Afghanistan's airmen on track to assume key role in war, US advisers say

An Afghan air force Mi-35 Krokodyl helicopter gunship. The heavily armed Russian-made choppers have been the service's main ground support aircraft for years, but are now running up against their airframe time limits. This Mi-35 had just 28 flying hours left when photographed on Sept. 15, 2015.


By SLOBODAN LEKIC | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 26, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan — With the delivery of attack helicopters and the impending arrival of ground support aircraft, Afghanistan’s fledgling air force is becoming better equipped to provide badly needed air support in the country’s protracted war against Taliban insurgents.

The Afghans have been testing their new capabilities during this year’s fighting season, the first since the U.S. and NATO formally ended their combat role in the 14-year war, said Brig. Gen. Christopher Craige, commander of the U.S. and NATO mission to train the service.

“This year, the coalition has stepped back, and it’s been a huge lesson for the Afghans to see what they can do themselves,” he said in an interview in his office on the military side of Kabul’s international airport. Coalition advisers and instructors have been impressed by their performance during this year’s fighting season, he added.

Once fully operational, the Afghan air force will be a key component in a war in which government forces depend heavily on planes and helicopters to pound enemy positions and ferry troops and supplies to distant battlefields. They are also crucial for the evacuation of casualties from isolated outposts in a country characterized by high mountains and poor road infrastructure.

Craige’s Train, Advise, Assist Command–Air is in charge of about 600 U.S. and coalition advisers and contractors training the Afghans to fly and maintain their older Soviet-era Mi-35 helicopter gunships and Mi-17 transport choppers, and the recently delivered MD-530 attack helicopters, C-130 transports and Cessna C-208 communications and ambulance aircraft. The trainers also are preparing the Afghan forces for the December delivery of 20 A-29 Super Tucano counterinsurgency turboprops, purchased in 2013 by the U.S. under a U.S.-funded $427-million contract.

“We’re trying to create a professional, capable and sustainable air force,” said Craige, who assumed command of TAAC-Air in July.

The command is based in Kabul and maintains an advisory group at Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan. It is part of Resolute Support, NATO’s train-and-advise mission, which succeeded the NATO-led combat operation and is set to conclude at the end of 2016.

The new fleet of aircraft, combined with an intense program to train and professionalize 7,500 personnel, will enable the Afghan air force to operate largely independently by 2020, with only limited support from civilian maintenance contractors, Craige said.

But critics have pointed out that it has taken NATO an unusually long time to get the service up and running, especially when compared to other Third World air forces engaged in similar guerrilla wars.

The Afghanistan National Army Air Corps — re-designated the Afghan Air Force in 2010 — was re-established under NATO auspices in 2007.

The country’s air arm, which actually dates from the 1920s, reached its zenith during the 1980s, with almost 500 fighter-bombers, transports and helicopters. It fell into disuse during the civil war and Taliban rule that followed the Soviet withdrawal, and what little remained was destroyed by U.S. bombing in 2001.

When the air corps was reformed eight years ago, it initially got off to a rough start because of the lack of qualified pilots and maintenance personnel. Critics also said NATO commanders initially did not have a clear vision for the service’s development, which led to some serious missteps.

The worst of these may have been the fiasco surrounding plans to equip the service with 20 C-27 Spartan twin-turboprop transports. Most of these had to be scrapped due to maintenance issues — the planes were no longer in production — after the U.S. spent nearly $500 million to buy and refurbish them.

They were then replaced by four former U.S. Air Force C-130H Hercules four-engine transports, which the Afghan crews are still learning how to operate.

Despite an evident camaraderie between the advisers and Afghans, the foreigners still face the constant danger of insider attacks. In January, three American contractors were shot dead at the heavily guarded military airport by an Afghan soldier said to be a Taliban infiltrator. Because of the danger of such attacks, coalition military personnel wear armored vests and carry battle rifles on the flight line.

Still, during the past 18 months, as the U.S.-led NATO coalition drew down its forces, the new service has taken over much of the mission, including evacuation of casualties and aerial attacks in support of ground forces.

In the past, when nearly 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops were deployed to the country, American helicopters performed almost all casualty evacuation missions. NATO air contingents also carried out virtually all ground support missions from air bases such as Kandahar and Bagram.

U.S. fighter-bombers and drones are still called upon occasionally to respond to massive Taliban attacks, such as a recent offensive in Helmand province’s Musa Qala district.

Afghanistan’s five heavily armored Russian-made Mi-35 Krokodyl helicopter gunships also have repeatedly pounded Taliban positions in response to appeals from ground troops. But they do not carry bombs, and the old warhorses — whose NATO reporting name is Hind — will have to be retired from service soon.

Their replacements, the A-29 Super Tucanos are considered the ideal counterinsurgency aircraft, with good combat payload, long loiter times over potential targets, and ease of maintenance.

Afghan pilots and maintainers have been training on the A-29 — which can carry 250-pound and 500-pound bombs — since February in the United States.

The aircraft uses the same engine as the Cessna 208, which is already in use in Afghanistan, simplifying maintenance and training.

Because the A-29s will not be available in significant numbers until 2016, armed MD-530 Cayuse choppers were provided by the U.S. as a stop-gap measure to bridge the ground attack capability gap.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. James Abbott, chief adviser on the MD-530, says it fulfills the air force’s requirements for hot-day, high-altitude operations, frequent in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain. With its two .50 caliber machine guns, the tiny, two-pilot choppers can hit the enemy before it’s aware they’re there, he said.

“If the Mi-35 is a broadsword, the MD-530 is a rapier,” Abbott said. “A fast-moving, small target, not as capable as the Russian gunship, but fantastic in a close-support mission.”

Since the Afghans use the MD-530 — which has been in U.S. service since the Vietnam War — as a training helicopter, the pilots are very familiar with its performance and must only learn to use it in a combat environment, he said.

Abbott said he was very impressed by the Afghan pilots’ flair and enthusiasm in their first solo combat missions.

The advisers also were highly complementary of the air force’s moves to improve its ground-support capabilities in the face of this year’s Taliban offensive, by quickly modifying a number of Mi-17 transports with added rocket launchers, giving them a ground-attack capability.

The 55-strong fleet of Mi-17 transport choppers has flown hundreds of missions to transport supplies and soldiers to troublespots, as well as evacuated casualties from there. They have also been used to deliver relief supplies to civilians during the long winter and to assist victims of landslides and other disasters.

The Mi-17 will continue to be the workhorse of the transport fleet, Abbott said.

The helicopters, first introduced to the Soviet air force in the 1960s, have been repeatedly modernized over the years. They have proven rugged, easy to fly in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain, simple to maintain and much cheaper to operate than Western helicopters.

“It does pretty much everything, moves passengers and cargo, casualties, and with its recently mounted forward firing guns and rocket pods … adds to the air force’s ability to provide ground support,” said Col. Martin Nielsen, the command’s Danish director of operations.


An Afghan maintenance crew works to change the wheel on a C-130 Hercules, on Sept. 15, 2015. Four C-130s were delivered to the service after a U.S. plan to provide 20 twin-engine refurbished C-27 Spartan transports collapsed due to a lack of spare parts.