High expectations: Fledging Afghan air force pressured for readiness

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — The helicopters lifted off together and flew low over a sea-green lake between craggy mountaintops and paprika-colored dunes.

Each crew had a pilot, a flight engineer, two gunners and an interpreter — all Afghans — and a pilot and a gunner/flight engineer who both were coalition advisers.

One helicopter suddenly banked hard left, nearly 45 degrees to the horizon. “Break right, break right!” an Afghan gunner yelled over his headset. “Break left, break left! Roll out, roll out!”

Air Force Staff Sgt. Ben Jacobs, the coalition gunner/flight engineer, mouthed the word “down,” motioning with both thumbs, and for a second, it seemed the aircraft was out of control.

The helicopter finally leveled off in this exercise, designed to teach crews how to react to ground fire. The “aerial escort” mission, in which Afghan crews fly in two-ship formations, is something they will have to master to provide close air support and coordinate with Afghan soldiers to attack enemy forces on the ground.

A U.S. Air Force pilot (left), with an Afghan pilot (right) and flight engineer, prepare for takeoff on a training mission in an Mi-17 helicopter from the Kandahar Air Field to practice flying close air-support missions to assist Afghan ground forces. (Kristina Wong/The Washington Times)

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A U.S. Air Force pilot (left), with an Afghan pilot (right) and ... more >

This was just one of several training sessions per week at Kandahar Air Field by the 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron, which is tasked with training and advising the Afghan air force’s Kandahar Air Wing. Afghan pilots flew 70 percent of the training mission, said Air Force Capt. Jeremy Powell, an adviser pilot with the 738th.

Coalition advisers planned the two-hour mission and led a pre-mission briefing, but an Afghan intelligence officer and several Afghan crew members also briefed, with advisers quizzing them about what to do in case of contingencies. The two Afghan pilots were proficient in English, but interpreters jumped in often to translate, especially for the rest of the crew.

With only 18 months left to go before NATO ends its combat mission and much of its air support, coalition trainers are teaching the Afghan air force how to fly and maintain aircraft, and secure airfields as fast and as much as they can before coalition combat troops leave, along with much of its air power.

In a landlocked country roughly the size of Texas, where towns and cities are separated by vast expanses of mountain and desert, an air force is crucial to sustaining the 350,000 Afghan ground troops stationed at remote bases who will continue fighting the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Taliban insurgents in the country long after coalition troops leave.

Tasked with the mission are about 940 coalition trainers, most of whom will stay through 2017 because of technological challenges, especially for a country where 60 percent to 70 percent of the population is illiterate in its own languages.

To become pilots, Afghans must undergo about two years of training: one year of English immersion, six months of basic flight school, two months of advanced flight drills, then months more experience to qualify for specific missions.

Currently, 128 pilots are being trained, compared with 98 who are operational. One of the pilots undergoing training is 21-year-old 2nd Lt. Niloofar Rhmani, the first woman in 30 years to be trained to fly in Afghanistan.

The most difficult challenge for the trainers by 2017 will be bringing Afghan aircraft maintenance crews up to international standards, coalition officials say.

“When you go down the road to try to introduce language to help resolve some of our maintenance standardization issues, when you’re trying to overcome a generation of illiteracy, when you’re trying to overcome a generation of technical incompetence, and you’re trying to introduce technical competence, it takes time to do that,” said Air Force Col. James Brandenburg, commander of the 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group training the Afghan Air Force’s Kandahar Air Wing.

From 2017 through 2024, a smaller yet unspecified number of the 940 coalition advisers will remain and move from training the Afghan Air Force on tactics to advising Afghan commanders on strategy.

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