KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Air Force officials say the end of the specialized combat search-and-rescue mission at Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan won’t leave NATO or Afghan units stuck on the battlefield.
The Army will continue to operate medevac helicopters from the base, but a declining number of missions in southern Afghanistan and growing demand for the specialized helicopter rescue teams elsewhere in the world mean the 59th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron at Kandahar won’t be replaced after it shipped out last week. The move ends 11 years of such operations at Kandahar Air Field.
The 46th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron at Camp Bastion, including a detachment at Kandahar, has already been inactivated.
Since Air Force rescue squadrons arrived at Kandahar in 2002, they have saved nearly 1,200 lives and evacuated nearly 1,800 other people from combat zones, according to Air Force statistics. But officials assert that the redeployment won’t leave troops — who may still face at least one more season of fighting — without help from the helicopters that have played a major role in medical evacuations throughout the war in Afghanistan.
Combat search-and-rescue teams will still operate from Bagram Air Field in the north and Bastion in the southwest, with the ability to cover most of the country, said Col. Mike Trumpfheller, 651st Air Expeditionary Group commander, who oversees the rescue missions at Kandahar and Bastion.
“This change only really affects the capacity [for rescue operations] since we have the two squadrons remaining in Afghanistan,” he said. “So the capability still exists.”
The withdrawal of NATO forces, especially specialized units like helicopter rescue, also has impact on Afghan troops who are increasingly taking the brunt of the casualties ahead of the planned withdrawal of all foreign combat troops at the end of next year.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced plans to bring home about 34,000 troops by February 2014, cutting the U.S. presence there by more than half. NATO allies, who account for about a third of the international force, are expected to follow suit and sharply cut their troop strength in the coming 12 months.
In keeping with plans to turn over most combat missions to the Afghan national security forces later this year, new rules have restricted access to NATO medical evacuation, even though the nascent Afghan air force still lacks an effective air rescue capability.
Lt. Col. Andrew Smith, the 59th ERQS commander, admitted that Afghan forces will have to rely more on ground evacuations, but he echoed Trumpfheller’s confidence in the remaining medical evacuation units and said he has seen Afghan forces’ capabilities grow.
“I have seen the Afghans take more missions on themselves,” he said. “When their own people get hurt, they rely less on us.”