By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md., Sept. 19, 2013 – The mission: build an independent, self-sustaining air force from the inside out, from the ground up. The commander leading that effort calls it the most complex undertaking NATO and the U.S. Air Force have ever tackled.
Air Force Brig. Gen. John Michel leads NATO Air Training Command Afghanistan, the organization charged with training the Afghan air force. He is here this week attending an Air Force conference, and spoke to American Forces Press Service about the Afghan air capability that he maintains no longer is fledgling, but rather is flourishing.
Not only are Afghan pilots now carrying out combat, resupply and medevac missions, he said, the humanitarian capability they bring to their government is helping to legitimize their nation. In a country largely inaccessible by road, the general noted, air reach equals government reach. And Afghan aviation dates to 1919, he said.
“It’s a source of national pride,” Michel said. About a month ago, he said, the Afghan air force was called to respond to a flood that had left citizens stranded, “and they saved over 300 men, women and children.”
The force is critical to the Afghan army as well, he said. Close air support, evacuating the wounded, and in many cases, even basic resupply are only possible in Afghanistan with aircraft, Michel noted.
The Afghan air force, he said, “is really the foundational element for legitimacy locally, nationally and internationally.” For example, he said, the core of trained air traffic controllers that will grow up around the air force and ultimately transfer to the civilian world will form part of the infrastructure backbone Afghanistan will need to attract long-term foreign investment.
The air training command’s staff includes some 600 people from 14 coalition nations. They work with their Afghan counterparts on Afghan bases at six locations within the country, training and advising every member of the Afghan air force, from the highest-level leaders down to the newest junior recruits.
Michel pointed out the timeline that makes 2014 the handoff year for combat operations doesn’t apply to his command. The Afghan air force is on a separate timeline from the army and police forces, and is not set for full operational autonomy until 2017, he said. The NATO air training command is set to grow during that time to 1,114 military and defense contractors, plus 530 base support personnel.
Meanwhile, coalition aircrews fly alongside their Afghan counterparts during training missions, combat missions, and joint missions conducting resupply, infiltration, exfiltration, passenger movements and casualty evacuation for the Afghan army. Coalition advisors also train in all the support roles including maintenance, logistics, finance and communications. About 200 Afghan students are now in various phases of the pilot training pipeline, Michel said.
The Afghan air force is divided into three wings, located respectively in Kabul, Kandahar and Shindand, in western Afghanistan’s Herat province. The command center is in Kabul, and the Shindand Air Base is the main training area. The Afghan force currently has a fleet of 92 fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, with 12 more Mi-17 transport helicopters being delivered starting this month. Ultimately, the force’s fleet will include 58 Mi-17s, six Mi-35 attack helicopters, 20 C-208 turboprop airliners, four C-130 transport aircraft and 20 A-29 light attack aircraft.
Michel noted the Soviet influence in Afghanistan dating to the 1920s but dominant from the 1950s to the 1990s extended to the air force, which followed the Soviet model of essentially a client force trained to fly but reliant on its patrons for equipment, maintenance, support and administration.
Command and control will be the essence of the “small, but mighty” air capability Afghanistan plans to grow to a force of 8,000, Michel said. “That was not present in the dependency model,” he added. And while the model encouraged brilliant flying, it omitted “disciplined execution,” the general said, “which is what makes [the U.S.] Air Force the best in the history of mankind.”
Disciplined execution includes doctrine and an emphasis on safety, Michel said, which his command is training or developing in the growing Afghan force, along with English, military science and a host of other subjects and resources.
“Among those 8,000 people, there are seven specific capabilities and 60 [military occupational specialties],” he noted. The mission set for the Afghan air force rests on core capabilities of air movement, aerial fires, aerial reconnaissance, force protection, sustainment and intelligence, Michel said. That integration of capabilities is crucial to the self-sustaining force that Afghanistan needs, he said.
“The maintainer number that we’re going to is sub-1,400,” he said. “And then we’ll have some number less than that for pilots.” The A-29 “Super Takano” program aims at 30 pilots for 20 aircraft, he said, but those 30 will over time “grow out of the cockpit.”
“We’re growing a profession,” he said. Establishing a military education network that will produce professional officers and noncommissioned officers -- Michel called the NCO corps “the secret sauce” of the U.S. military -- recruiting and marketing are all part of the mission, he said.
“Is it hard?” the general said of his mission. “Let’s see; we’re building it from the inside out, the ground up. The more capability we start to garner, the more they want to employ. The more they employ, the less we can train. … And, as of a week from today, we’re adding the first two of four C-130s.”
As capabilities grow, so do costs and complications, Michel acknowledged. The Afghan government may choose to adjust its timeline for some capabilities as its contributors’ budgets tighten, he said, and his command is prepared with a range of options to scale capability to cost as needed.
“I have 39 months from today to finish this mission,” he said. “We’re not building capabilities they don’t need to have.”