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Breaking Barriers to Enhance Afghan Air Power

July 20, 2010
By Rachel Eisenhower, SIGNAL Online Exclusive

With the development of the Afghan Air Force six to nine months behind schedule, the commander of the Combined Air Power Transition Force is pushing for more technology, teaching tools and NATO support.

The NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan’s Combined Air Power Transition Force (CAPTF), charged with developing military and police air power in Afghanistan, is pushing forward with the development of the Afghan Air Force. While the initiative has seen steady progress since its inception in November 2009, it still faces challenges with equipment, language barriers and a lack of support from NATO partners.

Brig. Gen. Michael Boera, USAF, commander, CAPTF, NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan, coordinates development of the Afghan Air Force with U.S. Central Command, the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan ministries of Defense and Interior. In a recent Defense Department Bloggers Roundtable, Gen. Boera explained the steps he is taking to make the air force fully operational by 2016.

The air force training program currently has 3,400 airmen and Gen. Boera hopes to see that number increase to 5,700 by July 2011. He explains that while there have been delays in training, the length of the process does not come as a surprise. Training an air force typically takes between two and five years depending on technical competency, he points out, which is significantly longer than the time required for a ground build.

One reason the program is several months behind schedule is that “aircraft are expensive, plain and simple,” states Gen. Boera. With between $10 and $11 billion allocated per year for Afghan national security growth, upfront costs have been high just to get the program off the ground. As these costs die down, there will be more money for equipment and the necessary technology, he explains.

The program originally started with Mi-17, Mi-35 and An-32 aircraft, which were donated from different countries starting in 2005. At that time, the emphasis was on Iraq and not on Afghanistan, and without very much funding the program relied heavily on those donations. While the aircraft may not have been ideal, they were beneficial because the Afghans were more familiar with the technology due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, says Gen. Boera.

Currently, the air force fleet has close to 50 aircraft and Gen. Boera hopes to transition to Western equipment and push that number to 146 aircraft by 2016. One caveat, the change also means a transition to the Western acquisition process, which is very laborious with many checks and balances and a lot of competition, remarks Gen. Boera. It can take a year or two for equipment requests to work their way through the system.

A major highlight of the training initiative on the ground is the Thunder Lab in Kabul, an English immersion program for Afghan Air Force recruits. The lab allows candidates to live and learn with U.S. advisers on the compound while they wait for slots to open up in schools overseas. Previously, Afghan candidates were sent out of the country for all English language training. Now, the program can focus on in-country training, which Gen. Boera says can trim a year off of overall preparation time.

Thunder Lab started with 20 members just two months ago and already increased to 36. The goal is to eventually have Afghans teaching other Afghans so that the program can sustain itself. Gen. Boera reflects that the program, originally put in place to fill a void, is now “the single greatest thing we have done for the advancement of English language skills, motivation and building a professional air force.”

Gen. Boera is also leaning on NATO partners for more support in the training initiative. Currently, 20 members of the 450-person staff are from NATO countries. “It’s still a pretty small number … I would like to have about 203 NATO members,” Gen. Boera explains. He says recent additions from the Czech Republic and Hungary have been extremely valuable for the formerly Soviet-trained Afghan Air Force, because they share Russian language skills and an understanding of the transition to a Western-style air force. They have been able to use the common knowledge base to bridge the training gap from the old school to the new school, says Gen. Boera.

Despite the support, “we just have not had enough of NATO ponying up forces for the training mission,” explains Gen. Boera. With a belief that help is on the way, he says the program is on track to achieve a fully independent air force in the next six years.