by Chief Master Sergeant Rob Brooks, USAF
“An Advisor’s success may involve knowing what is at stake all the way to the strategic level and being able to estimate how military force applied at specific times and places will effect, or interact with, host nation political, economic, and informational initiatives.”
-- Jerome Klingaman
When I arrived in Kabul 11 months ago, I had only a fleeting idea of what my responsibilities as an ‘air advisor’ might be. My title as Command Chief for the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing had implications I understood, as did my ‘second hat’ as Senior Enlisted Leader for the Combined Air Power Transition Force (CAPTF), which includes our joint and coalition partners. Furthermore, I had no doubt my pre-departure training was sufficient to prepare me for deployment. If I lacked anything in preparation, it was a simple understanding of the role and of the legacy of the air advisor.
When asked to describe the advisor wing to those unfamiliar with advisor duty, I simply say this: the USAF in consort with joint and coalition partners have set up a wing similar to any other wing in the Air Force…except our work centers are one-deep, though spanning virtually every AFSC and area of expertise. We then take each of those one-deep advisors and pair them with an Afghan charged with similar duty. The two work ‘shohna-ba-shohna’ (shoulder to shoulder) until the Afghan soldier becomes proficient and autonomous, at which point the advisor disappears. When all advisors have disappeared, what remains is a proficient and autonomous Afghan Air Wing…indeed a proficient and autonomous Afghan Air Force.
Although there are only two Air Force ‘Advisor Wings’, the 438 Air Expeditionary Wing (OEF) and the 321 AEW (OIF), we are hardly the founding fathers of this skill set. Air advisor lineage goes back to 1932 when the U.S. sent eight pilots to Hangchow, China to organize a flying school. This was the first known air advisor initiative and evolved exponentially through the 1990s on the coat-tails of Lt Col (Ret) Jerry Klingaman (AKA “Mr. K”) under whom a new genre of war fighting was born. A genre removed from force-on-force kinetic engagement, rather steeped in Foreign Internal Defense (FID), building partnership capacity and Counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, perhaps before they became mainstream mindset. Notably, air advisors today owe much blood, sweat and tears (literally) to our brothers and sisters in the 6th Special Operations Squadron who have perfected the art of air combat aviation advising and who do it as a primary duty; our advisor wings are supported in Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTP), and in physical presence by our special operations partners. However, CAPTF warriors are largely ‘general purpose’ warriors doing the job without the benefit of it being their primary duty. A testament to the quality of our force, but perhaps a skill that could, indeed should, be included formally in the professional development of all Airmen?
My prior post as Command Chief for the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis AFB left me only peripherally aware of the air advisor role. Fortunately, air advisors must attend a 23-day course at Fort Dix devoted to language and cultural training specific to their country of assignment as well as advanced weapons tactics, defensive driving and combat lifesaver. Additionally, advisors attend survival/evasion training at Fairchild AFB prior to deployment. While in Pre-D preparation I had a lot of fun, but frankly, the training seemed over-the-top for what I expected to be doing in Afghanistan. Then came June 2009 and my arrival in country…
Upon arrival in Kabul I discovered that USAF advisors truly are paired with their Afghan counterparts; we go where they go, to the extent of being imbedded with them, outside the wire. In a country at war, our mission is two-fold: to enable their success in winning their current war and to enable their success in future wars. Relative to the former, advisors must become proficient on current Afghan weapon systems. To that end, many operators and maintainers receive additional pre-deployment training devoted to former Soviet Union platforms; primarily Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters as well as An-32 fixed-wing transport airplanes.
My counterpart is the Afghan National Army Air Corps Command Sergeant Major. In short, my task as a wing level Command Chief is to turn my counterpart into their Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force! That’s not overstated in the least and is indicative of the level of responsibility for all air advisors. We have E-6 and O-3 advisors, mentoring 0-5 (and above) Afghans as well as dictating advice at the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior. Our ‘junior Airmen’ have responsibilities we might associate with MAJCOM and HAF level positions in the states and it is positively remarkable how adept they have become at it. Our wings are largely comprised of more experienced/mature joint Airmen, of whom the bulk, are on 365-day tours. This is almost exclusively for the purpose of cross-cultural relationship building.
I mentioned our mission is two-fold. In preparing our friends for future wars, we must assist them in equipping and training with more advanced weapon systems. In Afghanistan, we are on the leading edge of this initiative with the on-set of the C-27 program. The C-27 marks the arrival of the first ‘Western’ style aircraft in Afghanistan and enables organic, theater, troop movement as well as casualty/medical evacuation. Very soon on the horizon, our ANA counterparts will transition to a more advanced Close Air Support (CAS) platform and will grow in size and equipment dramatically. We like to use the metaphor; we are building an airplane while we are flying it!
My year is nearly complete and in that time, I have seen amazing advancement on the part of the Afghan ‘Air Force’ at the hand of US and Coalition advisors. Last summer brought the first live-fire from an Mi-35 attack helicopter in nearly 9 years. This validated organic offensive and defensive capability from the air. Our flight medic track has developed formal training for flight medics and a process by which casualties can be moved from point of injury to the medical treatment facility. Ultimately returning to their home forward operating base where they are received by their family. This process reactively addresses battlefield injuries, arguably more importantly, it proactively puts soldiers on the battle field; those who once feared being left in battle now know they will not be left behind. CAPTF advisors enabled Afghan air support for drug interdiction, Presidential elections and humanitarian operations; ultimately saving hundreds of lives during a recent flood and avalanche thus furthering the COIN cause exponentially. The Air Corps doubled their number of wings and perhaps the crowning glory has been the birth of an Afghan “Air University.” This campus is devoted to providing technical, upgrade and developmental training to Afghan ‘Airmen’ including Non-Commissioned Officer Leadership training. This is compelling in my view, because a professional Enlisted Corps is the silver-bullet in a successful Afghan Air Force. T.E. Lawrence, in his “Twenty-Seven Articles” emphasized, “Success (of the advisor) will be proportioned to the amount of mental effort devoted to it”. USAF Air Advisors have planted that seed and are seeing the proverbial fruits of their labor.
As I reflect on the last 11 months, I take pride in what this wing has accomplished relative to standing up an Afghan ‘Air Force.’ We know that the Afghan Army must be successful before U.S. and Coalition forces withdrawal. We also know that for the Afghan Army to be successful they must have viable air capability. Viable ‘air’ lends itself to viable ‘ground’ and consequently an organic security capability for a nation. U.S. advisors, in one-deep roles, are having an impact on combat and U.S. strategy in Afghanistan perhaps more than others, on an individual basis. It is a tremendous opportunity and daunting responsibility and I for one, am incredibly proud to have contributed to a legacy and to have worn the title of Air Advisor.
CMSgt Rob Brooks is the 438 AEW (CAPTF) Command Chief Master Sergeant. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and may not reflect the policies of the US Air Force or Department of Defense.