General Mark A. Welsh, III, Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, addresses Air Command and Staff College class of 2016 at Wood auditorium, April 13, 2016.

General Mark A. Welsh, III, Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, addresses Air Command and Staff College class of 2016 at Wood auditorium, April 13, 2016. (Melanie Rodgers Cox/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — U.S. airstrikes against terrorist groups in Afghanistan will be increased as part of the expanded role that President Barack Obama authorized last week for U.S. forces fighting there, Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh said Wednesday.

Since Obama announced the end of combat operations in Afghanistan in late 2014, the U.S. military’s role there has focused on training and advising Afghan security forces. U.S. airpower became limited in its rules of engagement, taking a defensive role that included aiding American or Afghan troops.

“The air was there as an emergency measure, essentially,” Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, told reporters Wednesday at a Washington, D.C. breakfast. “This new role is to help shape the battlespace a little bit more.”

Welsh said the expanded authorities will help the Air Force improve response times to reports of attacks. Previously, an aircraft’s response time to an attack was affected by the approval process to launch the aircraft and the distance that it must travel.

Aircraft under the previous rules could still respond “relatively quickly. But we don’t have the same number of aircraft in Afghanistan we used to, and they are not as widely based – so response times are a little slower,” Welsh said. “That’s why you are seeing us use faster airplanes in Afghanistan than we are using in other places, because they have to cover more ground.”

Under the new authorities, U.S. ground and air forces in Afghanistan can conduct offensive strikes against the Taliban and other terrorist groups when they identify targets of strategic value.

For the Air Force, Welsh said commanders can now have aircraft planned to respond to an attack or destroy a high-value target that they have identified through intelligence.

“If they can identify targets ahead of time, there’s a little more freedom for the commander to say, ‘you know, that particular group had ambushed every Afghan patrol that comes through, or, we found a bombmaker. Can we take the bomb maker out?’,” Welsh said.

Welsh said the Air Force will watch its performance in Afghanistan under the new rules of engagement to see whether there are enough aircraft there to carry out its expanded role and whether it will approach U.S. Central Command to discuss adding more.

Welsh, who has served as Air Force chief of staff for the last four years, is scheduled to retire in July and serve as the dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Policy at Texas A&M University. The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on his nominated replacement, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. Twitter: @TaraCopp

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