06/25/2014: The Afghan Air Force hit a huge milestone by completing the first ever all Afghan air crew C-130 flight June 16, 2014 in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Their mission consisted of cargo, CASEVAC and PAX transport.
The Afghan Air Force has been working hard the last 11 months with U.S. Air Advisors from the 538th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron accomplishing this flight goal eight months ahead of schedule.
Credit: U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs:6/18/14
The events in Iraq remind us of the importance of shaping an effective transition in Afghanistan. And airpower is a crucial element for any overall Afghan transition, to ensure that the Afghans can use airpower to defend themselves, pursue terrorists and to provide a partner for Western forces, which might need to come back to aid and assist.
We argued in a Joint Forces Quarterly piece earlier this year, that such an airpower transition in Afghanistan is crucial to mission success.
In the debate over the acquisition of the light-attack aircraft for Afghan forces, a key opportunity to shape a 21st-century option may be missed. A light-attack aircraft such as the Embraer Air Super Tucano, when combined with several other rugged air assets capable of being maintained in a variety of partner nations, could not only form a core capability crucial to the defense of the partnership nation, but also provide a solid baseline capability for a long-term working relationship with the United States or its allies.
The value of a counterinsurgency (COIN) aircraft versus a more advanced fighter can be lost when the issue is 21st-century higher end warfare. A rugged aircraft such as the Super Tucano can operate for longer periods at considerably less cost than advanced fighters. It can be configured with command and control (C2) and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and links and can dialogue with forces on the ground.
Colonel Bill Buckey, USMC (Ret.), the deputy commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Airbase at Kandahar in 2009, explains:
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 [tactical air commander–airborne] 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 [Air Force Base, Nevada] 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, [perhaps 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[unmanned aerial vehicles] 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 [the continental United States] 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 [forward air controller–airborne], that’s something that you just can’t get with a UAV.
Even though the acquisition of such aircraft for U.S. forces is not on the table, their use by partners is already prevalent in many parts of the world. Partnerships with allies flying such aircraft provide interesting possibilities.
This is not just an abstraction but has been demonstrated by 12th U.S. Air Force working with the Dominican Republic air force. The 12th provides ISR support to other nations’ combat air capabilities. U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) and the Dominican Republic air force have combined—with US SOUTHCOM providing an ISR input and the Dominican Republic flying the Super Tucano—the same planes that will 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 in the period of transition in Afghanistan.
The Air Force, NATO, and other allies have been working for many years to shape an unheralded airpower transition. The core idea has been to provide the Afghans with an integrated air force that can provide for their needs and be robust and easy to maintain, and then partner with this air force. That would allow the United States and its allies to leave a force behind that could provide mobile ground forces supported by correlated ground assets. This sound Western force package would then be able to work effectively with the core Afghan air force as well. A real transition could be forged, one still able to engage in effective combat against the Taliban.
The broad trajectory of change for the Afghan air force has been to move from a Russian-equipped force in disrepair to shaping a mixed fleet of aircraft able to support the various missions that the Afghans need: transport, ground support, counterinsurgency, inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR), and strike.
The core fleet of aging Mi-35s and AN-32s will be replaced by a mixed fleet, along with capabilities to replace the battlefield lift provided by the Chinook heavy-lift helicopter.
Shaping the right fleet is crucial to shaping an effective training mission.
For our look at what the right fleet might look like, see our Special Report on the Afghan airpower transition:
Putting 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 with American and French military operators in Afghanistan have hit hard on a key theme: airpower is central to today’s operations, and there is a clear need to arm the Afghan allies with a functional capability along the same lines. The Afghan military population has come to appreciate air support as a key element of future success and security (in particular, a Medevac ability being part of any operation).
As Major General Glenn Walters, USMC, commented when he returned 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 [forward air bases] have.
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 V-22s [Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft] 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, [if] 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.
Western powers are facing the endgame in Afghanistan.
If the Afghans as a nation are going to work together to shape a COIN and defense strategy, airpower is a crucial lynchpin. Working together with an air-enabled Afghan force, Washington could continue to influence the necessary outcomes in the war against terror and at the same time pull out most of its troops. That would be a war-winning formula the Army might want to consider for its global future.