- The US is reducing its presence in Afghanistan, withdrawing its troops and contractors.
- The US military has been training Afghanistan’s air force, which will be key to fighting the Taliban.
- Without US support, that air force will struggle to maintain its aircraft and its operations.
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As the US pullout of Afghanistan nears completion, the Taliban continues to seize territory. It has paraded vehicles and weapons captured from Afghan forces and filmed its execution of 22 surrendering Afghan commandos.
While the Afghan military is fighting back, it will soon have to do so without its biggest advantage: US-led coalition airpower.
Instead, the Afghan Air Force will have to provide that support, but even with $8 billion spent and almost a decade of preparation, it still may not be up to the task.
Logistical problems, a lack of trained personnel, and a demanding battlespace are taking its toll on the AAF. Afghan airmen have been training to fix their aircraft over Zoom calls with foreign contractors – a sign of the scramble to prepare for the challenge ahead.
The importance of airpower
Airpower is important to military operations in Afghanistan because forces attempting to capture and hold territory will have to mass together to do so, said Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“They will have vehicles. They will have larger numbers of infantry converging onto targets and in infrastructure. The whole function of airpower is hitting a target, dropping bombs from fixed-wing aircraft and bombers, and taking them out,” Jones told Insider.
Air dominance also provides the Afghan military and national police with rapid transportation. Coalition and Afghan helicopters and transport planes can drop hundreds of troops and tons of supplies in remote locations that are otherwise inaccessible because of difficult terrain or Taliban presence.
“It’s the air capability that will bring those people there,” Jones said. “Ground transport is slow, and in the environment today, the Taliban does control some key roadways.”
“Because of that, air is really important in transporting key material, weapons, ammunition, and other kinds of support.”
A capable but compromised force
According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s most recent quarterly report, covering the first three months of 2021, the Afghan air force has 162 aircraft, 143 of which were available for operations.
The AAF inventory is primarily composed of seven airframes.
For attack, it relies on 23 A-29 Super Tucanos and 10 AC-208 Combat Caravans. For transport, it has 23 C-208 Caravans and 2 C-130s. Its helicopter fleet is made up of 13 Mi-17s, 35 MD-530s (which can also be used for light attack), and 37 UH-60 Blackhawks.
The AAF has already shown its ability to fight and transport essentials. In 2018, it conducted its first emergency combat airdrop of supplies, its first nighttime airstrikes, and dropped its first laser-guided bomb.
But the AAF faces a number of logistical issues that prevent it from being fully effective.
The most recent SIGAR report noted that of the 42 aircrew positions assigned to those seven airframes – such as copilot or mission-system operator – only 18 are filled with qualified personnel. Only one aircraft, the C-130, had more than half of its aircrew positions filled by qualified personnel.
While four of the seven airframes met their readiness benchmarks in the first quarter of 2021, the three that didn’t – the MD-530, A-29, and UH-60 – are the most important for attack and transport duties.
Things are particularly bad when it comes to maintenance. Only three of the seven airframes had enough qualified maintenance personnel, according to the SIGAR report.
To keep its aircraft flying, the AAF relies on hundreds of private civilian contractors brought in to train AAF personnel and maintain the aircraft until they are ready to do it themselves.
Those contractors are expected to leave around the same time that the last US troops withdraw, which President Joe Biden has said will be by the end of August.
According to the SIGAR report, the NATO command that oversees the training and build-up of the AAF concluded in January that “without continued contractor support, none of the AAF’s airframes can be sustained as combat effective for more than a few months.”
The training still needed and the shrinking timetable has made Zoom training a reasonable alternative despite challenges of such a hands-off instruction method, but the Afghan military also has to make sure that the AAF continues to receive the spare parts, engines, fuel, ammunition, replacement aircraft, and other material it needs.
Many of these items will likely have to be delivered by air, which is costlier and more time-consuming than ground transport. Given the high operational tempo the AAF will soon face, delays and cutbacks could be severe hindrances.
A hard future
The AAF too has also shown signs of progress, increasing the number of fully usable aircraft in its inventory and raising its total flight hours year over year.
Some problems may be out of the AAF’s control. It relies on trained soldiers to call in airstrikes and to capture and hold territory. With the Afghan government increasingly reliant on local militias, the AAF may be unable to effectively coordinate with ground forces.
The Afghan air force’s limited pilot corps doesn’t only face threats over the battlefield, however. In recent months, at least seven pilots have been killed while off-base – “targeted and eliminated,” a Taliban spokesman said.