- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2013

U.S. and British drones will maintain operations over Afghanistan long after most international ground troops have left the country after 2014, NATO’s most senior air officer in country said Tuesday.

The challenges in building Afghanistan's air force require the continued presence of the drones and of coalition airmen to train native recruits, AIr ForceMaj. Gen. H.D. “Jake” Polumbo Jr. told Pentagon reporters.

The Afghan air force will be able to stand on its own as early as 2016 “at best,” said Gen. Polumbo, commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force in Afghanistan.

Most coalition forces are due to leave the country by the end of 2014. NATO’s training force now consists of about 300 trainers who eventually will withdraw at a slower pace than international ground forces, Gen. Polumbo said.

After 2014, NATO’s mission will be to provide training and support to Afghan security forces. A “recognizable percentage” of NATO’s air presence will consist of drones, which are flown from U.S. sites such as Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, the general said, adding that some drones will be armed.

“They are armed to be able to provide force protection to our coalition forces. And then our coalition ground force commanders, when they deem it appropriate, they can control that air-delivered munition capability from the [drones] to be put in support of the Afghans,” Gen. Polumbo said.

About 6,000 Afghans are in the air force, but only a “small percentage” can conduct air assault missions independently, he said.

The challenges in building Afghanistan's air force include widespread illiteracy among Afghan recruits, the country’s severe terrain and harsh weather.

Still, Gen. Polumbo said the South Asian nation's air force is slowly increasing its capabilities, noting that Afghan airmen are conducting resupply, medical evacuations, and independent air assault missions.

“The early signs are indeed encouraging,” the U.S. general said.