One cornerstone of an independent and self-sustaining Afghan national defense will be a strong Afghan Air Force, and Afghanistan is making strong gains toward that goal, said a senior NATO commander.
“Our goal is to develop an Afghan Air Force that’s sustainable and has the ability to support the Afghan national army,” said Maj. Gen. John McMullen, NATO Air Commander for Afghanistan.
McMullen said the coalition’s plan is to advise and assist the AAF through 2017. The AAF currently has 6,800 personnel and is projected to grow to approximately 8,000.
“We’re looking to get to a point where we have built a one-to-one ratio,” said McMullen. So with 102 airplanes in the AAF inventory, he said, “we’ve set a goal of a minimum of 102 Afghan aircrew by the end of 2014, and we’re well on our way to meeting that.”
The coalition has trained more than 350 Afghan maintainers, and now the focus is to build the AAF’s ability to train itself.
“We’re going to teach the Afghans to teach Afghans how to fly and operate these aircraft,” said McMullen.
He says the Afghans just successfully trained their first Mi-17 crew that was taught by all-Afghan instructors. The Mi-17 is a rotary wing aircraft and a key part of the AAF inventory.
“The Mi-17 is the backbone of the Afghan Air Force. Fifty-eight of 102 Afghan aircraft are Mi-17s, so it’s essential to the future,” said McMullen.
He said the Mi-17 was a good fit for the AAF because they have a history with this helicopter dating back to 1982. So they already had pilots, maintainers and a logistics system setup for the Mi-17.
The Mi-17 is the “big muscle mover” to get the ANA on and off of the battlefield, said McMullen.
“They really reach throughout the nation to bring the fight to the adversary that often may be in the mountains where a fixed wing, a tank, a car or some sort of land vehicle won’t get them to,” he said.
He said since 2012 the AAF has increased its capability in casualty evacuation from 395 missions to 1,400. He’s seen the same three- to four-fold increase in the number of troops and cargo moved as well.
As the AAF’s capabilities grow, it has expanded its role beyond combat operations. They were a key player in the elections last April.
“The weather was bad, a lot of the roads were flooded out and so the AAF delivered around 650,000 pounds of voting materials to 43 different districts so the Afghans could vote,” said McMullen.
The AAF also supported humanitarian efforts for the Badakhshan tragedy in May.
“Within four hours of the mudslides the AAF had launched Mi-17s to the area, within 24 hours they had a C-130 deliver humanitarian supplies,” said McMullen.
He believes a sustainable AAF is well on its way because of what the AAF has done, what the AAF is doing and the vector that leadership has them on.
“They’ve really begun to … start to think like an air force,” he said.