By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 23, 2013 – Air power has provided a critical advantage throughout the Afghanistan campaign, and it will do the same for Afghan national security forces building their own air capability, the senior U.S. and NATO airman in Afghanistan told Pentagon reporters today.
“We know that air is a critical enabler,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. H.D. “Jake” Polumbo Jr., director of the International Security Assistance Force Air Component Coordination Element and commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force Afghanistan.
“It is our asymmetric advantage. The insurgents, the Taliban, have no match for it,” Polumbo said via video teleconference from his headquarters in the Afghan capital of Kabul. “And therefore, we always have that ability to … pack that punch that really keeps them on their heels, if not just in retreat.”
While continuing to support coalition and Afghan operations, ISAF aircrews are preparing to shift more of their focus to ensuring the Afghan air force is postured to provide that same punch, Polumbo said.
Only about 6,000 Afghan national security forces are assigned to the air force, and recruits often are turned away because they fall short in literacy and English language skills. But Polumbo said a recruiting and training pipeline is in place to increase those numbers within the next two years.
Meanwhile, the Afghans are expected to receive the first of 20 U.S.-funded A-29 Super Tucano turboprop aircraft next year. As the A-29s get introduced into the inventory, ISAF trainers will ensure the Afghan air force has the training, maintenance and logistical systems in place to sustain them, Polumbo said.
“Building an air force from the ground up is no easy task,” he said, citing Afghanistan’s vast, rugged terrain, harsh climate and ongoing combat operations. “But the Afghans, and particularly the Afghan airmen, are hearty people who have eagerly embraced these challenges.”
“The results are showing,” Polumbo said, not just in the training environment, but increasingly on the battlefield. Afghan air force airmen conducted winter resupply missions to remote Afghan army locations in the east, and provide direct support to Afghan border police in Paktika and Kandahar provinces, he reported. During recent combat operations, Afghan air force helicopter crews flew lifesaving casualty evacuation flights and conducted independent air assaults into contested areas.
“Admittedly, Afghan air force capacity is still very limited, and will need continued assistance from NATO” to be able to conduct independent air surveillance, air support and mobility operations, he said.
“But the early signs are, indeed, encouraging,” the general added.
As U.S. and coalition forces draw down in Afghanistan, Polumbo said, air power assets will draw down at a slightly slower rate to ensure the Afghan air force is set up for success.
“There is no doubt that … we will assist them to make sure there are no significant setbacks in this campaign,” he said, emphasizing the need for a “graduated approach” in both drawing down coalition assets and building up Afghan capability.
Even as the drawdown takes place, coalition air power will be available to help the Afghans, he said.
Some air assets are expected to remain in Afghanistan, and others will provide an “over-the-horizon capability” as they fly in from bases and Navy aircraft carriers in the region. In addition, Polumbo said, unmanned aerial vehicles are expected to continue providing support to the Afghans.