Tech. Sgt. Will Stimpson, a gunner from the 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron, evaluates Afghan air force Sgt. Razeg, a gunner, during a mission on an Mi-17 helicopter from Kabul International Airport, Afghanistan, on Nov. 29. (Tech. Sgt. Dennis J. Henry Jr. / Air Force)
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Afghanistan's fledgling air force will need help getting off the ground until 2017, said the Air Force officer in charge of NATO Air Training Command Afghanistan.
Most NATO troops are scheduled to depart Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but NATO is committed to continue helping the Afghan air force until it becomes fully independent, said Brig. Gen. Steven Shepro.
While the Afghan air force is slated to become fully independent by 2017, it may get there a little early, said Shepro, who did not know how many NATO trainers would be required after 2014.
"I foresee us moving from the tactical level to more of the operational and strategic level as time goes on," Shepro said. "I can't really say what that footprint should look like next year or the year after, because it will be conditions-based, but right now we look good."
Right now, the Afghan air force has more aircraft than air crews, Shepro said.
"They are catching up quickly," he said. "The training pipeline is going very well, and within two years, we should be well-manned and well-equipped."
The Afghan air force has 108 aircraft in its inventory:
• 48 Mi-17 helicopters.
• Six Mi-35 helicopters.
• Six MD-530F helicopters.
• 26 C-20B airplanes.
• 16 C-27A airplanes.
• Six Cessna-182T airplanes.
The air force already had some Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters when the training mission began in 2007, said Capt. Agneta Murnan, a spokeswoman for the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing.
Of those original aircraft, 21 Mi-17s and six Mi-35s remain in service, Murnan said in an email.
The Afghan government has expressed concern that NATO is not giving the Afghan air force the modern aircraft and weapons it needs, such as fighter jets, bombers and radar systems.
For that reason, analysts in Afghanistan are skeptical that the Afghan air force will be fully independent by 2017, said Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies.
"There has been resistance in Washington and London against President Karzai and his government, who are asking [for] more and better equipment for the air force of Afghanistan," Rahmani said. "Currently, our air force is only equipped with a few helicopters which are Russian-made, and we are not really in a good status with our air force and airpower."
The Soviets knew how important airpower is, so by the time they left Afghanistan in 1989, the Afghan air force had more than 600 modern aircraft, Rahmani said.
"We are facing an ongoing insurgency and war inside the country — a conflict that I believe will last long — and terrorist groups who want to once again build their bases inside Afghanistan," he said. "In order for our Afghan national security forces to survive, in order for our state to survive, I think a well-equipped and modern air force is needed."
Unfortunately, the aircraft the Soviets gave to their client regime in Afghanistan did not survive the ensuing civil war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, followed by the collapse of the Afghan government, said Lester W. Grau, of the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
"A large number of aircraft were destroyed during this time," Grau said in an email. "Others were deadlined for lack of parts. Probably all of the aircraft hulks lining the runways that we found during the opening days of OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] were destroyed during the civil war. The Taliban had few aircraft left by the opening of OEF."
NATO's goal is to have the Afghan air force coordinate, lead and plan missions in the 2013 fighting season, Shepro said. Going forward, the Afghan air force's top three missions will be resupply, casualty evacuation and transporting human remains.
The close-air-support mission is evolving slowly and will likely take several years, he said. The Afghans currently have armed Mi-17 helicopters and Mi-35 gunships, but the air force needs forward observers and a command-and-control system required for airstrikes.
One of the main challenges facing the Afghan air force is building a logistics system, especially a cadre of maintainers, Shepro said.
"On the maintenance side, they have a lot of skill — in fact, as you know, they've been working on Mi-17s for decades, and so a lot of the maintainers can almost do it by memory, but ... the Afghan air force wants to transition ... from a Soviet-style maintenance to a modern air force maintenance," he said.
Doing that requires having maintainers who can read technical manuals in English, and that can pose a challenge when only 20 percent of Afghans are literate, he said. That's why the Afghan air force is focused on recruiting Afghans with the strongest literacy skills and teaching them English.
"What this depends on is good policy, and there is actually an accessions policy for the Afghan air force that culls the literate candidates that are needed in the Afghan air force from the recruiting pool," he said. "You might know the Afghan air force does not have direct recruiting authority yet, but it has increasing ability to recruit from [the] national recruiting pool that's done by the Afghan National Army."
Finding airmen who can speak English is essential to building maintainers, firefighters and aviators, Shepro said.
"On the logistics side, we're seeing progress again from more of a Soviet-trained system that involved a lot of signatures to a more streamlined system, especially in relation to aircraft parts," Shepro said.
As a result, the operational readiness rate for Mi-17 helicopters has increased by more than 30 percent in the past six months, he said.
As the U.S. and NATO try to transition to a supporting role, a challenge that won't go away is corruption in the Afghan security forces. After an Afghan airman killed eight airmen and a contractor in April 2011, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel told investigators the Afghans were using aircraft to make money by charging passengers.
But Shepro said he hasn't seen any of that during his tenure.
"I have been in this seat for the last four months and — once again — we've seen strong leadership on the part of the chief of staff of the Afghan air force," he said. "Our advisers are very close to the operations, and so we do not see that. What we see is a lot of professional execution of those priority missions."