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ARLINGTON, Va. — The Afghan air force is about five years away from being able to conduct combat missions, said the commander who is tasked with getting the nascent Afghan air force off the ground.

Right now, U.S. efforts at building the Afghan air force are focused on giving the Afghans more mobility, said Brig. Gen. Jay Lindell, commander of Combined Air Power Transition Force.

The reason why the U.S. is not training the Afghans to fly both transport and combat missions is the Afghan National Army Air Corps simply does not have enough pilots to do both, Lindell told reporters on Thursday.

The Afghan air force has about 180 pilots, of which about 50 are flying on any given day, Lindell said. Some of the pilots who are flying are being taken off the flying schedule to learn English.

While that is enough pilots to fly transport missions, the average age of Afghan pilots is 43, and many will face mandatory retirement soon, he explained.

“As these pilots age, we don’t have enough in the long term to man a new weapons system in a light attack or ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) role, so it’s a matter of training new pilots and developing their skills to man these platforms,” Lindell said.

The plan is to start training 48 new pilots per year beginning in fiscal 2009, he said.

By 2015, the Afghan air force is expected to grow from 20 to 112 aircraft, including helicopters with weapons for escort duty and about 28 light-attack fixed-wing aircraft, Lindell said.

The light-attack aircraft are expected to be U.S.-made single engine turbo-prop aircraft, which will allow Afghan pilots to fly close air support missions, he said. The squadron will initially be led by U.S. pilots.

“We plan to bring this air corps up to date with Western technology and do business similar to how to best air force in world does it, the U.S. Air Force, and teach them how we do close air support so they can take over this mission in Afghanistan,” Lindell said.

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