The Role of COIN Air Forces in Shaping Partnership Possibilities


2014-01-11 Case 1:  The Role of COIN Air Forces in Shaping Partnership Possibilities

In the debate over the acquisition of the Light Attack Aircraft for the Afghan forces, a key opportunity to shape a 21st century option may be missed.  A light attack aircraft, like the Super Tucano, when combined with several other rugged air assets, capable of being maintained in a variety of partnership nations could form a core capability crucial not only to the defense of the partnership nation, but provide a solid baseline capability for a long term working relationship with the United States or its allies.

The value of a counter-insurgency aircraft versus a more advanced fighter can be lost when the issue is that of 21st century higher end warfare considerations. A rugged aircraft like the Super Tucano can operate for long periods of time and considerably less cost than a fighter.  They can be configured with C2 and ISR capabilities and links, and they can dialogue with forces on the ground.

Bill Buckey, former Deputy Commander of the NATO Airbase at Kandahar in 2009 and now vice-president for business development for Embraer North America:

One of the things that the special operations forces, who started the idea of the whole Imminent Fury piece, wanted was the ability to have a partner in that light attack platform; a TAC-A or supporting arms coordinator that would be above them in the air and who, if things got ugly, could then marshal in other aircraft.  The guys sitting at Creech can’t do that. 

The individual in the backseat of the aircraft is the one that’s going to be communicating to these jets who are still 30 minutes away – 15 minutes away, an hour away – and giving them the target brief and the whole situational awareness piece of what’s going on while they ingress; which is something that your guy at Creech is not going to be able to do. 

But now that’s the tactical piece.  The operational piece is back to the whole COIN environment.  Again, if what you’re trying to do in a COIN environment is drive your cost of doing business down as close as you can to the level of the other guy; right now, UAVs ain’t cheap. 

You’ve got a tremendous logistics piece; you’ve got the sophisticated communications infrastructure required to fly them.  You’ve got the whole piece back in CONUS in order to operate them.  Your cost of doing business is huge and you also have reliability issues. The accident rates are not great with UAVs right now. 

And in terms of that ability to act as FAC-A, that’s something that you just can’t get with a UAV.

The Super Tucano brings significant capability to the Afghan Air Force for the COIN fight.  Credit Image: Embraer
The Super Tucano brings significant capability to the Afghan Air Force for the COIN fight. Credit Image: Embraer 

Even though the acquisition of such aircraft for U.S. forces is not on the table, the acquisition by partners clearly is and is already prevalent in many parts of the world.  And a partnership between the U.S. and allies flying such aircraft provides interesting possibilities.  This is not just an abstraction but has been demonstrated by the 12th USAF working with the Dominican Republic Air Force.

The 12th is supporting nations just off our shore with ISR support to those nation’s own combat air. SOUTHCOM and the Dominican Republic Air Force have partnered with the SOUTCHOM providing an ISR input and the DOM REP flying the Embraer Air Super Tucano, the same planes to be used by the Afghans. 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.

The opportunity to further evolve such a model of cooperation is being forged currently in the period of transition in Afghanistan.  The USAF, NATO and US allies have been working for many years to shape an unheralded air power transition in Afghanistan.

The core idea has been to provide the Afghans with an integrated air force that can provide for their needs, be robust and easy to maintain and to then partner with this Air Force in the period ahead.  This would allow the US and its allies to leave behind a force, which could provide a solid combination of mobile ground forces supported by correlated ground assets.  And this Western force package would be able then to work effectively with the core Afghan air forces as well.  A real transition could be forged, and still able to do effective combat operations against the Taliban.

The broad trajectory of change for the Afghan AF has been to move from a Russian-equipped force in disrepair to shaping a mixed fleet of aircraft able to support the various missions which the Afghans would need: transport, ground support and counter-insurgency ISAR and strike. A new one is replacing the core fleet of aging Mi-35s and AN-32s. The new fleet will be a mixed fleet of aircraft as well as adding capabilities to replace the current battlefield lift provided by the Chinooks.

Shaping the right fleet is crucial to shaping an effective training mission. Putting together a reliable and rugged and easily maintainable lift aircraft with the Super Tucano and the Mi-17 fleet along with Cessna trainers is the core force for the Afghan Air Force going forward.

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.  

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).

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

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. 

The Western powers are facing the end game in Afghanistan.

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.

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 publishing in five parts a full draft of the article which appeared recently in Joint Force Quarterly.