In the air with the Afghans

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This is a very interesting story. It's great to see how far the Afghan Air Force has come, I remember seeing the rusting hulks of what was left of it at the edge of the KIA airfield.

In the air with the Afghans

Lack of English language skills an obstacle to expanding the force

By Peter Pigott, Citizen SpecialJuly 13, 2010



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U.S. forces fighting near Kandahar, Afghanistan. Most people think of ground war in that country, but few know that Afghanistan has its own air force.
Photograph by: Getty Images, Citizen Special

'They got an air force?" My taxi driver to

Ottawa airport was incredulous. "I thought we did the fighting for them." The Afghan Air Force began in 1924, I told him, the same year as the Royal Canadian Air Force.

While the Afghan National Army and police force have been examined at length, if that country is ever to attain some form of stability, a viable air arm is essential. Thus returning to Afghanistan in April 2010, I asked to be embedded with the Afghan air force, now called the Afghan National Army Air Corp (ANAAC).

"This should open all doors for you," said the young Canadian Forces captain at the main International Security Assistance Force camp as he handed me an envelope. "It has been signed by God Himself." As it was in Dari, I had to take his word for that. Jolting along in the ubiquitous Corolla taxi to North Kabul Airport, I reflected on military aviation in Afghanistan. With the Soviet invasion in 1979, the Royal Afghan Air Force was renamed the "Democratic Republic of Afghanistan Air Force," (DRAAF), and inflated with Soviet aircraft. Air bases at Bagram, Herat, Mazar-I-Sharif, Kandahar and Kabul were expanded and all air force officers sent to the Soviet Union for training -- which was why even today the second language of senior officers is Russian.

The mountainous terrain and constant threat of roadside ambushes forced Moscow to rely heavily on air support to protect its convoys and ground forces. But despite the deployment of Mi-24 gun ships, with CIA-supplied Stinger missiles, the insurgents took control of the air, a decisive factor in the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Now orphaned, the DRAAF gradually disintegrated and it was the ingenuity of Afghan mechanics at "shade tree" maintenance that kept aircraft operational.

The Kabul government had its pilots fly air strikes against the encircling warlord armies and airbases like Bagram became strategic prizes allowing Iran and Pakistan to airlift in supplies for whichever faction they currently backed. Pilots defected with their aircraft to warlords they had ethnic ties with and the Taliban purged the air force of trained personnel.

After 9/11, the U.S. bombing in "Operation Enduring Freedom" destroyed what remained of the aircraft. The former DRAAF airbases were occupied by the Coalition forces -- the U.S. at Bagram, the Germans at Mazir-I-Sharif and the Canadians and British from Kandahar.

In May 2007, as part of an eventual exit strategy, ISAF saw the benefits of a well-trained and equipped aerial wing of the Afghan army. Responsible for rebuilding the Afghan armed forces, ISAF's Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) gave the task to the Combined Air Power Transition Force (CAPTF). Its U.S., British, Czech and Hungarian personnel have focused on expanding the inventory of aircraft, recruiting pilots and building airfields across Afghanistan.

Now renamed the Afghan National Army Air Corps (ANAAC), its Kabul Air Wing occupies a headquarters complex at North Kabul Airport with state-of-the-art hangars. The international community has provided aircraft -- the United Arab Emirates (UAE) financed Mi-35 gun ships and from their own air force the Czech Republic supplied 22 helicopters of the Mi-17 and Mi-35 type. The United States donated 23 aging G-222 cargo aircraft (C-27A) bought from Italy. On March 24, 2010, with an all-Afghan crew, an ANAAC

C-27 flew from Kabul to Kandahar on its first operational mission transporting emergency medical equipment for coalition troops.

Responsible for mentoring the ANAAC to grow into a self-sustaining, competent air capability, the CAPTF work with pilots, maintenance and crew chiefs on the helicopters, doing missions that range from general transport to forward operating base resupply to air assault operations against the Taliban. The Czech and the Hungarian mentor teams are especially prized as not only do they speak Russian, but they already possess Mi-35 skills related to ground and attack operations.

Nor is Kandahar in the volatile south overlooked. Here, the beginnings of a robust and dedicated Afghan helicopter force is taking shape. In October 2009, facilities were built at Kandahar Airport to train ANAAC aviation technicians in the maintenance of Mi-17 helicopters.

The biggest limiting factor to the rapid progression of the Air Corp towards integration into ISAF is the lack of English. When I met with Maj.-Gen. Mohammed Dawran, the chief of air staff, he emphasized that this is where Canada could help. Inability to understand English is a challenge for the ANAAC aircrew, not only in air traffic control but especially limiting co-ordination with ISAF as all battle space control is done in that language. Testing by the British Council and language training in Texas are initiatives that it is hoped will produce a small cadre of seasoned, English-speaking, instrument-rated ANAAC pilots who will be the backbone of the Afghan air service for the next generation.

When I asked a U.S. mentor what he thought of the Afghan flying skills, he said "The top pilots we work with a lot, many of them we would without hesitation transfer to a Western air force and they would fit right in as solid contributors. On the other side of the spectrum, you have the co-pilots that because of the chaos in Afghanistan have very little formal training and they need a lot of work."

The Mi-35 Hind gunship looks as if someone had stuck a rotor onto a sleeping crocodile. As it can be maintained in extreme conditions with minimal training, it remains the ANAAC's offensive mainstay. Years of flying in Sikorsky machines made me apprehensive the first time I climbed in one. As soon as the ANAAC crew strapped in, (the U.S. mentor and I hunched strapless in the rear cockpit), it lifted off. The U.S. serviceman explained that the Mi-35 was best at taking off from short runways with maximum fuel and ordinance to destroy an array of targets from dug-in insurgents to tanks. The wing stubs are very effective at high speeds to smooth out the control response. Amazingly, the cockpit was fairly quiet -- due to the specially designed pressurized seals. The rear cockpit had better visibility for flying, while the cramped front cockpit with the 12.7-mm turret and anti-tank "guided munitions employment" was primarily for "self-protection." Flying low through the Panshir, I could see the rusting Soviet tanks and armoured cars, overturned like carelessly thrown Dinky toys.

My last day with the ANAAC was April 28, which is celebrated in Afghanistan as Victory Day, marking the defeat of the Soviet Union by the Afghan people -- something they point out not even the German Army was able to accomplish. This year, the traditional fly past over Kabul featured for the first time two C-27s. I watched them fly by symbolic of the Afghan air arm's transitioning from a Coalition dependence to eventual self-sustainment.

As to its future, it is -- as they say here: "Inshallah -- as God wills."

Peter Pigott was embedded with the Afghan National Army Air Corps in April 2010. He writes for Helicopter magazine.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
 
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