If you think beating back a resurgent Taliban is hard, try doing it while fixing a broken helicopter over Zoom.
Biden is betting big on Afghanistan’s air force. The Biden administration requested $3.3 billion to support the Afghan military in its fiscal 2022 budget, a price that Washington will have to continue to bear as long as the government in Kabul is fighting to stay alive, reports Politico magazine.
In addition to pulling out all but a handful of troops from Afghanistan, the Pentagon has also flown thousands of contractors out of the country in recent weeks, leaving a skeleton force of several hundred behind to do everything the Afghans can’t — including fixing their own airplanes and helicopters and handling logistics.
To help make up for the loss of broken helicopters, the U.S. is sending 37 more UH-60 Black Hawks to the country over the coming months to be kept in storage until needed. They will likely be cannibalized for spare parts if fresh shipments can’t be sent in soon enough.
As the withdrawal continues, more of that wrench turning will be done by Afghan crews, with U.S. contractors looking over their shoulders via Zoom or coaching them over the phone, defense officials say.
Over the past decade, the U.S. has built an Afghan air force modeled on its own strengths and preferences, spending $8 billion to deploy strike aircraft such as the A-29 Super Tucano and AC-208 Combat Caravan, both of which are propeller-driven planes that can fire laser-guided munitions at ground targets. The U.S. has also sent new Black Hawk helicopters.
It’s not clear how that will work in practice, but the drawdown from over 16,000 contractors to hundreds could have a bigger effect on the security situation than sending home the last 2,500 U.S. troops, as the Afghan air force strains to keep its planes and helicopters in the sky, hunting Taliban fighters.
Kabul’s small but active air force of 162 airplanes and helicopters is being given the monumental task of supporting tens of thousands of Afghan troops in the field through airstrikes, resupplying far-flung outposts, and evacuating the wounded without American help or on-site repair expertise. Yet billions in U.S. cash and dozens of replacement helicopters will continue to flow into the country.
Those planes and helicopters are the best hope Kabul has of beating back the Taliban as government forces continue to lose territory in the countryside.
“They’ve got capacity. They’ve got capability. They have an air force — an air force, by the way, that we’re continuing to fund and support,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Friday on CNN. “They’ve got modern weaponry. They’ve had training and the ability to be in the field with American forces much over the last 20 years. … Now it’s time to have that will.”
Having more helicopters will allow commanders to put fewer hours on their existing platforms, however, which would likely save on some routine maintenance and allow back-to-back missions.
“The Afghan Air Force has a bad habit of blowing past these maintenance schedules, though, in order to deliver more hours of air support to the army and police,” said Jonathan Schroden, director of the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at CNA.
But having those extra airframes “should enable them to do the maintenance stand-downs as required while still delivering maximum support to the army and police,” he added, something that will be critical as the army fights off multiple Taliban offensives across the country.
The shortage of personnel is already an issue. An inspector general report in April found that “most AAF airframes had nowhere near the number of qualified personnel (instructor pilots, copilots, mission system operators, etc.) needed to man the aircrew positions each airframe requires.”
The A-29 and AC-208 will be key components to any success the Afghan air force might have in hitting the Taliban from the air, but as with the rest of the service, the pilot and ground crew options are limited and unlikely to grow. The American program to train A-29 pilots in the U.S. wrapped up in November 2020, with only about 30 pilots trained between 2015 and 2020.
Adding to the mounting problems is what appears to be a coordinated Taliban assassination campaign targeting these pilots. Reuters reported Friday that at least seven pilots have been assassinated off base in recent weeks, adding pressure on an already small pool of qualified officers.
“I think you can expect that we plan to use a range of [intelligence and surveillance] capabilities at our disposal,” Kirby said Thursday. “We also intend to leverage the strong relationship we have with the Afghan forces who will still be on the ground and who will still have information they can provide us,” suggesting that the U.S. might make use of airstrikes to help out Afghan troops on the ground.
“The biggest challenge will be Congress’ demand for accountability and monitoring that funding,” CNAS’ Curtis said. “As we pull back our presence and we have fewer resources on the ground, it’s going to be harder and harder to get Congress to approve that funding because of the corruption” in Kabul.
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