There is No Wild Blue Yonder for the AAF

by Sunny in Kabul on 9/7/2013

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, but I will always have a warm place in my wonky heart for Registan. So here’s the first of a repost or two that’ll be inbound from Sunny in Kabul, my usual blogging home on the web. The following is a slightly edited version of what I posted over there, with fewer GIFs. I wrapped up a week-long series on the DoD’s report to Congress on the war in Afghanistan with this post on the Afghan Air Force (AAF). 

This last week the blog’s been all about the Department of Defense’s bi-annual/semi-regular/whenever-we-feel-like-it-and-you-can-suck-it attempt at long-form fiction. By turns overly optimistic and painfully blunt, it’s a story penned by Annie channeling George’s Patton, and all its missing is a soundtrack by by Nero’s One Man Band and Variety Show (Limited Time Only! Get Here Early, ‘cuz This Show is Hot! Hot! Hot!). It’s always a little TLDR-y, and they keep publishing it as a “report,” which means it should be filed as “non-fiction,” but its central premise that the war is going just fine reads like something penned in the mists of Bobby Ewing’s shower.

Informally known (in my head, at least) as the 1230 report, it fulfills a requirement in Section 1230 of the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requiring DoD to tell Congress (and by extension the American public) how the war in Afghanistan is going. Fortunately, for ISAF, the American public is more concerned with more important things, like Duck Dynasty, so no one’s really paying much attention to what is rapidly becoming the least popular war in America, ever. Assuming, of course, no one polled those Native American types. But that was a long time ago, and since then there’s been Twinkies, a moon landing, and casinos. So that’s all better.Now that you’re up to speed on the extended suspension of disbelief that is a 1230 report, to wrap up this week on the blog, let’s step out into the wild blue yonder. Or, in the case of the Afghan Air Force (AAF)…whatever the opposite of that is . Maybe the tame orange nearby?

In June for the Afghan Analysts Network I wrote about the current state of the AAF. I had this to say:

The coalition has exaggerated the current capabilities of the Afghan air force. Simultaneously, it reduced its own air support and failed to prepare the Afghan security forces in time for the withdrawal of coalition air assets. This is creating a potentially fatal capability gap that the Afghan air force is currently unable to fill. Even more troubling is the fact that this gap will probably remain until well into 2015 and beyond, when the Afghan air force is expected to receive the first of a fleet of Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft (see report here), courtesy of the United States.

But I’ve got to be honest…I’m more on the outside than an Instagram account dedicated to Michelle Williams’ haircuts. Destiny’s Child Michelle, not the one from the creek. Sure, I used to be in the band once, but that was a long time ago, and I was pretty much a temporary roadie, if anything. But if we’ve learned anything  it’s that ISAF loves them some transparency. Since they’re still pretty hip and with the kids, perhaps they can shed some light on the subject. From the latest 1230:

By the end of ISAF’s mission in 2014, U.S. and coalition enabler support (close air support, medevac, direct fire, ISR) to the ANSF will be withdrawn, creating gaps which, if not addressed, will reduce GIRoA’s ability to provide security for its populace and deter external threats. The fielding of enablers is focused on providing ANSF with capabilities to enable them to operate autonomously, including operation and sustainment of a combined arms force.

That doesn’t sound so bad, since there’s a plan in place to address those gaps by…when, exactly?

The Afghan Air Force faces a number of challenges—particularly recruiting and training personnel to operate and maintain the fleet—and is not expected to be fully mission capable until at least 2018.

I’m about as good at math as Ted Kennedy was at driving, but even I’m cognizant that there’s a four-year gap between 2014 and 2018. According to ISAF, then, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are lacking in a few areas that could be addressed by better equipping the AAF, but to avoid this post becoming something only slightly less tedious than a Ken Burns’ documentary about coffee, I’m just going to focus on the status of “close air support” (CAS). Currently this is provided by Mi-35 or Mi-17 helicopters. The former are gunships dedicated to this particular task, and the latter are primarily transport aircraft capable of being retrofitted for the CAS mission. Before looking at this further, though, it’s important to understand the current state of CAS in the AAF, and since we’ve been here for 10 years, and have dedicated the last 5 years to building up the AAF, then there should be plenty of Mi-35s lying around to get that job done.

The AAF will retire its Mi-35 fleet in 2016. Currently, only two of six Mi-35s with remaining service life are available at any time due to a shortage of spare parts. The AAF is currently conducting autonomous patrols with the Mi-35 in the Kabul area and training crews to perform armed overwatch/escort and air to ground operations.

Two. Two gunships to cover a country just slightly smaller than Texas. And since when is six of anything a “fleet”? Unless you’re Diddy and those are all yachts, in which case that might be fleetworthy, but in this instance, six weapons systems vital to defeating the insurgency should not be classified as a “fleet.” And those are going away in 2016. In their place?

The Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft source selection was completed on February 27, 2013. Based on the source selection date, aircrew and maintenance personnel will begin training in May 2014. The first aircraft deliveries to Afghanistan will begin 18 months after contract award, which is expected for August 2014, at a rate of two aircrafts per month for 10 months. The full employment of CAS capability is not expected until sometime post-2018. The LAS will provide the AAF with the capability to conduct air interdiction, armed reconnaissance, air-to-ground support, combat search and rescue, border patrol, and aerial escort missions.

So at the end of 2014, when ISAF removes all of its air support assets, the AAF will have on hand, to cover CAS missions for all of Afghanistan, the following:

– 2 x Mi-35 gunships
– 10 x LAS aircraft (Super Tucanos, btw)
– An unknown number of retrofitted Mi-17s

And what does the DoD/ISAF have to say about that Mi-17 fleet?

The 86 Mi-17 helicopters programmed for the post-2014 AAF fleet will meet only minimal operational requirements, even assuming that the insurgency will weaken.

It’s mid-2013. The numbers, such as they are, show that the insurgency is anything but weak. To fend off and defeat an insurgency spread out over as much terrain as they’ll need to cover, the AAF are going to be provided with around 100 airframes. The majority of those (the Mi-17 aircraft) are going to have to cover not only the CAS mission (which is critical if the ANSF have any hope of gaining battlefield dominance over the insurgents), but also MEDEVAC and transport operations as well. 1 To put it bluntly, there is no way that the AAF can be ready to accomplish those missions beginning at the end of 2017, and their success is gonna look a little like this:

But that’s probably an unfair assessment, given that the 1230 report only covers data through March of this year. In July, a week before that report was released, this was posted by the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing  on the state of the AAF, gleefully headlined, “AAF sustains its fast climb with record airpower results”:

In addition to successful CASEVAC, the AAF has increased other critical air support missions. Tactical airlift of troops and cargo both increased by more than 50 percent. Additionally, the AAF expanded its mission capabilities to critically-needed intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance and armed air support missions, already executing several of each with significant impact on ground operations.

What’s notable there is once again an almost complete lack of numbers. If we don’t know how many missions they flew before, we have no frame of reference for what an increase of 50% really means. And they don’t even reference numbers when it comes to the focal point of this post, the CAS mission (or as they refer to it, the “armed air support”). Which makes their assertions a little…suspect.

What’s becoming increasingly apparent is that the US and its coalition partners appear to be delaying supplying the necessary aircraft for the AAF until they have a more clear picture of what the country’s government is going to look like post-2014. For example, those Light Support Aircraft (LAS) have been in the works for at least five years, according to this from an AP report in 2008:

The United States will begin training new pilots at a rate of 48 a year in fiscal 2009.

But it will be at least three years before the Afghan air force gets its first light attack aircraft and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, he said.

The light attack aircraft will be a single engine turbo prop plane capable of using laser guided weapons and share a computer network with other aircraft, he said.

“Initially as we envision it, it will be a US-led squadron as we train the Afghans how to do close air support, and how to integrate with the ground forces in the close air support mission,” Lindell said.

“So it will be in 2013 to 2014 before the Afghan air force is certified in a close air support mission,” he said.

But in looking at ISAF’s own assessments, that number needs to be moved back at least another four years. This kind of delay is more indicative of US intentions in the country than any press conference Obama could ever hold, and sends a stronger message than any release by the Embassy. The US seems to no longer need Afghanistan, and appears to be increasingly unwilling to provide that country’s security forces with the equipment it really needs to defeat the still-active insurgency.

Why This Matters

Contrary to what is being said officially by the White House and the Pentagon at this point, like I said back in January, I still believe that the “zero option” is very much on the table for the Obama White House. Analysts who state that our leaving Afghanistan in the same way that we left Iraq would somehow be an embarrassment to this administration underestimate the power of “we ended two wars” as a talking point for the Democrats in 2016. Faced with either continuing to prosecute a war with only a 28% approval rating,  or gracefully withdrawing from a country that’s increasingly not a part of our strategic security picture, if I’m the President, I’m going with “B.” All day long. As a human being who cares about the fate of this country, I’d go with “A,” but at this point there’s no way that we can truly salvage a success out of this mess.

The AAF is an expensive canary in a costly coalmine, and the US may just let it die. It’s entirely possible that this situation will resolve quite differently over the next several months. I hope this is the case. But how it looks now, it’s as if the US is convinced that Afghanistan will degenerate into civil war once again post-2014. Since they are unable to completely counter that event, rather than indirectly arming those groups post-2014 (as happened with Russian equipment after the collapse of Najibullah’s government), the US is opting to delay the provision of sophisticated weapons systems. In doing so, they are simultaneously dooming the ANSF as it attempts to counter the insurgency in ISAF’s place, but likely preventing further chaos in the event of that civil war.

  1. From the report: The fixed- wing aircraft fleet is similarly limited. C-130Hs—which are expected to be introduced in third quarter of FY 2013—would provide an initial capability to do inter-theater lift that will take several years to mature. The first Afghan C-130 pilots began training in the U.S. in May 2013. Which means it’s all about the helos at this point.


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This post was written by...

– author of 15 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Happily married, cynic, and I long to drink the Kool-Aid. Two tours in Iraq, once as an Infantry officer, once as a Civil Affairs officer supporting a PRT. Now it's civilian development work in Afghanistan since 2009. I want to believe, it's just that the lies are so laughable.

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