TARIN KOWT, Afghanistan — Braced against the blast of rotor wash, the small squads of Afghan commandos crouched on a sun-baked tarmac.
Their shouts blown back into their throats, the officers waved their men toward the lowered ramps of a pair of Afghan Air Force Mil Mi-17 helicopters. Once the choppers were loaded they took off, only to return minutes later to reverse the process.
Staged in tactical formations on the runway, the soldiers lept onto the aircraft, took a short ride, and then raced down the ramps and again took up defensive positions on the ground. Over and over again, the soldiers practiced loading and unloading.
The special operations commandos are among the elite of the Afghan national security units, but joint air operations are relatively new for them and the Afghan aircrews. Some Afghan units already have conducted air assault missions, NATO advisers say, but with the air force still developing, such operations have not been widespread.
As coalition troops prepare to depart at the end of 2014, the ability of the nascent Afghan air force to insert infantrymen quickly into combat and support them in ground operations is becoming a critical element of the government’s ability to fight the insurgency.
The U.S. Navy SEALs who advise this particular Afghan unit noted that the troops have yet to master some of the most basic air assault tactics, such as taking defensive positions before and after riding in the aircraft, rather than standing around in huddles that could make for easy targets on a landing zone under fire.
But for the Afghan soldiers, helicopters flown by their own countrymen represent a welcome new tool.
“Helicopters are very, very useful and very important, because we go direct … and we go so fast,” said Afghan National Army commando Capt. Folad Sherzad. “And the enemy scares when they know that we have Afghan helicopters, because they cannot match that.”
Although their numbers are limited, Afghan air crews in both Mi-17s and fixed wing Cessna aircraft are routinely ferrying troops, supplies and casualties from base to base. But using the few dozen aircraft to take the offensive on a regular basis remains a distant goal.
Close air support
Afghanistan’s air force was founded in the 1920s and reached its zenith during the 1980s, when its inventory consisted of about 500 jet fighters and bombers, cargo planes and helicopters. But it quickly decayed during the civil war in the 1990s and then was all but destroyed by U.S. bombing of Taliban bases in 2001.
Currently, the air force’s half dozen Mil Mi-35 attack helicopters represent the country’s entire air strike capability. After maintenance issues kept the Mi-35 fleet grounded for a few months last summer, Afghan pilots have just recently returned to the sky after completing months of recertification.
The bulky Mi-35s, like the Mi-17s, are relics of Russian design forged in the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. While the Afghan Mi-17 transport helicopters are often flown by American advisers, NATO advisers from the Czech Republic oversee the Afghan attack helicopters and their pilots; The Czechs use the same aircraft.
Afghan pilots and mechanics say they prefer the Mils over U.S. and European helicopters due to their simplicity and ease of maintenance, and their good performance in the hot-and-high environment in which most flight operations are conducted.
The Mi-35s — unique among helicopter gunships for their ability to carry six troops in a rear compartment — are currently used to escort the lightly armed transport helicopters as well as occasionally launch air strikes with large-caliber guns and unguided rockets.
Close air support for ground units, while billed as a “top priority” by NATO and Afghan officials, remains nonexistent.
Aircrews hope new weapons installed on the aging aircraft will get them closer to being able to provide more accurate support for ground troops. In May, the Afghan Air Force first test-fired the gunship’s newly mounted Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-23 guns.
The twin-barreled 23 mm canons will supplement the Yak-B 12.7mm machine gun and the S-5 57mm rocket pod already in use.
The new weapons will be more accurate than unguided rockets, allowing closer support and reducing risks to civilians, said Afghan Air Force Maj. Mohammad Zahir, an Mi-35 pilot with 18 years of experience.
“By using this weapon systems we can actually hit the target much closer, and if we used rockets instead, we could have some civilian casualties,” he said.
By the beginning of 2016, the Afghan Air Force’s small fleet of Mi-35s is expected to reach its flight limitations, forcing officials to either refurbish or scrap the aircraft. The finite number of flying hours of each aircraft has the potential to force officials to cut training missions if operational needs increase.
U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Steven Shepro, commander of the NATO Air Training Command in Afghanistan, said current plans are likely to phase out the Mi-35s, while relying on Mi-17s equipped with larger weapons, and a new fleet of light attack aircraft.
Twenty propeller-driven A-29 Super Tucanos are supposed to be delivered later in 2014, and become fully operational by 2018.
Most fire support, however, will remain up to ground units with artillery and mortars for years to come. Afghan forces often express a desire for more of the latest aircraft, but finding and training pilots, crews and maintenance teams is a time-consuming process.
The air force is not expected to be fully operational until the end of 2016, when officials hope to have more than 120 aircraft and enough crews to man them.
The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction highlighted that problem last month when it found that the Special Mission Wing, a unit separate from the Afghan Air Force, does not have the capability to man or maintain 30 new helicopters that have been ordered.
Shepro said filling maintenance and other support crews remains difficult, but the training programs for aviators are finally at full capacity. The air force is a small group at about 6,000 servicemembers — including maintenance crews, trainers, security and logistics specialties. But it has the best retention rate of all the Afghan National Security Forces at less than 1.5 percent attrition, he said.
Sustaining the equipment and the organization of the air force will be the main challenge, Shepro said, but progress in professionalizing the workforce and adopting appropriate standards gives him hope.
As the nascent force grows, both in manpower and in equipment, the focus will be on supporting soldiers scattered in volatile areas around the country, Shepro said. “The attack capability that we’re looking at… will help the troops on the ground.”