WASHINGTON — Now that U.S. President Donald Trump has set his administration’s new strategy in Afghanistan, the work has begun to figure out how to turn that into reality, said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein.
The United States will add an unspecified number of troops to Afghanistan, focus resources on ”killing terrorists,” and withdraw U.S. forces only when certain conditions are met, not on a timetable, Trump announced in an Aug. 21 speech.
Exactly what that means for the Air Force is still to be determined, Goldfein said in an exclusive Aug. 25 interview with Air Force Times and Defense News.
Goldfein and the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have now begun a ”detailed planning” process to enact Trump’s strategy, which could entail increased airstrikes and more Air Force assets in Afghanistan, as Goldfein and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told Reuters on Aug. 22. However, the finer points have not been set.
“I don‘t know exactly what that will look like in terms of specific numbers of aircraft or personnel,” Goldfein said. ”For me, this is about how do we optimize the air-ground team to accomplish the stated objectives. That’s the key. It’s not just, ‘I need six more of these or five more of these.’ It’s actually, ‘OK, here are the objectives, here is what the footprint needs to look like on the ground in order to optimize the footprint that we place in the air.’ ”
Goldfein said that ”optimizing the air-ground team” could mean changing the way U.S. ground troops ― including battlefield airmen ― work together with Air Force aircraft providing capabilities such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as other airmen analyzing ISR information.
With ”the new stated objectives, is there now a new way that we ought to look at [that], in terms of using this very fixed capacity of ISR we have available?” Goldfein said. “Now, we’re designing a new campaign against a new strategy, [and] there very well may be a new way that we‘re approaching the business of ISR.”
Rules of engagement
In his speech, Trump also pledged to ”expand authorities for American armed forces to target the terrorists and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan,” hinting that changes to current rules of engagement could be on the way.
Goldfein acknowledged current rules of engagement could be altered to make it easier for the Air Force to strike enemies in Afghanistan, but that discussion will occur among administration officials and the commanders in theater.
“It‘s hard to say, because that’s more of a policy-level discussion than necessarily a military-only discussion,” Goldfein said.
He added that he expects Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top commander in Afghanistan, and U.S. Central Command boss Army Gen. Joseph Votel to have that discussion with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Goldfein said that Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, and Maj. Gen. James Hecker, the top Air Force officer in Afghanistan, will ask him for any new capabilities they need. Then, once the Air Force provides Harrigian and Hecker additional resources, ”they’ll be the ones that will be driving this new way of doing business.”
In addition to ISR, the Air Force now provides close-air support, command and control, personnel recovery, airlift and aerial refueling operations in the area, Goldfein said.
As the Air Force plans for the next phase of the war, he said, some of those capabilities could increase. But, some could decrease, either because the Air Force decides those capabilities are needed elsewhere, or because Nicholson looks at the campaign strategy and decides he can take the risk of having less capability or needs a different footprint.
The Afghan Air Force’s small fleet of A-29 Super Tucanos lacks the speed and range of American fighter jets, making it difficult for the country to provide its own tactical air support without U.S. help, said John Venable, a Heritage Foundation fellow and former F-16 pilot.
But the U.S. Air Force need only deploy a small footprint of combat aircraft — say, a squadron of F-15s, F-16s or A-10s on top of the aircraft already in Afghanistan — to meet the country’s demands.
“You’re talking about maybe one more squadron’s worth of fighters in that area at a location that would allow them to move rapidly and respond to troops in contact or call for close-air support in rapid fashion,” he said in an Aug. 29 interview. “I think the numbers and types [of aircraft] are all available to us right now in the Air Force, and we can actually go over there with just a little bit more force sizing and do incredible work for the United States Army, for special ops for the Marines that are there, and for the Afghans that are there.”
Goldfein said it’s hard to say now what the Air Force’s footprint will look like, comparing the situation to his time as Air Forces Central Command commander during the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. Although forces were withdrawing during that period, he said, the number of AFCENT aircraft required there actually increased because they were providing more cover for units packing up.
“As they packed up organic fire capability, I became their organic fire,” Goldfein said. ”So the overall footprint and the makeup of the air component changed as we shifted from offensive combat operations to then packing and moving ourselves out of Iraq. The force changed. The ways we did business changed. ... That‘s the way we’re going to look at this now. So, an updated strategy and a very clear intent. Now, we’ll do what you know we do pretty well, which is detailed planning against those objectives.”
Light-attack aircraft: A solution to an emerging problem?
An expansion of air power in the region could trigger a requirement for more equipment, particularly in the area of light-attack aircraft. The U.S. Air Force has already purchased the A-29 turboprop planes for the Afghan Air Force, and it provides training on how to fly, maintain and provide logistics support for the fledgling fleet of attack craft.
“I’m not sure yet how that will expand, but if there is a need, that [request] will come to the services and we’ll see if we can meet it,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a news conference Friday.
Should the Afghan Air Force determine it wants additional A-29s, it would work on a government-to-government basis with the U.S. State Department to purchase those aircraft, added Goldfein during the interview.
But Venable of the Heritage Foundation is skeptical that equipping the Afghans with additional A-29s would be necessary or obviate the need for additional U.S. Air Force presence, in part because the Super Tucano has limited capability compared to legacy U.S. combat aircraft.
“[The A-29s] don’t have the speed with which to respond to multiple troops in contact in a near-simultaneous fashion, so they’re going to rely on our Air Force to do that,” he said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force is also considering buying a couple hundred light attack aircraft to help conduct counterterrorism operations in the Middle East. This month, the service began testing four planes at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico: the A-29 built by Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer; the AT-802L Longsword manufactured by Air Tractor and L3 Technologies; and the Scorpion jet and AT-6 Wolverine, both of which are made by Textron.
If all goes well, the Air Force could bring some of those aircraft to a combat demonstration in the Middle East next year, Wilson said during an Aug. 9 media day.
The location of the combat demo has not been set, but it’s possible the aircraft could be sent to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan to assess whether they can cheaply and successfully conduct low-end missions.