Ed Timperlake emphasized:

The 12th is supporting nations just off our shore and recently held a U.S. Air Power demonstration in celebration of 100 years of aviation in the Dominican Republic.

Unheralded success has just been achieved by this partnership between SOUTHCOM and the Dominican Republic Air Force flying the Embraer Air Super Tucano. This remarkable and replicable success is made possible by U.S. “Hi” ISR technology in partnership with the Dominican Republic “Lo” technology the Super Tucano.

It has not been widely reported that this war against drug barons is being won in the sky.

Although drug money is unrelenting in finding ways to supply their corrosive product for now in the war against narco-criminials and terrorist this is a huge accomplishment, and the opening headline from Dominican Today quoted above says it all.

Along with the success in Dom Rep, the Colombian AF is wining the fight against the FARC with sensors and shooters—again the Super Tucano.

Consequently, this “Hi-Lo” mix is beginning to look like a winning formula for world wide partnerships between the U.S. and other nations by using American ISR that can give hot vectors in both the air-to-air and air-to-ground mission to a Light Armed Attack Aircraft (LAAR) like the Super Tucano.

And if we return to Afghanistan, we can underscore what a transition strategy might look like.

Rugged ops assets for helo, fixed wing attack and ISR as well as lift capabilities into the hands of the Afghans and let the US Army and USMC work with them in hot pursuit of the Taliban who know now geographical boundary in the region. The US Army would highlight their role for Apaches and the USMC the role of the Osprey.

Together working together with an air-enabled Afghan force, the U.S. could continue to influence outcomes necessary in the war against terrorism and at the same time pull out most of our troops. 

This would be a war winning formula, which the US Army might want to look at for its global future.

We are going to look at several aspects of a projected air power transition in Afghanistan and how the US and its allies might be able to work with the Afghans in the years ahead.

The key question can be simply put: how can the Afghans be best trained and equipped to support over the long run air operations in support of counter-insurgency and defense missions?

There is no point in transferring unique Western technologies, which can not be supported in the rugged Afghan conditions by Afghan technicians.  Training can provide opportunities for continued solid working relationships between Western forces and Afghans and putting the right equipment into Afghan hands can provide both significant independence for Afghans and working relationships with the West for years to come.

In other words, there are multiple variables interacting with one another to create a favorable outcome.

  • The West and its allies sort out the right kind of support and engagement strategy;
  • The Afghans are trained appropriately to the missions required;
  • Rugged ops equipment maintainable by Afghans is put in place;
  • And proper engagement capabilities from the West are available to plug in play with Afghan forces when appropriate.

We will look at each of these variables in the forthcoming series.