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The Afghan Air Force (AAF) has received substantially less attention in the international media than the ground components of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) have made significant progress in the last five years, and are now holding their own against the insurgency without large-scale, tactical-level assistance from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). However, as in Iraq, a functioning air force is proving the most challenging independent military capability to build and sustain. Yet this may prove vital to maintaining current success on the ground.
Recent Afghan history offers cautionary lessons in this regard. When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, it left a powerful Afghan Air Force of around 400 aircraft, including modern fighter jets and helicopter gunships. This force had been built up through the Soviet effort to defeat the mujahedeen, and was left in place in the hope of protecting pro-Soviet President Mohammad Najibullah. However, during the civil war that followed, air-force assets were seized or destroyed by competing political factions. Maintenance and resupply became all but impossible, leading to the cannibalisation of airframes and frequent crashes.
This history, combined with the need for financial sustainability – given that international funding is expected to be significantly reduced in years to come – has contributed to the more modest character of the air force that the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) is attempting to build. The plan is for an AAF of around 140 aircraft by 2016, predominantly helicopter and fixed wing transport types. At the same time, there is recognition that while US and NATO funding can be used to procure aircraft, the training of pilots, ground crew and maintenance managers and the creation of an institutional understanding of what sustaining a modern air force entails will be a slow and difficult task. Although some real progress has been made, especially in the field of pilot training and basic maintenance, the AAF will not achieve full operational capability until at least 2017 – exacerbating the capability gaps that will emerge when NATO combat assets are withdrawn at the end of 2014.
The AAF will ultimately be required to provide the same components of air support to the ANA and ANP that have, until now, been provided by NATO. These include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), which will continue to be needed in planning operations and detecting enemy movements; fixed- and rotary-wing lift capabilities, which will continue to be needed to give ground forces strategic mobility and to deliver supplies during prolonged operations; and close air support (CAS). The AAF’s performance in these areas will determine its ability to successfully fulfil its role post 2014.
The ISR capabilities brought to bear by ISAF have been substantial, with established means of battlefield surveillance, such as satellite imagery and E-8 Joint STARS (Surveillance Target Attack Radar System) overflights employed on a large scale. The campaign has also seen the maturation of remotely piloted aircraft as an integrated component of joint operations. It is clear that the AAF will not be able to provide anything approaching this level of battlefield and strategic ISR. Yet part of the reason that ISAF required such an extensive capability was that a relatively small number of troops were attempting to control large areas of unfamiliar territory. The ANSF, by contrast, possesses far greater manpower and, since personnel are often locally recruited, will likely be able to draw on sources of human intelligence not available to ISAF.
To supplement these capabilities, the AAF has deployed the Cessna C-208B light transport aircraft in a limited ISR role since 2012, despite the airframe having no specific adaptations for this type of mission. As a result, the technique most commonly used has been simply to have personnel taking digital photographs of a target area out of the windows and rear hatch shortly before an ANA or ANP operation. This clearly lacks the sophistication of ISAF hardware, but has already proven useful for Afghan commanders in planning operations, allowing them to map an area’s key features in advance.
In terms of fixed-wing lift capabilities, the AAF already operates two C-130 Hercules and fifteen C-27A medium transport aircraft, as well as twelve C-208Bs – all funded by the US and NATO. The NTM-A plan is for this capability to be bolstered with more C-27As and C-208Bs by 2016. This fixed-wing transport capacity could provide valuable mobility and supply capabilities to the ANSF, provided maintenance crews are trained in adequate numbers to ensure reliability. Whilst progress is being made in this area, full Afghan maintenance sufficiency will require sustained NATO support beyond 2014.
A significant departure from ISAF air-support requirements concerns casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) during engagements, which will no longer be treated as indispensable by the ANSF. CASEVAC is currently undertaken on a limited scale by the AAF; however, the ANSF places similar importance on the logistically easier task of returning the bodies of fallen troops to their families within twenty-four hours, as required by Islam. This shift is likely to reduce the strain that would otherwise be placed on the AAF in attempting to replicate the full, ‘gold-plated’ CASEVAC support provided by ISAF.
Although the fixed-wing C-208s are routinely used to return fallen ANSF troops to their families and evacuate wounded men after engagements, however, they are incapable of landing at improvised landing zones during firefights. Equally, the utility of the much larger C-27As and C-130s is limited by the shortage in forward areas of secure airfields large enough for them to take off and land. Whilst the AAF’s fixed-wing transport assets can provide strategic mobility and highly valued ‘repatriation’ capabilities for the ANSF, they cannot perform CASEVAC under fire, or ‘hot’ deployment roles previously carried out by ISAF helicopters.
Helicopters have proven crucial to operations in Afghanistan over the last thirty years and will continue to do so. The Mi-35 Hind gunship and Mi-17 Hip transport helicopter were synonymous with the Soviet campaign to stabilise the country, just as the AH-64 Apache gunship and CH-47 Chinook have become enduring symbols of the ISAF mission. Around fifty US- and NATO-funded Mi-17 medium-lift helicopters now provide the AAF with significant transport, lift and CASEVAC capabilities, having trickled into service since 2003. Although a controversial choice by the US Congress, given its Russian origins, the Mi-17 is a sensible option for the AAF as the maintenance challenges – which grounded ANA helicopters in 2009 – should be fewer, since it shares many components with the venerable Mi-35 – also on the AAF inventory. In addition, despite having only half the lift capacity of the Chinook in the same role, the Mi-17 is a reliable workhorse that is relatively cheap to maintain and operate, with more than three decades of proven service in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, newly built Mi-17s equipped with modern avionics are arriving from Russia as part of an order for thirty airframes funded by the US in 2011. This is to ensure that when the NTM-A target of fifty-six Mi-17s is reached in 2016, the oldest airframes will have been replaced by newer models. With its substantial and expanding Mi-17 fleet, the AAF has recently begun to provide rapid forward-deployment capabilities and, as noted, limited CASEVAC for wounded troops. However, once the majority of ISAF assets are withdrawn, there may be little point in continuing to evacuate severely wounded troops, since the highly trained medical teams required to save their lives may not be available. This is a particular problem given the high casualty rates experienced by the ANA and ANP – as compared to ISAF troops – during operations.
Finally, close air support will be the aspect of current ISAF air power that the AAF will struggle most to replace in the short-to-medium term. Unlike in Iraq, there is no recent Afghan experience in combat air operations, and training pilots and commanders to utilise attack aircraft effectively is an expensive and lengthy task. Meanwhile, the eleven Mi-35 gunships that currently provide the only AAF strike capability are old and nearing the end of their service lives. Although their nominal retirement date has been extended to around 2016, and there are plans to equip Mi-17s with machine guns to provide elementary CAS capability, the current intention is to rely on fixed-wing aircraft to provide the AAF’s strike power thereafter.
The US Air Force has committed to supply twenty A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to the AAF by 2016, these aircraft having proven highly effective in counter-insurgency-style operations in Brazil and Colombia. Yet delivery of these aircraft – originally planned for 2014 – has been delayed due to legal disputes over the procurement process. Even once they arrive, the provision of sufficient training for attack pilots in this particular aircraft will inevitably be a lengthy process.
When ISAF departs, therefore, the AAF will be forced to rely on a handful of ageing gunships and transport helicopters with jury-rigged machine guns for its strike power until the A-29s are ready and attack pilots trained. While the ANA will be generally less reliant on CAS than was ISAF due to its greater manpower, AAF attack pilots will face problems with target recognition due to poor ANA and ANP battlefield management and the fact that the ‘Afghanisation’ of the joint terminal attack controller role – responsible for calling in and guiding CAS from the ground – is still in its early stages. CAS also requires extensive inter-service training and co-ordination to be effective; as with so many aspects of increasing the capacity of the AAF, this will not be an easy task.
ISAF commanders now regularly talk of the need to wean the ANSF off dependence on NATO air power by providing, except in extremis, only the level of support that the AAF might be capable of providing come December. Certainly, AAF personnel are becoming increasingly proficient in providing at least some of the support required without the cutting-edge hardware of their ISAF colleagues. However, the lack of strike power beyond that provided by the AAF’s handful of ageing Mi-35s means that unless NATO combat aircraft remain in Afghanistan after 2014, the ANSF will have to maintain security in the face of Taliban attacks without the option of CAS in most engagements. Whether this will reverse the current success that the ANSF are enjoying remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that for the AAF to function in the medium term, maintenance, pilot training, logistical support and inter-service co-operation must continue to be developed and funded by ISAF nations. Without this, the AAF may face the same fate as that experienced following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Research Analyst, RUSI.