Shaping the Afghan Airpower Transition: The Lift Dimension


2013-04-12 by Robbin Laird

As NATO shapes the transition strategy in Afghanistan, the airpower dimension is a central one.

The geography and threat environment requires an ability to move forces throughout the country to deal with disparate threats.  And it is crucial as well to impede the concentration of force by Taliban and related forces against the Afghan people and their representative government.  It is also crucial to be able to deny sanctuary to the Taliban using sanctuaries in Pakistan.

All of this can be done ONLY with air assets supported by ground forces.

Air mobility is a central capability of any transition strategy, which addresses the real needs of Afghan security going forward.

It is important to realize that lift has been part of the overall changing role of air and ground integration. 

The Rover revolution has seen the integration of air and ground forces in shaping air strike in support of the ground forces. In the words of one Air Force officer, this is has led to the “democratization of the battlefield.”

The Casa 235 is a large civilian aircraft operated by the 53rd Movement Control Battalion, to move passengers, palettes and mail. Credit: USAF 

Equally significant but often missed is the dynamic role of air lift in changing operations in Afghanistan.  Classically, airlift provides the “bus” to take troops and supplies from point A to point B.  In Afghanistan, airlifters have become part of the ground engagement itself, providing dynamic links through air dropping and support for distributed forces providing force insertion throughout a geographically dispersed region.

Indeed, Afghanistan in many ways has seen the coming of age of the airlifter in ways not widely recognized.  

The airlifter has gone from being a truck to an integral part of a mobile insertion force, enabling combat capabilities for a distributed force operating throughout the battlespace. 

As Lt. General Allardice, Commander of the 18th Air Force has put it:

Right now we’re, I would say, sir, in the longest sustained airdrop in history, since 2005, we’ve been airdropping virtually every day.  We’ve doubled or tripled our load every year since then.  Last year we dropped about 60 million pounds of supplies.  This year we’ll exceed 100 million.  The interesting thing is to see the revolution or I’d say it’s more the leaps in the technology of not just the delivery but the rigging and the – – our understanding of collateral damage, et cetera. 

We understand that when you’re dropping a pallet today in a place that if that pallet goes off the drop zone or if – – even if it’s on the drop zone, if it kills somebody that’s no different than if a bomb killed somebody, so we’ve had to really focus on that.  So I think there’s been a tremendous revolution or improvement in our airdrop rigging, accuracy and then when you get into the Joint Precision Airdrop System, the JPAS, that’s even higher.

The need was well underscored by General McChrystal, then commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, when accepting the first C-27J for the Afghans.

McChrystal listed the tracking of Taliban forces, the movement of soldiers, delivery of supplies, and evacuation of wounded soldiers as essential missions that the C-27 can accomplish. 

The C-27 no longer remains; but the core need does.

In other words, airlift has become so integral to the air-ground integrated force, that the Afghans have not only seen the revolution but want to participate in it moving forward.

This means that they need their own airlifters as part of their Air Force going forward.

Initially, the United States had in mind adding the C-27 to the Afghan air force as the lift element.  But for a variety of reasons, including reliability and cost of operations, this is not now the plan.

There is an interim strategy of providing C-130s for Afghan use, but the complexity of these aircraft and their cost of operations are not symmetrical with the overall strategy of adding a robust, simple but capable asset such as the Super Tucano or the Mi-17.

Currently, the Afghans can rely only on helo lift or C-130s run by the US or NATO to provide for their lift.  And both are expensive to operate.

In the Congressional debate about the future of C-27s in Afghanistan, one Congressman provided a useful perspective on the costs of airlift facing the Afghans going forward, and we can use as a baseline for considerations going forward AFTER the C-27 has been eliminated from the mix.

The C-27 does (airlift in Afghanistan) it for $2,100 per hour, the CH-47 does it for about $11,000 per hour, the C-130 does for between $5,100 to $7,100 an hour — so from a taxpayer perspective, the C-27 not only allows you to land on smaller air strips, it’s saving the taxpayer money.”

What might provide a good backbone element for the emerging Afghan Air Force now that the C-27 is out of contention due to reliability and maintenance cost considerations? 

An obvious candidate is already in operation by US forces and has already been used effectively in Afghanistan.  The USCG purchased the CN-235, dubbed the Ocean Sentry, over the C-27 because of cost and maintainability considerations, both of which are important not only to the US Coast Guard but the Afghans as well.

The record of performance of the CN-235 a la Ocean Sentry is well established.  But less known is the performance of the CN-235 or its smaller sibling the C-212 in Afghanistan itself.

The C-212 has been used effectively in Afghanistan by the United States via contractors.  One of those contactors, Blackwater, has made it clear that the C-212 is both rugged and cost effective.

According to Blackwater Worldwide CEO Erik Prince, eight Blackwater CASA 212 light transport aircraft flew 11,000 sorties in Afghanistan last year supporting 38 combat outposts over 19,000 square miles. Its aircraft transported more than 40,000 personnel and 9.5 million pounds of supplies last year. 

“We moved about 40,000 passengers, and our total costs, our total invoice for that mission is about what the U.S. Air Force is paying for one new C-27,” he said. “So the idea of outsourcing versus having government do it, that’s a pretty simple math question for me.”

There was one incident involving a C-212, which was a crash of the aircraft, but this had nothing to do with the aircraft itself, but clearly pilot error as the official report underscored clearly.

The CN-235 has been used successfully as well by the US Air Force in Afghanistan.

In a 2009 article about the 53rd Movement Control Battalion or MCB the role of the two aircraft was highlighted.

The 53rd MCB can reach more locations more quickly than the passenger terminal’s aircraft, Thomas said, and its aircraft can land on anything from a large runway to a small dirt strip, thus increasing its travel and transportation effectiveness. This, Thomas added, helps the unit to create flights from scratch for passenger transport.

“We’re a logistics enabler that creates flights and moves equipment, but 90 percent of our airdrops are water,” Thomas said.

The battalion operates three types of aircraft: the small Casa 212, the medium Metro C-26 and the larger Casa 235. 

The Casa 212 can carry about eight passengers and primarily is used for supply drops. The Metro C-26 primarily is used as a high flying passenger plane, and the Casa 235 can carry entire pallets, as well as seating for up to 17 passengers. It can also carry twice as much weight as the Casa 212, and has a crew of three.

Within 30 minutes, Thomas said, an entire fleet of the battalion’s aircraft can be unloaded, fueled, loaded and sent to their destination.

The USCG has CN-235 as a core element in its operations; and the US has experience with the CN-235, which validate its performance and cost of performance.

Acquiring the CN-235 would be a low risk option for the US and NATO in supporting the air power transition in Afghanistan.

Among the key attributes of the CN-235 which makes a solid candidate for the Afghan Air Force are the following:

  • it is easy to fly,
  • it is easy to maintain (less than one man-hour per flight hour),
  • and economical to operate (1/4 the cost of a C-130).

The aircraft is designed to operate off of short runways and in rugged conditions.  It can as well be supported in such conditions as well.

Training and support for the aircraft are available worldwide and the aircraft is configured for support in remote operational settings as well.

Deployment kits for the aircraft are available for multiple operational scenarios ranging from 90 days to one year. The deployment kits include the spare and ground support equipment required during the deployment, so the aircraft is a very flexible instrument for supporting deployed operations over time.

(For a look at the French experience with the CN-235 and deployment to austere locations see the following:

Another advantage of the aircraft for the Afghan Air Force is that users of the aircraft are driving the evolution of the capabilities of the aircraft itself so that over time new capabilities will be available in a cost effective manner.

For example, one user of the CN-235 has requested a gunship adaptation of the aircraft, and such adaptations could then be available to other users.

According to one source, Jordan’s Air Force has demanded this solution.

ATK, under contract to KADDB, will modify two of the country’s CASA-235 transport aircraft into highly-capable and cost-effective special mission aircraft, according to the combined modification designs of both KADDB and ATK. 


Subject to U.S. government export licensing approval, the modified aircraft are expected to be delivered by the late spring of 2013. Terms of the contract were not announced.


ATK’s special mission aircraft offerings integrate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors, fire control equipment, and a LW30mm link-fed gun system.

These capabilities are controlled by ATK’s STAR Mission System which provides both day and night reconnaissance and fire control capabilities, and the ability to acquire, monitor and track items of interest. 


The CASA-235 gunship provides customers an enhanced capability to conduct responsive defense, counterinsurgency, and border surveillance and security missions. 

A palletized version of this solution set is being developed as well which will allow deployment configuration flexibility. The aircraft can be usually configured as airlifter (with the corresponding provisions to fit the gunship version equipment), and install the gunship kit when needed (i.e. protect deployment in hostile areas, or for special ops).

In short, there is a clear need for an airlifter to be added to the Afghan Air Force transition package. 

The C-27 demonstrated reliability and maintainability problems; the CN-235 has neither and a global record which makes it a low risk alternative.

The challenge is to remember how important airlift has become in Afghan operations, and to ensure that the Afghans can replicate the experience which Western forces have already demonstrated to them – air and ground power works as a team in providing for security in rugged terrain with a dispersed enemy seeking to destabilize the country.

As one analyst put it in an article published three years ago:

Dispersing the troops is a key element of the new strategy to provide security for Afghanistan’s population, which is scattered in thousands of rural villages and dusty crossroads and deep mountain valleys. Supplying American and allied troops by road is costly, time-consuming and — because of persistent insurgent attacks on convoys — often deadly. In the past eight years, 252 American troops have been killed by IEDs on Afghanistan’s roads, according to the most recent Pentagon data, with another 1,624 wounded. 

The roads are dangerous for other reasons, too. Last year, the U.S. military lost 44 trucks carrying 220,000 gallons of fuel. The skyrocketing appetite for critical resupply has outrun the capacity of U.S. military truck convoys, so local truckers are hired to haul non-lethal cargo, an Army logistics officer told me. But because of bandit roadblocks, insurgent attacks and breakdowns, it takes an average of 21 days for local truckers to struggle from Bagram Air Field, where cargo flights arrive from the U.S. and Europe, to Kandahar, the staging base for allied forces in southern Afghanistan. In winter, it can take twice that long. 

“Convoys are favored targets of insurgents,” a senior Pentagon official told Congress a few months ago. It’s not hard to figure out why: strangle the supply of food, water, ammunition, reinforcement troops and blood, and military operations come to a halt. 

Here, in other words, all roads lead to…the skies. And American forces still control the air.  “Airlift keeps people off the road, and we can save lives,” Air Force Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, who leads the Air Mobility Command, told me before I came to Afghanistan.

For the early pieces in our series on the Afghan airpower transition see the following: