By Christen N. McCluney
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
June 11, 2010 - About 450 U.S. and NATO forces are working to bring the 3,300 members and 48 aircraft of the Afghanistan army air corps up to par as part of a long-term effort to give the country a self-sufficient air force, the U.S. Air Force general leading the transition team said yesterday. "Our mission is to set the conditions for a professional, fully independent and operationally capable Afghan air force that is ready to meet the security requirements of Afghanistan today and tomorrow," Brig. Gen. Michael R. Boera, commander of the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan's Combined Air Power Transition Force, said during a "DoDLive" bloggers roundtable yesterday.
Boera oversees the development of aviation within the Afghan military and police forces, which includes mentoring, training and assisting aviation units. Afghanistan's air forces consist of the national army air corps and an air interdiction unit, which teams with the Afghan national police and U.S. forces on counternarcotics.
"We didn't want to create two air forces," Boera said. "We wanted to find the efficiencies that could be had with our oversight -- one-person oversight of it -- so that we can maximize infrastructure build, facility build, and for myself, trainers, if you will, that are very challenging to come by."
Boera's team does its mission with about 450 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, contractors and NATO partners in four locations around the country, and he plans to expand to two additional locations.
One of his primary missions is to take care of the growth and development of the air force and turn it into a professional force.
The air corps currently has 48 aircraft and almost 3,300 soldiers, including noncommissioned and commissioned officers. They plan to grow to 146 aircraft and more than 8,000 airmen, Boera said. The Air Interdiction Unit has nine aircraft and 129 airmen, and plans to expand to 19 aircraft and 282 airmen, he said.
The mission in Afghanistan is a long-term effort. "You cannot build an air force over night," Boera said. To build a good force takes anywhere from two to five years to develop an air crew, and up to three-and-a-half years to train an engineer, or maintainer, from scratch, he said.
"My job is to put ourselves out of a job," the general said of the NATO training mission. His goal is to set the conditions for a transition that allows the Afghans to teach Afghans. The team is seeing that in some areas already, he said.
Asked what some of the challenges are in Afghanistan, Boera said the biggest one is bridging a command and control disconnect with use of the forces. The soldiers have strong alliances to their own groups and don't always communicate externally across all levels of command.
Language barriers also are a problem because many soldiers are learning English. One of the biggest messages Boera said he conveys to the Afghan forces is that speaking and learning English isn't just a U.S. interest, but a requirement to join the global community of airmen.
The most critical area the Afghan air force is working toward is the institutional development of the forces through schooling, technical training and military training, Boera said, adding that it's important to develop an intellectual infrastructure to tie into the building infrastructure being done across the country.
One of the biggest strengths Boera sees is the optimism and commitment of many young Afghan soldiers. "There is so much hope, and there is so much excitement in their eyes," he said.
He also believes that the air forces will be able to provide a visible symbol of what the Afghan government can do for its citizens.
The transition force is working with the Afghan forces to ensure they maximize their capabilities so they have everything they need to support their ground forces after the transition.
\"We push it up, we aim high, and we do everything shoulder by shoulder in our imbedded partnership with the Afghans and our coalition partners," he said.