The Way Ahead for Airpower in Afghanistan


2013-04-14 by Robbin Laird

With 2014 coming, NATO faces a transition in Afghanistan.

With this transition, comes the need to attend as best as possible to Afghan security and to ensure that the conditions which led to the U.S. and then NATO intervention simply return.

A decade of war, which simply makes the playing field better for the Taliban or allows “foreign fighters” to move from Pakistan with impunity into Afghanistan is not a good outcome.

At the same time, the United States as it looks to the future of its military and the limits on checkbook diplomacy will find the transition in Afghanistan as part of a larger debate about the U.S. military and its role.

The decade in which Big Army dominated the “joint” force operating in territory without peer competitor threats is over.

Without a checkbook and manpower, and even more without a mission, the US Army will face significant cuts in its size and significant intellectual challenges to its identity in the period ahead.

U.S. Army leaders tend to resist the inevitable.

There is little question that foreign training role of the U.S. Army will remain significant but clear strategic choices will have to be made on where such capabilities would be applied and for what purpose.

And associated with this will be the success or failure of the end game of Afghanistan.

With the clear failure of Iraq in any strategic sense – where is the ally against Iran which was a minimum strategic outcome one would have worked towards – where is the evidence that a large occupation force in and of itself yields benefits for the United States?

Super Tucanos flying in formation. The Super Tucano is a key part of the Afghan airpower transition. 

In a period of financial scarcity, force structure drawdowns and a wide range of global threats, strategy will be driven as it always is by choice; the key is to make the right choices and the right investments.

The end game in Afghanistan will be part of the emergent lessons learned in shaping the way ahead, and not simply a passing footnote to history.

And here the key question will be: what remains in Afghanistan, which can shape the Afghan future and ensure Western interests are met?

The kind of intervention, which the West has done in Afghanistan, is not simply to provide training for Western military trainers, or combat personnel; it is a deadly game, as many of our young men and women are well aware.

And the Taliban are not going away and for that measure neither is the impact of Pakistan on the region.

We are often left with not the best choices, but the choices, which give us the best chances. 

Such is the case in Afghanistan.

The airpower transition provides us with an opportunity to remain engaged in Afghanistan, to shape a more effective Afghan Air Force, which can support those elements in Afghanistan who wish to protect their country from the Taliban or other like-minded 12th century warriors.  Such engagement is a bet; not a certainty.

But the approach at least provides an alternative or chance, which continued presence of American and Western ground troops providing training do not.

Airpower is mobile and is able to reinforce rapidly, from ships or foreign airfields.

The Afghan Air Force can be shaped in a way in which the West if it so chooses and those Afghans who choose to work with us can be reinforced rapidly to deal with any surge of insurgents.

Neither the United States nor the West are likely to leave large ground training forces in place to function as hostages or targets, and certainly will not do so without air protection.

In other words, the period ahead in shaping the capabilities and approach of the Afghan Air Force and the training and support relationship between NATO, the United States and the Afghan Air Force is the thin reed to shape the future. 

It may well not work; but it is the best chance, which we have.

And it can lay down a model – not the model – for the future as well.

There will be places in the world where collaborating with a local government providing their own ground and air security and defense capabilities networked with U.S. or allied forces can make a difference.

We have already seen this in the case of the 12th Air Force working with the Dominican Republic.

As Lt. Col. Box of the USAF has written about the joint training of the Dominican Air Force with the USAF:

DRAF officers are convinced that Sovereign Skies’ use of airpower made a definitive impact: “You only have to look in the skies of Santo Domingo, and you will see and hear our Super Tucanos on patrol. Every day El Diario [Dominican newspaper] publishes articles about training with the Colombians and the USAF.

The DTOs know the Colombian Air Force A-29 pilots are some of the  best in the world and USAF AWACS patrol the skies between Hispaniola  and South America, and they are providing intercept control to our A-29s.”

The benefits of a trained tactical air force have also increased cooperation within the Dominican counterdrug interagency. For example, Dominican patrol boats request air support through a simple text message that produces a DRAF A-29 on scene in a matter of minutes. On multiple occasions, based on interagency intelligence, A-29s have launched and intercepted maritime targets, subsequently vectoring nearby patrol boats for cocaine seizures and arrests.

12t Air Force

And Ed Timperlake underscored how the model being shaped in Afghanistan and already practiced in the Dominican Republic could help shape the US approach for 21st century operations:

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.

World wide possibilities are abundant, Indonesia, Afghanistan and hopefully some day back to the Philippines. There is no need for “Hi” US tactical aircraft — just “Hi” American platform censors — and the “Lo” capabilities of the Super Tucano which is battle tested and perfect for the mission.

The future of large land forces occupying, training and then leaving decades later is dim.

The future belongs to more agile forms of cooperation, and shaping partnerships in the period ahead. 

One “Big Army” Advocate wishing to ignore the realities of the condition of the treasury, the forces and the nature of 21st century threats simply wished this away in what he called the fantasy of “raiding parties.”

I guess this chap was thinking of the “Swamp Fox.”

Army Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, now chief of the tank and infantry school at Fort Benning singled out two pitfalls in particular, one about over-reliance on Special Operations raiders, the other about over-reliance on proxies and advisors. Call them (our words, not his) the Zero Dark Thirty fallacy and the Lawrence of Arabia fallacy.

The first mistake is what McMaster called “a raiding mentality”: the idea that we’ll get a “fast, cheap, and efficient” victory if we can only identify the crucial “nodes” — enemy leaders, nuclear weapons sites, whatever — and take them out, whether with a Special Ops team like the one that killed Bin Laden, a long-range smart weapon, or a drone, McMaster said in his remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“That’s a fundamentally unrealistic conception,” said McMaster. “We know raiding and an attritional approach” — i.e. just killing enemies until the survivors give up — “did not solve the problem in Iraq” (or for that matter Vietnam). “Targeting does not equal strategy.”

At its worst, a raiding approach is a militarized version of “George Costanza in Seinfeld, ‘leave on an up note’ — just go in, do a lot of damage, and leave,” McMaster said to laughter.

It almost makes you think that George Costanza is a strategist!

What is amazing about this view of history is a simple one: how did Vietnam and Iraq go in terms of strategic success? 

Don’t we have to reverse the logic, rather than sending large contingents of forces to fight until they leave and then declare history over, is not the task to recognize that history does not end, and that the military provides tools to meet strategic objectives necessary to the nation?

And as far as raiding parties, they are the future but not in the pejorative way the General stated.

Rather than raiding parties, we are looking at partnership or insertion forces, limited in numbers and time of engagement to create periodic effect of clearly determined objectives.

That is why the future of the Afghan Air Force and our working relationship is part of the future, and not simply one more way to get out of history. As BG Michael Boera wrote in 2010:

America needs to “solidify victory within a chaotic political environment” by helping Afghanistan “get back on its feet.” Involvement of the Combined Air Power Transition Force (CAPTF) in building airpower for Afghanistan by mentoring Afghan airmen is a textbook effort in building capacity for a partner nation. The new capabilities being instilled in the ANAAC will form an enduring legacy. The new “eagles” soaring over Afghanistan will secure internal national security even as they prevent foreign terrorists’ exploitation of that country’s remote regions. Together, these professionals and their committed mentors will forge demonstrable, sustainable advances in capabilities and capacities for Afghanistan’s security forces.

For the Special Report, which consolidates, the series see the following:

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