- The Washington Times - Monday, October 21, 2013

NATO intends to refine its ambitious plan to train a fully functional Afghan air force and focus only on the most critical military capabilities needed after the combat mission ends by December 2014, according to the head of the Afghan air training command for the Western alliance.

The plan is a “Chevy no-options, not Porsche,” U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. John E. Michel, commander of NATO Air Training Command in Afghanistan, told The Washington Times on Sunday.

“We have gone in, and we have right-sized every single thing we have signed up over the last four years to do and dramatically simplified our design,” he said.

The scaled-back plan will save up to $3 million, he said.

The plan was devised ahead of a U.S.-Afghan agreement on how many trainers NATO will leave after the U.S.-led combat mission ends next year. The training force is expected to have 8,000 to 12,000 troops, most of them from the U.S.

The plan also reflects the uncertainty of how many NATO coalition partners will remain in Afghanistan.

To reflect this smaller number, the plan will scale back NATO training to only the most critical missions, such as the ability to support Afghan ground troops by attacking the enemy from the air. It would reduce training for less-critical missions.

As part of this plan, NATO will end training Afghans on Cessna 208 planes by December 2014 to better focus on close-air support. The small, fixed-wing planes are used for evacuating wounded troops, resupplying Afghan ground forces in remote areas and recovering human remains from the battlefield.

This year, NATO has steadily decreased its air support for wounded Afghans and the Afghan air force has bolstered its own casualty evacuation capabilities. Over the summer, the Afghans could field only two fully independent C-208 crews; now, they can field as many as nine, Gen. Michel said.

Also, NATO will ease its English-language requirements for Afghan aircraft maintenance crews. All previous recruits had to be proficient in English. Now, only the top 30 percent of maintenance crews will need to speak English well. The change will dramatically boost the number of Afghans qualified to repair planes.

This change was made after trainers determined that Afghans were capable of repairing planes by listening to instructions in Dari, one of two major languages used in Afghanistan.

More focus also will be placed on teaching finance, equipment resupply and logistics — “the soft underbelly” of any military, Gen. Michel said.

NATO has dropped its plan to teach conventional Afghan aviators how to fly at night and will leave that task largely to the Afghan air force’s special operations unit, which will have full night-flying mission capability.

NATO also will scale back the number of air bases run by the alliance after 2014, from the current level of six.

By focusing on maintenance, the scaled-down plan will allow Afghans to better sustain their air force after NATO support ends, Gen. Michel said.

Gen. Michel said Afghans welcome the plan and hope it will accelerate their independence from NATO trainers.

“The Afghan air force is a national source of pride,” he said.

• Kristina Wong can be reached at kwong@washingtontimes.com.

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