Fine Print

Fine Print: Rebuilding Afghanistan's Air Corps

By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How long is the U.S. military going to be in Afghanistan?

At least until 2016, if the U.S. Air Force general training the Afghan National Army Air Corps is correct.

"Our goal is by 2016 to have an air corps that will be capable of doing those operations and the things that it needs to do to meet the security requirements of this country," Brig. Gen. Walter Givhan told Pentagon reporters recently in a teleconference from Kabul, the Afghan capital. Even then, the Afghans will not be able to perform functions other air forces do, he said, adding, "The long-term goal beyond that envisions a continued partnership."

Like many things in Afghanistan, U.S. military plans for the Afghan air corps mean creating something completely new. Givhan said the effort involves "not just acquiring aircraft and training pilots and the people that maintain aircraft, but it's across everything."

What's everything? He listed infrastructure, which he described as "putting modern bases in the various locations where we think it's best for them to operate from." Those projects range from the $10 million that is building new runways and other facilities at Shank Air Base, south of Kabul, to the $250 million expansion of Kandahar Air Field that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers just put out for bid.

Givhan also mentioned developing a logistics system, building a command-and-control system, and even training people who work with the air corps on the ground such as firefighters.

The current goals are already ambitious. Today there are about 2,700 airmen, and the plan is to grow that number to 7,250 by 2016, Givhan said. The 2016 goal for aircraft, both helicopters and fixed wing, is 139; there are 36 today.

Just as the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is expected shortly to propose further expansion of the Afghan ground security forces, Givhan said he is looking at "potential expansion opportunities" that could involve growing the planned two Afghan wings to three wings, "in addition to the various detachments around the country."

There were some Afghan military pilots with capability when the United States took over rebuilding efforts, Givhan said, adding, "We've brought those guys back in." And while there are about 60 younger Afghan pilot candidates currently in the United States, they must learn English before they begin training to fly. Recently, Lt. Faiz Ramaki, became the first Afghan in 50 years to graduate from U.S. pilot training school, according to the Air Force Times.

The older pilots, whose average age is 45, are those who "right now sustain this air force," Givhan said. Because they previously had flown Russian aircraft, Givhan said, "we gave them aircraft they know how to fly."

To add to the older force, the Czech Republic donated six Mi-17 cargo helicopters and six Mi-35 attack helicopters, all of which had to be refurbished at a cost of $38 million. Four An-32 transport planes were purchased from Russia in 2008. Last month, the United States sought to purchase four additional new or used Mi-17s for the air corps.

Givhan said the United States is soon to supply modern C-27s, a medium-size twin-turboprop transport that is designed to operate in rugged areas such as Afghanistan where airstrips cannot handle larger planes. About 18 are expected in November, and some of the older Afghan pilots are in the United States for instrument training to operate the C-27s, Givhan said.

Right now, with the aircraft that exist, the primary role of the air corps is transporting people. The An-32s carry passengers from Kabul to Herat, in the west, and the Mi-17s are used to pick up wounded and others from battlefields. One recent Mi-17 task, directed by the Afghan government, was to provide transportation to all the presidential candidates in last week's election.

In another recent operation, the cargo helicopters were used in the northern part of the country that was hit by floods. About 1,500 people over several weeks were carried out of the flooded areas.

American pilots are working with the Afghans to prepare them to use the Mi-35 attack helicopters in areas where there is fighting. "We'll actually be sending those into combat situations very soon," Givhan said, but their role will not be close air support to ground troops. He described it as "a little bit simpler . . . having to do with escort and reacting to being fired on." Meanwhile, with Czech instructors helping, the Afghan pilots are being taught rules of engagement, such as when to shoot and when not to shoot.

A major part of the air activity in Afghanistan involves unmanned airborne systems that collect full motion video and provide surveillance. The head of Afghanistan's air corps, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Dawran, recently visited the United States and watched operation of Predator drones over Afghanistan being directed by American pilots in Nevada at Creech Air Force Base. Though Dawran was "very impressed" with the remote operations, Givhan said, such capabilities are not envisioned for the Afghans. The Americans are looking at perhaps giving them a fixed-wing aircraft that can carry out such intelligence and surveillance activities, he added.

"This is an exciting mission because literally we're rebuilding this from the ground up, after years of war had devastated the capability that they had," he said. That could be said about almost everything the United States is trying to do in Afghanistan.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company