Operation Enduring Freedom is eleven years old as of yesterday, it is the longest war in American history…
During a recent interview, President Karzai stated: “I asked the U.S. government to equip our air force with weapons, intelligence and transport planes — we still haven’t received a response from them,” he said. “Our discussions will continue next week as well, and if they show no interest in this, we will decide whether to purchase from Russia, China, India or any other country.” Although I am not a big fan of Karzai or his corrupt government, I do agree with him on this point. The US, and the foreign coalition that makes up ISAF, have been in Afghanistan for eleven years, and still Afghanistan has a very weak air arm, mostly made up of a few dozen Russian transport and of attack helicopters and some light transports, which would not be that big of a deal if the US and other allied nations were not pulling out conflict in just two years. There is little time left to get the Afghans trained, maintaining and operating the advanced aerial weaponry that will be needed in order to give the Afghan Army the decisive advantage in combat over Taliban and guerrilla networks. Considering the ISAF has been focused on “training the Afghan military to do the fighting themselves” for almost five years, this is a glaring omission from this so called “wining strategy”
The much delayed and ridiculously political Light Air Support aircraft was envisioned to be the perfect mix of technology and reliability for the Afghan Air Force. Based on the battle hardened Embraer Super Tucano or Hawker-Beechcraft AT-6 Coyote, these aircraft would have provided an almost perfect blend of precision bombing, UAV like endurance, and simplicity to get the job done in what is one of the most unforgiving combat environments in the world. Sadly, the USAF’s never ending bureaucracy culminated in a ridiculous “competition” between the two airframes, with the Embraer being picked as a winner, but without proper justification in Hawker-Beechcraft’s eyes. Hawker-Beechcraft filed a protest against the selection, and now, because the USAF does not make it clear that they can pick a winner at anytime, without justification, the program has been “reset” and is proceeding a pace that it simply too little and too late for Afghanistan’s needs. Therefore why even continue the program at all?
The reality is that the USAF really screwed up over the last decade, which has been dominated by fighting insurgencies in countries far from home. The USAF’s folks overseas both on the ground and in the air fought the air war side of both the Iraq and Afghanistan engagements with incredible courage and precision, but the brass far above them dropped the ball when it comes to what aircraft would be used to fight these painful and long wars. Using F-16s, F-15Es, and B-1 bombers to fight a counter-insurgency is a stupid waste of money and precious airframe hours. Everyone wanted a piece of the air war pie and the USAF brass obliged, in doing so we were using fast jets that cost $40,000 an hour to operate and that sip aerial tanker gas at $30+ a gallon every hour over the battlefield, when a Super Tacano or AT-6 could have done the job at a tiny fraction of the cost and arguably with much better results. Additionally, those turbo-prop attack assets could have been passed down to Afghan and Iraqi Air Forces once we left, as they would have provided a proven and cost effective platform that could continue providing close air support, persistent aerial surveillance, and even air sovereignty, to growing indigenous defense forces.
Now the Karzai Government is realizing that the US and ISAF forces may leave and take the very capability that made the initial invasion of Afghanistan a success, close air support, with them. This would leave Afghanistan’s still fledgling Army in great peril. Sure, there is the possibility that American air power will remain, at least as a shadow of the current force, but you need well trained and trustworthy Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTACs) on the ground directing the air support onto the target. You cannot just up and train some Afghans to do this, as with all the sectarian and tribal fissures in that country, American air-power could find itself bombing a family home of some warlord’s enemies. Sure, Greed Berets or other special forces units could remain embedded with the Afghan Army, but how long will that last? We have already seen “green on blue” killings increase drastically in the last year and ISAF still have over 100,000 troops in the country. What will the situation look like when there are just a handful of vulnerable Americans? Do American special forces really want to be leading the clumsy Afghan Army into combat against the battle hardened Taliban or Haqqani Network with little American rear support?
I think America should immedietly look to its stocks of aircraft in AMARG or from the private sector to begin training the Afghan Air Force in a precision attack role. With the draw-down of US A-10 Warthog squadrons on the books, maybe the US should gift a few squadrons to Afghanistan. It is a type with a robust knowledge-base and training infrastructure right here in the US. Further, the A-10 is an incredibly durable and potent machine, and it can operate in austere conditions. It would be a great symbol to the Afghan people of our commitment to their country’s success and we already own these airframes. The Czech L-159 is another perfect possibility. The Afghans have operated the L-39 for decades, so this is a familiar type, although with highly modernized avionics. Further, the L-159 could also work as a basic air defense fighter as well, and the best part about going with this aircraft is that they are cheap. I also think porting the LAS program over to a private contractor would be a way to get its rusty gears spinning and training and production kicked into high gear without dealing with the USAF’s damning bureaucracy and politics. The USAF should be ashamed of itself as they have fumbled a relatively simple but absolutely critical requirement for both Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, almost a decade after we went into Iraq, they still have no fast jets to defend their own air space. This is unthinkable as they are sitting of massive oil reserves in a region at war. Why on earth, in a well educated country with accomplished fighter pilots already in place, could we not train a couple squadrons of F-16 pilots and given Iraq a handful of used jets so that they could maintain their own air sovereignty until their new F-16s arrive? How could we have missed this? Afghanistan’s forces will be hard pressed to keep terror and guerrilla networks at bay without precision air support and surveillance. The US needs to make getting Afghanistan into the attack aircraft business a priority immedietly, and if the LAS concept still is the platform of choice, that means stripping the initiative from the USAF and proceeding through private channels if need be. If this is not done, then I think Karzai should go right to Russia, India, or China as soon as possible and purchase whatever his troops may need.
No wonder we are losing this war…