Biden is betting big on the Afghan Air Force. But their problems continue to grow.
It’s unclear exactly how this will work in practice, but removing over 16,000 contractors in the hundreds could have a bigger effect on the security situation than sending home the remaining 2,500 US troops, so that the Afghan Air Force strives to keep its planes and helicopters in the sky, chasing out Taliban fighters.
“It is the responsibility of the Biden administration to do everything possible to continue to provide this support to the air force,” said Lisa Curtis, former director of the National Security Council for South Asia and the United States. Central Asia, and now director of the Indo-Pacific security program. at the Center for New American Security. “It would be like pulling the grass from under the Afghans’ feet, not only are we withdrawing our troops, but we are withdrawing their ability to maintain the capabilities that we have provided.”
Kabul’s small but active air force of 162 planes and helicopters is given the monumental task of supporting tens of thousands of Afghan troops on the ground through airstrikes, refueling distant outposts and evacuating injured without US assistance or on-site repair expertise. . Yet billions of US dollars and dozens of replacement helicopters will continue to flow into the country.
These planes and helicopters are Kabul’s best hope of repelling the Taliban as government forces continue to lose territory in the countryside.
“They have capacity. They have abilities. They have an air force – an air force, by the way, that we continue to fund and support, ”Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on CNN on Friday. “They have modern weapons. They have received training and the ability to be in the field with US forces over the past 20 years. … Now it’s time to have that will. “
Over the past decade, the United States has built an Afghan air force modeled on its own strengths and preferences, spending $ 8 billion to deploy attack jets such as the A-29 Super Tucano and the ‘AC-208 Combat Caravan, both propeller driven. airplanes capable of firing laser-guided munitions at ground targets. The United States has also sent new Black Hawk helicopters.
Black Hawk’s move came after the United States said it would stop supplying Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters to Kabul in 2014 under sanctions imposed on Russia. The Mi-17 is a version of the old Soviet helicopters. Afghan aviators have decades of flight and maintenance experience, but the Pentagon has decided to replace them with 53 American-made UH-60 Black Hawks, which are more difficult to maintain and lack the high- altitude capability old Russian helicopters.
The Black Hawks also come with long logistical lines and complex maintenance requirements that Afghan crews cannot handle on their own. This is where the loss of entrepreneurial support will hit the Afghan army hardest.
Having more helicopters will allow commanders to spend fewer hours on their existing platforms, which would likely save on routine maintenance and allow for back-to-back missions.
“The Afghan Air Force, however, has a bad habit of exceeding these maintenance schedules in order to provide more hours of air support to the military and police,” said Jonathan Schroden, director of the response program. against threats and challenges to CNA.
But having these additional cells “should allow them to carry out the required maintenance operations while providing maximum support to the army and the police,” he added, which will be essential as the army is fighting multiple Taliban offensives across the country.
Lack of staff is already a problem. An Inspector General’s report released in April found that “most AAF cells did not have the number of qualified personnel (instructor pilots, co-pilots, mission system operators, etc.) needed to occupy the airplanes. crew positions required by each cell “.
With the departure of contractors, US defense planners are now placing their hopes in remote work technology, adding local maintainers through phone calls or video chats. Planes that require major repairs will now be shipped to facilities outside of Afghanistan.
“The impact on the readiness of the Afghan fleet will primarily result from the increased reliance on Afghan military maintenance technicians to perform routine maintenance of flight lines and receive on-the-job training. “, according to Pentagon spokesman Major Rob Lodewick. But it is not known how quickly this impact will be felt.
To help make up for the loss of broken or destroyed helicopters, the United States is sending 37 more UH-60 Black Hawks to the country over the next few months to be stored until needed. They will likely be cannibalized for spare parts if new shipments cannot be dispatched soon enough.
Other potential problems continue to accumulate. In January, the NATO Train Advise Assist Command – Air in Kabul told a Pentagon Inspector General that without the continued support of a contractor, none of the Air Force cells “can be sustained. effective in combat for more than a few months “.
The A-29 and AC-208 will be key components of any success the Afghan Air Force may have in hitting the Taliban from the air, but as with the rest of the service, the pilot’s options and of ground personnel are limited and unlikely to grow. . The American A-29 pilot training program in the United States ended in November 2020, with only about 30 pilots trained between 2015 and 2020.
Adding to the growing problems is what appears to be a coordinated Taliban assassination campaign targeting these pilots. Reuters reported Friday that at least seven pilots have been murdered off base in recent weeks, adding pressure on an already small pool of qualified officers.
As of April, more than 16,000 DoD contractors were working in Afghanistan, including more than 6,100 US citizens, according to a report by the Inspector General. A Pentagon official confirmed that the number is now in the “hundreds”. POLITICO has reached out to two of the largest US-based contractors working in Afghanistan, Leidos Holdings and DynCorp International, now part of Amentum Services Inc., for comment. Leidos asked the Pentagon questions and Amentum did not respond.
In May, the heads of three trade groups representing the government contracting industry sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power, asking for clarification on where and how their members will continue their work for Afghanistan. military and government. None of the government officials responded to the letter according to officials from the Professional Services Council.
It is unclear what role the U.S. military will play in the coming months, but President Joe Biden has pledged to continue pumping money into the Afghan military, and the Pentagon suggested Thursday that ‘he could still provide intelligence and surveillance support.
“I think you can expect that we plan to use a range of [intelligence and surveillance] capabilities at our disposal, ”Kirby said Thursday. “We also intend to build on the strong relationship we have with the Afghan forces who will still be on the ground and who will always have information to provide us,” suggesting that the United States could use air strikes to assist Afghan troops on the ground. Earth.
The Biden administration has asked for $ 3.3 billion to support the Afghan military in its 2022 fiscal budget, a price Washington will have to continue to bear as long as the government in Kabul fights to stay alive.
But over the years, that support could be difficult to sustain not only because of competing priorities at home, but also because the rampant and well-documented corruption within the Afghan government is siphoning off some of that money.
“The biggest challenge will be asking Congress to be accountable and monitor this funding,” CNAS’s Curtis said. “As we withdraw our presence and have fewer resources on the ground, it will be increasingly difficult to get Congress to approve this funding due to corruption” in Kabul.