- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | Dawran Masoomy was once in line to be Afghanistan’s first man in space. Nowadays, as a lieutenant general commanding his country’s air force, he is happy just to see his vintage planes and middle-aged pilots get back off the ground.

An Afghan air force sounds like a breathtaking ambition in a country still struggling to put together an army on the ground. But the corps is gradually resurrecting itself from wartime destruction and recalling its veteran pilots to duty.

Once fully operational, the Afghan National Army Air Corps will be a crucial force in a war that depends heavily on planes and helicopters to ferry troops and supplies to distant battlefields.

Meanwhile, at Kabul air base, neat rows of Russian-built helicopters, gunships and cargo planes shimmer in the midday sun beside massive new hangars and headquarters buildings. Transport planes — U.S. C-17s and Russian-made Antonovs — roar off the runway.

The corps is the “gem” of the country’s security forces, said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Mike Boera. He heads a team of Air Force instructors within the NATO training command that was set up last year to train Afghanistan’s rapidly expanding army and police forces.

The air corps currently has 3,100 service members and about 50 helicopters and transport planes, but the plan is to boost personnel above 8,000 and add about 100 aircraft. There will be three air wings: at Kabul, at Kandahar in the south, and at Shindand in the west, where a flight training center is being built.

This month, the Afghan corps got its first Western military aircraft since the 1950s — an Italian-built C-27 light transport that made its maiden operational mission flight from Kabul to Kandahar. A total of 20 of the 1980s-era refurbished Italian planes are to be delivered by the end of 2012 and will form the backbone of the fixed-wing transport squadrons.

Afghanistan’s air force dates to the 1920s and reached its zenith during the 1980s Soviet occupation, with nearly 500 fighter planes and bombers, transport aircraft and helicopter gunships. It fell into disuse under Taliban rule after the Soviet withdrawal, and what little remained of the force was destroyed on the ground by U.S. bombing in 2001.

So when the corps was reformed in 2005, it had to start from scratch.

The planes were supplied by former Soviet republics, and pilots who had lain low through the Taliban period and U.S.-led invasion were recruited. Now in their 40s on average — compared with late-20s in most air forces — they have come back to aircraft they know well.

“We were trained very well. We had a lot of experience and flying is something you cannot forget. Of course, it took a little time to reacquaint ourselves with our old planes, but it wasn’t difficult,” said Col. Hamad Farid Nabizadah, a helicopter pilot.

NATO’s strategy in the war against the resurgent Taliban relies heavily on allied air forces to transport infantry units to remote outposts, and to keep them supplied in battle. Missiles fired from drones may get the attention, but in a mountainous country with few roads, this is largely a helicopter war, and the West’s exit strategy leans heavily on building a 170,000-strong Afghan military to keep the Taliban at bay.

The pilots fly daily resupply missions with their Mi-17s in support of government troops. They also have been used to deliver relief supplies to civilians during the long winter and in assisting victims of landslides and other disasters. The Mi-35 gunships have flown escort and combat missions.

More than half of the missions are flown without Western instructors in the cockpit.

“We are determined to develop that capability to provide independent air support for Afghan troops,” Gen. Masoomy said.

The commander joined the air force in the mid-1980s and flew Mig-21 jet fighters. He gained lasting fame in Afghanistan when he trained as a cosmonaut in the Soviet Union, but his mission never materialized.

In an interview, he cautioned that many challenges lie ahead and that it will take at least five years to fulfill expansion plans. No new pilots have been trained here since 1992.

Now, 80 Afghans are being trained in the U.S., Britain and the United Arab Emirates, but they won’t be flying missions for months or even years.

Another problem is salaries. A veteran with 25 years of service and thousands of flying hours can expect to earn only about $400 a month, though extra pay has just been approved for pilots and ground crews.

AP writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.

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