As the military works toward fleshing out the administration’s new strategy in Afghanistan, the Air Force is deploying more planes and looking for more efficient ways to use them.
Speaking to reporters at the Air Space Cyber Conference, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, head of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, said AFCENT recently increased the number of F-16s deployed there from 12 to 18. Those deployments were planned before the administration’s new Afghanistan strategy was announced, he said.
Now, the Air Force is working with the staff of Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to figure out how air power can best support Nicholson’s train, advise and assist mission., Harrigian said.
Coalition troops have primarily been focused on the northeastern part of Afghanistan lately, Harrigian said, but they’re going to have to spread out from there. That’s going to require more air support, he said ― and it’s going to take the Air Force some time to figure out how to best place those air assets.
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That includes taking a look at how the Air Force is using its remotely piloted aircraft and to ensure they’re flying in the right places to gather the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance needed to understand what the enemy is doing and to act on that, he said.
The Air Force continues to provide close-air support in Afghanistan, primarily in support of U.S. forces, he said. But there are some instances where U.S. forces have been close enough to Afghans to understand their location and conduct close-air support operations.
Harrigian also said AFCENT has moved six tankers from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar to Kandahar to operate more efficiently. Flying those tankers from Qatar to Afghanistan preserved flexibility in how they were being used. But Harrigian said it burned a lot of fuel unnecessarily, which could have instead gone to fighter jets. It was decided that it would be better to return them to Afghanistan for the first time in years.
“It’s proven to be very helpful for us in optimizing every ounce of gas we have,” he said.
Harrigian also said the B-52, despite its age, has been incredibly agile, whether it flies to Iraq and Syria to attack the Islamic State or to Afghanistan.
The Buffs are typically flying more than once a week, depending on what the terrain looks like and what allied forces are trying to do.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.