The first Afghan pilots and maintainers for the A-29 close-air support aircraft have completed training in the U.S., and crews for the first four planes are expected to be ready for combat in spring, officials said.
Eight pilots and 12 maintainers graduated Dec. 17 from Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, after 337 days of training, officials said. Two other Afghan maintainers who were due to graduate went missing from Moody on Dec. 8 and have not been heard from since.
The 12 maintainers have already returned to Afghanistan, said Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Karns.
"I'm just so proud of the Afghan pilots and even prouder of the instructors who were able to make them fighter pilots in less than a year," Maj. Gen. James Hecker, 19th Air Force commander, said in a Dec. 18 news release. "[Pilot training takes] two to three years depending on which aircraft they are going to but they had to push it up because they need to get over there and get in the fight."
A total of 30 Afghan pilots and 90 maintainers are expected to be trained for combat over the next three years, the news release says.
With the Taliban on the march, the Afghan air force is in dire need of an aircraft that can provide close-air support to Afghan troops and police. U.S. airpower is only supposed to be used to help Afghans in extreme circumstances.
The Afghan air force has some Russian-made Mi-35 attack helicopters, but The New York Times reported on Sept. 26 that only one Afghan Mi-35 was still flying.
The U.S. has also provided the Afghans with light MD-530 helicopters, each equipped with two .50-caliber machine guns, but an Afghan air force commander told The New York Times that the helicopter cannot fly high enough to cross most mountains in Afghanistan.
Still, the MD-530 is a "step in the right direction" for the Afghan air force, said Lt. Gen. Charles Brown, head of U.S. Air Forces Central Command.
"A brand new air force like this, they're not going to have some high-tech weaponry," Brown told Air Force Times in a Nov. 25 interview.
Brown also said the U.S. is working with the Afghan air force to determine what aircraft crews can best use and maintain.
The Afghans have asked the U.S. to accelerate the training and equipping of the Afghan air force. In October, Russian media reported that Russia planned to sign a contract to deliver several Mi-35s to Afghanistan after Afghanistan's First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum requested military assistance.
The Afghan government has not received any military helicopters from Russia since then, according to Afghanistan's embassy in Washington.
"However, during a recent trip by Afghanistan's national security adviser to New Delhi, India, Afghanistan and India reached an agreement on military cooperation," the Afghan Embassy's Office of Press and Media said in a Dec. 8 statement. "The agreement includes the provision of three helicopters to Afghan National Security and Defense Forces. However, the two countries must first establish a process by which the details of the provision will be worked out."