August 05, 2013
The U.S. Air Force is planning to remain in Afghanistan until 2017 in an advisory role, but Congress's confidence in—and potential funding for—the young air force there is wavering.
The drastic funding cuts proposed by Senate appropriators—eliminating a second batch of 20 Super Tucanos and slicing money for more Mil Mi-17 helicopters—are a reaction to a lack of progress in maturing Afghanistan's air force. A June 28 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction looking at one special mission wing designed for the counter-narcotics mission outlined disarray significant enough to prompt the proposed cuts.
A defense industry official says the problems in this wing are mirrored throughout the air force. Pilot retention, for example, is a challenge. “If you're an English speaker who can fly, you're a pretty hot commodity,” the official says. Other congressional committees did not suggest such an explicit reduction in funding, but those bills were drafted before the release of the June report.
The senior U.S. airman in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, says the young service there is making strides. “The press was fairly negative [that] it wasn't ready. It wasn't that advanced. It wasn't that professional,” when he arrived to be deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Wilsbach tells Aviation Week. “That impression . . . was wrong . . . . They are small but capable.”
Afghanistan's entire air force was grounded last year due to poor safety and training, but they have since refocused on training and conducting more operations.
However, the Pentagon hopes to have a much stronger service in place when it decamps in 2017. The Afghan air force is struggling to operate old and unreliable Mi-35s in an attack helicopter role. It was prohibited temporarily from providing fires from these helicopters because of safety concerns; but Wilsbach says they began executing attack missions again at the end of July.
The Pentagon's decision to abruptly cancel Alenia's contract to deliver refurbished C-27A airlifters to Afghanistan along with training, is further straining the small Afghan Mi-17 helicopter fleet.