As the U.S. and its coalition partners prepare to withdraw all combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the vital question that needs to be answered is, will the Afghan security forces will be able to defend their nation against the inevitable resurgence of the Taliban? Starting quite literally from scratch, the coalition rebuilt the Afghan National Army and National Police into a force of nearly 400,000. While they have demonstrated basic competence in the conduct of security operations, independent assessments of these forces warn of considerable persistent weaknesses in critical enablers such as air support, mobility, logistics, intelligence, communications, medical support and joint operations.
As we learned recently to our great regret, building partner security forces is about a lot more than just creating and training combat forces. If soldiers and police are not supported properly, including receiving food, mail and medical care, they may simply refuse to fight. Not only did the coalition have to generate the fighting portion of the Afghan security forces, it also undertook the equally difficult task of helping the Afghan government build competent management structures and functioning logistics and sustainment systems, finance, accounting and contracting capabilities, and medical services.
Of the enablers for the Afghan security forces, arguably the most important is air support. Given Afghanistan’s difficult terrain and lack of roads, air transport has been critical to the operations of the Afghan government and security forces for decades. Airpower provides critical intelligence, responsive firepower for ground forces, the movement of high value personnel and supplies, and rapid medical evacuation.
Before the Taliban’s victory, Afghanistan maintained a fairly substantial air force and supporting infrastructure. The coalition struggled for years to implement a plan to restore the Afghan Air Force. There were a number of false starts and problems including the acquisition of platforms that could not be maintained and a recruitment and training strategy that could not be implemented successfully in the time available.
Now, it appears that the effort to resurrect the Afghan Air Force is finally on track, thanks in large part to Brigadier General John Michel, USAF until quite recently the Commanding General, NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan. Under his leadership, the types of platforms, fixed wing and helicopters, was reduced, infrastructure rationalized and the plan to train a corps of Afghan pilots and maintainers simplified and brought into line with available resources.
A critical element of the revised strategy for the Afghan Air Force is the acquisition of a fleet of Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft and the training of the needed pilots and maintainers. The LAS was envisioned to be a relatively low cost, simple to maintain, yet capable aircraft that could provide indigenous forces with critical ISR and close air support.
The LAS program began as a tragic tale and has now been transformed into a true acquisition success story. Twice the Air Force awarded the LAS contract to a team of Sierra Nevada Corporation and Embraer to provide an enhanced variant of the latter’s A-29 Super Tucano. Twice the acquisition system forced the Air Force to rerun the competition always to arrive at the same result: the Sierra Nevada-Embraer offering was the best. The result of this acquisition churn, unfortunately, was a two-year delay in getting the LAS into the field.
This week, Sierra Nevada announced that the first A-29 rolled out of the factory that Embraer built in Jacksonville, Florida. The team is committed to producing the remaining aircraft on time. Equally important, under General Michel’s direction, training of Afghan personnel on the LAS has been moved to Moody Air Force Base, Georgia where it can be conducted safely and economically.
The original plan for the LAS program was to acquire up to 100 aircraft, most of which would go to partner countries. In the face of declining defense budgets and a growing antipathy towards Iraq-Afghanistan type stability operations, the Pentagon walked away from this plan. Given recent events in Iraq, notably that country’s demand for coalition airpower, and the explosion of similar insurgency challenges across North Africa and the Middle East, the Obama Administration should rethink its plan to terminate the LAS program at 20 aircraft. I can think of at least a dozen partner countries that could benefit from their own fleet of LAS.
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