US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh says a continued US presence could help Afghanistan establish a self-sustaining aeronautical industry. (Scott M. Ash / US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — Afghanistan is not a country known for its aeronautical industry, but at least one top-ranking U.S. official believes that could change.
“The aviation industry in Afghanistan is an opportunity for that country,” Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, said Wednesday. “It’s an industry that could be incredibly successful and meaningful for them in that region, but it hasn’t been robust in the past. Their Air Force will lead that effort, their airmen will lead that effort.”
Welsh, speaking at a breakfast lecture hosted by the National Press Club, warned that any industrial development would be endangered by a 2014 withdrawal of US forces.
“If we have the chance to train them to a level where they can be a fully operating, sustaining air force over time, with the ability not just to fly airplanes, which they do very well, but manage infrastructure and systems and logistics trains and those things, I think it helps the country’s ability to develop an aviation industry over time,” Welsh said. “That’s why we’d like to stay engaged. If we come out by the end of this year, clearly that effort will not continue.”
The Air Force has worked closely with Afghanistan’s military to help it develop a fledgling air service, providing both training and equipment. US forces have acted with relative impunity in the air domain over Afghanistan, and the hope is that a well-trained Afghan Air Force could help maintain control over the country, particularly in the counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism realm.
Welsh also touched on relations with Afghanistan’s southern neighbor, Pakistan, noting that he is in the process of arranging a trip to that nation to meet with the air chief there in order to strengthen relations.
“With airmen, I don’t know why but we just kind of connect. There’s just a connection that happens very easily,” Welsh said. “We certainly can be part of the [diplomatic] connective tissue and we’d like to be that way with Pakistan.”
Much of the conversation centered on domestic budget issues, with Welsh continuing the service’s argument for retiring the A-10 attack plane.
Air Force officials have said that sequestration-related budget cuts have forced them to cut entire platforms from the fleet, including the A-10. But members of Congress have made it clear they view the A-10 as vital to the safety of troops on the ground.
“We are trying to balance our forces to a size where we can afford to train and operate it,” Welsh said. “We didn’t choose the law that passed, but it’s a law, and in [fiscal 2016] we will return to sequester levels of funding according to the law. If that happens, we cannot operate and train our Air Force at the size we are at now. We have got to downsize. Our people understand that, though it’s tough on them.”
Air Force officials have said more cuts to platforms will be needed if sequestration levels return in 2016. Given an opportunity to strike an optimistic note on a potential deal, Welsh remained realistic.
“I am not seeing any indication” that Congress will act to avoid sequester levels, Welsh said.