By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 24, 2008 - The Afghan army air corps is going through rapid growth, but it will take eight years for the force to be self-sustaining and independent, the commander of the Combined Air Power Transition Force said from his headquarters in the Afghan capital of Kabul today. Air Force Brig. Gen. Jay H. Lindell told Pentagon reporters via video-teleconference that the air corps has doubled its capability since October and that he expects it to double again in the next six months.
His 133 U.S. servicemembers are helping the Afghan National Army establish the air corps. Ultimately, the force will have 112 aircraft and 7,400 personnel. It now has 1,950 personnel, about 180 of them pilots.
The command has an eight-year campaign plan to acquire aircraft and train the force, but it is flying now.
"We're well on our way," Lindell said.
The air corps now has four Antonov fixed-wing transport planes and 16 Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters. The general said the force will receive 16 more Mi-17, six more Mi-35 helicopters, and four more Antonovs in the next six months. The air corps also will buy 20 C-27A Spartan aircraft, with the first set to arrive in June 2009.
The air corps is engaged in operations daily, Lindell said, flying five fixed-wing missions each day. The command, with Afghan National Army concurrence, has decided to concentrate on building the air mobility aspect of the air corps. "That is the urgent and most critical need that the Afghan national security forces need," the general said.
The air corps will pick up these logistical missions that the Afghan National Army has relied on U.S. or NATO forces to perform.
"On the rotary-wing side, they are actually performing more training missions than operational right now," Lindell said, adding that medical evacuation missions are on the air corps' near horizon.
"We will soon start medevac operations here out of Kabul, and in three months we plan to have medevac operations established at Kandahar with the Afghan air corps," the general said.
Though the force is flying and growing, the air corps suffers from a lack of trained personnel and an aging pilot force. The average age of air corps pilots is 43, and some have not flown for 15 years, he said. The Afghan military has not trained a new pilot since 1992.
"The Afghan pilots that are currently flying are very good stick-and-rudder pilots," Lindell said. "They're very competent; they're professional. They can fly the missions that they're assigned to today. It's just that they do not have the resources."
The Afghan pilots are "day pilots," Lindell said. They do not fly at night or in limited visibility.
"As this force ages, it won't sustain this air corps for the long term, and we are developing plans to train new pilots and bring youth into the program," he said.
The command hopes to begin training 48 pilots a year beginning this year. That will take some years to develop, and at first, the Afghan pilots will train outside the country, probably in the United States.
"Then we hope to develop our training capacity in country here, Afghans training Afghans to be new pilots for this air corps," Lindell said.
In three years, the command hopes to begin training Afghan army air corps personnel to pick up more missions, such as direct ground support and intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance capability.
The force's ground crews and maintenance technicians are retired Afghan personnel. They do on-the-job training with their maintenance technicians. The command is working on a formal technical training school that will be developed in Kabul.
"We will start that coursework this year," Lindell said. "We will recruit personnel. They'll go through their military basic training, and then we'll run them through our aviation branch school training here in this technical training center as we develop these maintenance technicians."
This year the air corps will graduate about 20 personnel from the tech school, ramping up to at least 350 a year over the next two years.
The air corps uses Eastern Bloc aircraft because that is what the Afghans are used to. However, servicing the aircraft presents problems. "We're not in good shape, and we do have parts problems," Lindell said.
In September, Lindell's command let a $20 million contract to order parts for Afghanistan's legacy aircraft: the Antonov aircraft and the Mi-17s and Mi-35s.
"We've received some of those parts," he said. "We also plan to put on contract the logistics sustainment system. The logistics sustainment system will be initially a contractor that will help supply-chain management with the right parts, with the right certified quality parts for these legacy aircraft, help us with the support equipment, help us with the tooling necessary to maintain them, help us with the tech orders that we need to maintain these aircraft, and some training for the Afghan maintenance personnel."
The eight-year campaign plan is ambitious, but doable, he said.
"We believe we can build this air corps to an adequate level where they are self-sufficient and they do have operational capability to meet their security needs," Lindell said. "I'm just extremely proud of the 133 personnel assigned to the Combined Air Power Transition Force, as we build and develop this Afghan air corps."