KABUL, Afghanistan, March 10, 2015 -- As winter comes, fighting in Afghanistan usually slows but never stops. The frozen mountain passes offer some refuge from the flow of weapons and explosives. However, with the spring thaw, insurgents reemerge to resume their deadly assault, often with renewed impetus.
With the coalition forces drawn down, this fighting season is pivotal as Afghan National Defense and Security Forces contend with this threat almost entirely on their own.
Last fighting season, the Afghan Air Force supported ground forces with only five Mi-35s, an attack helicopter sporting either 23mm machine guns or 57mm rockets. This year, they will have nearly six times the number of armed aircraft, which includes Mi-17s outfitted with the same 23mm machine guns and MD-530 Cayuse Warriors packing .50 caliber machine guns.
“The Afghan Air Force is well prepared for Fighting Season 2015,” said Afghan Air Force Col. Bahadur, Afghan Air Force spokesperson. “For 2015, the Afghan Air Force is equipped with Mi-17 helicopters with the GSh-23 machine gun and Mi-35 helicopters with guns and rockets to support friendly forces and eliminate the enemy.”
Although the Afghan Air Force currently has unarmed MD-530 light attack helicopters for training, the AAF is slated to receive weaponized versions by the start of the coming fighting season.
“There aren’t enough Mi-35s to support the Afghan National Army alone,” said Bahadur. “The MD helicopters are very modern and have excellent maneuver and low fuel consumption. Both the Mi-17 and MD-530 are very compatible in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan.”
Armed Mi-35s, Mi-17s and the MD-530 will provide armed over watch of friendly forces, while also being able to engage the enemy who are not deterred by the aircraft flying overhead.
To aid in this effort, the Afghan Air Force has air liaison officers, or ALOs, while the Afghan National Army has Afghan tactical air coordinators, or ATACs, who combine to coordinate air assets to assist ground forces with air support and close air attack.
A testament to the ALO and ATAC construct happened late last year. Afghan ground troops were pinned down by enemy forces perched on a mountainside in Badakhsan. An Afghan tactical air coordinator, embedded with the ground forces, called in an Mi-17 and guided the pilot to the enemy’s location. Using the 23mm machine guns, the Afghan pilot eliminated the enemy threat and rescued the trapped soldiers. “When ground forces see Afghan Air Force aircraft and helicopters flying overhead supporting them, they feel safer, and their morale gets stronger,” said Bahadur.
The Afghan National Army currently has more than 200 ATACs spread across their corps and the Afghan Air Force has more than 30 trained ALOs whose job it is to coordinate air operations with the army. The combined skill of ATACs and ALOs, who are integrated in planning and operations, ensures airpower is prioritized to meet the needs of ground commanders, said Brig. Gen. Mike Rothstein, commander of Train, Advise, Assist Command – Air.
“As coalition air support is withdrawn, the ANA must still conduct operations and hold territory,” said a member of the TAAC-Air air-ground integration office. “As the Afghan Air Force becomes the only source of aerial fires for ANA forces, ANA will need to rely on organic air-ground integration assets, namely ATACs and ALOs.”
In addition to providing aerial attack in support of ground forces, many Mi-17 Afghan pilots are now able to fly at night using night vision goggles, or NVGs.
“NVG training is more important this fighting season,” said Afghan Air Force Maj. Mohammad Ayun, Mi-17 instructor pilot. “We used to get coalition help, but this year we are our on our own, and we need to support our team. With NVGs, we can support ground forces at night with casualty evacuation and resupply missions. There is also less threat to aircraft and crews at night, because we have NVGs and the enemy doesn’t.”
For casualty evacuation, the Mi-17 is ideal to areas inaccessible to other aircraft. The C-208 Grand Caravan is a fixed wing aircraft capable of transporting casualties long distances. The C-130 Hercules, the newest fixed wing aircraft in the Afghan arsenal, can support a greater number of casualties.
“Last year they did over 2,000 casualty and medical evacuations themselves,” said Rothstein. “Not only are they carrying more of the load, but they have also dropped their response times significantly.”
Nearly each day the Afghan Air Force surpasses a milestone, but they still have room to grow, added Rothstein. The few coalition forces that remain in Afghanistan continue to train, advise, and assist Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, which includes the Afghan Air Force.
“Our coalition members within the command are doing a great job, but building an Air Force takes time,” said Rothstein. “This will be a significant year for the Afghan Air Force. There is a lot of pressure on them to perform well. I’ve certainly seen their operational performance improve significantly the last six months, so that is a trend in the right direction.”
Next year will mark another milestone as the A-29 Super Tucano, a fixed-wing light attack aircraft, becomes a staple of the Afghan Air Force. The turbo propped aircraft is capable of bringing more firepower to bear against the enemy. Afghan pilots are currently at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., training on the new airframe.
“The Afghan Air Force is making great strides,” said Rothstein. “The past year they are a better air force than they were two years ago, and this year they’re going to be even better.”