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Air advisers halfway through mission to train Afghans

Jun. 21, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Maj. Gen. Jack McMullen speaks with leaders of the 455th Expeditionary Aerial Port Squadron during an April visit to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
Maj. Gen. Jack McMullen speaks with leaders of the 455th Expeditionary Aerial Port Squadron during an April visit to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez/Air Force)
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The mission of the NATO personnel tasked to train the Afghan air force is to no longer have a job within three years, and they are well on their way, the top officer in charge said.

Training staff are about halfway through their “400 Day Plan” to get the Afghan air force to a sustainable level of training and operational ability, a plan that was put in place as the future of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan was in doubt, said Maj. Gen. Jack McMullen, commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan and commander of NATO Air Command-Afghanistan. The plan is to have a one-to-one aircrew ratio and develop enough maintainers to sustain the current fleet of 102 aircraft.

“I think the Afghan air force is beginning to think like an air force and build momentum,” McMullen said in a June 20 telephone interview with Air Force Times.

Now, with President Obama recently announcing the plan to keep about 9,800 troops in Afghanistan past 2014, the air advisers expect to keep about 270 in the country to meet future plans through 2017, down from the current amount of 700 airmen from 13 different countries. The remaining force will primarily be based in Kandahar and Kabul and focus on training the Afghans at the air staff level to be able to sustain their force.

The next focus on training will be as the A-29 Super Tucano close air support aircraft comes on line. The Afghan air force expects to fly 20 of the propeller-driven planes, with training for 30 pilots to take place on U.S. soil and last through 2018.

The Afghan air force currently is made up of 6,800 airmen, with the goal to eventually grow to 8,000. They operate out of three air wings in Kabul, Kandahar and in the Shindand province, and have a current fleet of MD-530 helicopters and Cessna 182 fixed-wing trainers. Operationally, the fleet includes 58 Mi-17 helicopters, Mi-35 helicopters, C-208 fixed wing aircraft and new C-130H cargo planes.

The service saw a large jump in capability from 2012 to 2013, with further growth expected this year. Mission hours jumped 11 percent in 2013, with another 20 percent growth expected by the end of 2014. The total amount of people moved was up 129 percent in 2013, with another 20 percent growth expected by the end of this year. Cargo movement climbed 196 percent in 2013, with another 11 percent expected in 2014.

Casualty evacuation, one of the most important missions as fighting continues across the country and U.S. combat rescue crews plan to leave, jumped 294 percent in 2013, with another 12 percent increase expected in 2014.

“[The growth] is really about training,” McMullen said. “[The Afghan air force] really didn’t have the capability to prioritize when to get folks off the battlefield. So it was a high priority for the coalition.”

Until recently, advisers and leaders of the Afghan air force had been recruiting pilots and maintainers out of the ranks of the Afghan National Army. Going forward, however, the Afghan air force is developing its own recruitment process and developing testing procedures to build their future force.

Other recent and planned milestones include:

■ The Afghan air force just opened the Afghan Air Force Academy, with the first class of 200 expected to graduate in April.

■ The first flight of an all Afghan aircrew in a C-130 occurred June 16, with the airmen flying 120 passengers and two casualty evacuation patients from Kabul to Kandahar and back. The trainers expect to develop a 1.5-to-1 crew ratio, with six crews to work four C-130s, McMullen said.

“There’s excitement in the Afghan air force,” McMullen said. “Just recently they did this C-130 flight on their own, which is a huge deal. One of the airmen said the Afghan air force is alive again. That’s what we need, is that spark. I see it in a lot of Afghans.”

■ Afghan crews flew dozens of support missions for the nation’s elections in April, delivering and recovering about 650,000 pounds of election materials across 43 different districts.

■ The ultimate goal for this year is to get the Afghan force to a 1-1 crew ratio, with the Afghans 75 percent toward that goal.

“What I really want to see from the Afghan standpoint is to build that instructor cadre and take the leading role in building combat capability,” McMullen said. “The endgame is for ourselves to work ourselves out of a job.”

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