As the international coalition prepares to exit Afghanistan it is critical that it leaves behind indigenous security forces capable of preventing a Taliban “Reconquesta.” A great deal of attention, training equipment and money has gone into creating an Afghan military, police, and local security force and more will be spent between now and the end of Operation Enduring Freedom in December 2014. The Afghan National Army now stands at over 200,000 and the Afghan National Police nominally deploys some 150,000. This force is now taking the lead in most combat operations. Where it remains woefully deficient is in supporting capabilities such as logistics, medical, communications and intelligence.
One of the most challenging aspects of this effort has been the creation of a new Afghan Air Force (AAF) which involved recruiting, training and equipping an entirely new service. As a decade of operations in this country has demonstrated, air power is the most important force multiplier in a counter insurgency campaign. Afghanistan’s bad roads and difficult terrain make air support in the form of the movement of troops and supplies, ISR and rapid fire support for units under attack absolutely vital. Until recently, the plan was to equip the AAF with a mix of Russian-made helicopters, refurbished Italian G222 transport planes (the U.S. operates a variant of this aircraft known as the C-27) and a Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft to provide ISR and close air support. Currently, the AAF will not be capable of supporting the requirement of the Afghan security forces and national government before 2016.
Recent acquisition decisions by the U.S. Air Force could undermine efforts to leave in place a capable and functional counterpart Afghan Air Force. The Air Force recently announced that it was cancelling the remainder of the program to equip the AAF with refurbished G222 transports and instead with a number of larger C-130s. Although there had been a number of difficulties associated with maintaining the aircraft, allegedly the result of endemic Afghan corruption, of late the program had been on time and on its cost targets. The Air Force offered no explanation as to why it thought a new program based on the larger, more complex and expensive C-130 would have a better chance of success. The current plan is to destroy in Afghanistan the 20 aircraft already delivered, wasting the nearly $600 million the U.S government has already spent and leaving the AAF with no fixed wing transportation capability.
To make matters worse, last week the U.S. Air Force declared it was delaying yet again awarding a contract for the LAS. The initial plan was to have the first aircraft in Afghanistan in early 2012 to allow the maximum time for Afghan pilots and maintenance personnel to familiarize themselves with the system. The contract for the 20 initial LAS was awarded back in December 2011 to a team led by Sierra Nevada Corporation and Embraer that would have married advanced avionics, sensors and weapons with the proven Super Tucano airframe. A competitor for the contract protested and the Air Force threw out the award and began the competition all over again. After a delay of more than year a new award was expected this month. Given this further delay to the program, it is difficult to see how even the initial batch of LAS can be deployed to Afghanistan much in advance of the planned withdrawal of U.S. and Coalition forces.
The U.S. Air Force could not have done more harm to its Afghan counterpart if it had deliberately tried. As a result of very poor acquisition management not only has a lot of money and time been wasted, but the fate of the AAF and with it the nation of Afghanistan has been put at some additional risk.
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