KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — A team of Afghan medics loaded the badly wounded Afghan soldier onto a gray eight-passenger, single-engine plane bound for a Kabul hospital. Onboard were a pilot and a doctor, both Afghans, and a pilot/adviser and a security force from the international coalition.
The two-hour flight to Kabul on May 20 marked only the second time that Afghans had planned and led a casualty evacuation from this air field on a fixed-wing, turboprop Cessna 208 plane — a small milestone for an air force that the coalition is rebuilding from the ground up. NATO officials say the endeavor will require air personnel to stay in Afghanistan until 2017, long after most other international combat troops have left.
The Afghan air force is far from ready to take over full combat responsibilities from NATO, as well as other key functions that support a modern air force. About 940 NATO trainers, most of whom will remain in Afghanistan after 2014, are focusing on teaching Afghans the most critical air capabilities — resupplying remote bases, transporting casualties and ferrying troops into ground combat.
Each of Afghanistan's three main bases — in Kabul, Kandahar and Shindand — has several trained crews that fly Russian-made transport helicopters and can conduct resupply, casualty evacuation and air assault missions. Those five-member Afghan crews conduct missions without coalition advisers.
Currently, there are no Cessna 208 crews performing missions without a coalition adviser aboard because of a lack of Afghan crew commanders, the first two of whom will be trained by next month.
Since February, Cessna 208 crews have helped increase the number of casualty evacuation missions by 34 percent, and the Afghan air force has decreased its response time to a call from 72 hours to three hours, coalition officials said.
The Afghan air force is unable to conduct casualty evacuations from the battlefield or medical evacuations that provide advanced care during transport.
Casualty and medical evacuation capabilities are desperately needed because of the high number of Afghan troops wounded on the battlefield — several hundred a month, coalition officials said.
Because Afghanistan has limited medical staff and resources, its wounded soldiers are driven in pickup trucks across miles of potentially bomb-laced roads to the nearest coalition medical facility or aircraft landing zone.
The coalition has begun to scale back its air support to Afghan ground units in an effort to push the Afghans to take the lead this fighting season, wean them off its support over the next 18 months and reduce risk to coalition forces.
"I think it's fair to say if there's a life-and-death situation, and there are coalition resources, that they are going to respond to the area. Now, obviously, there is a desire for the Afghans to do more and the coalition to do less with time, but the Afghans need to win this year. This is an important year leading up to the election," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Steven M. Shepro, commander of NATO Air Training Command Afghanistan.
"So the perception that the coalition is withholding support is unfair," Gen. Shepro said. "The fact is, do they want the Afghans to get out more in front? Yes. And we're definitely doing that, but I would say the coalition is still very much invested."
The challenges of building a native air force in Afghanistan are many, but three stand out.
First, it takes considerable time to build technical expertise — not just to fly aircraft but also to maintain and repair it, and to ensure that air fields are safe for takeoffs.
Second, the international aviation language is English, and Afghan air traffic controllers, pilots, and maintenance and support crews must learn how to speak and read it in order to coordinate operations with the rest of the world, and read technical orders and manuals. Ensuring that the 6,400 members of the Afghan air force are proficient in English is no small task in a country with a 60 percent to 70 percent illiteracy rate in its native languages.
Third, there have been disruptions: In mid-2012, the entire Afghan air force was grounded temporarily because of safety concerns across its fleet.
Coalition trainers are taking on three tasks at once: congregating, training and advising members of the young air force as it takes on more combat responsibilities.
"If you were to ask me what the biggest [challenge] was that's time," said Air Force Col. James Brandenburg, commander of the 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group, which is training the Afghans' Kandahar air wing.
After 2014, coalition forces are expected to provide limited air support, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — capabilities that Afghans are developing by taking photos from the Cessnas.
"Low-tech, but they've worked. They've spied on enemy positions," Gen. Shepro said.
It is these solutions that coalition and Afghan officials are employing to get the air force into the skies on its own as soon as possible.
"We have to regrow an entire generation of people that were literally destroyed by the Taliban and al Qaeda," said Col. Brandenburg. "I'm very, very happy and very proud here to be a part of this team for what we're trying to do, and that is really to give them a chance, a chance to experience the type of freedoms that really all peoples should have around the world."
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