Air Transportation: Afghan Air Force Solos In Combat


August 21, 2013: On August 8th the Afghan Air Force (AAF) conducted its first independent air assault operation. In the past AAF helicopters were part of larger NATO air operations and under NATO command. This time it was an entirely Afghan operation, with only a few NATO advisors (mostly for support functions). Operating from Jalalabad airfield (east of Kabul near the Pakistan border), over a dozen AAF helicopters (Mi-17 armed transports and Mi-35 gunships) worked with a brigade of Afghan infantry to clear two districts (Afghanistan has 398 of these) of Taliban. In the first phase of the operation, six Mi-17s carrying troops, escorted by two Mi-35s, went after Taliban spotted moving through inaccessible areas.

This is good news for Afghan military aviation, especially considering all the bad news. The Afghan Air Force has over a hundred aircraft and helicopters. But in the last two years most have been grounded because of maintenance issues. Afghan officers complain that this is largely due to the fact that America and other NATO nations gave the Afghans too many used aircraft and not enough new stuff. Foreigners observe that corruption, low education levels, and stiff competition for skilled Afghans has meant that the Afghans are unable to adequately maintain and repair the aircraft they have.

Key personnel are hired away by civilian aviation firms that can pay more. There are not a lot of Afghans capable of becoming aircraft maintenance technicians to begin with. Afghanistan has the lowest education levels in Eurasia and the lowest literacy rate. Foreign donors insist that the air force recruit and train local maintenance personnel. That can be done, with difficulty. But the good ones soon get hired away from civilian firms or immigrate.

The corruption means that needed spare parts never arrive because the money for their purchase was stolen. Or if the parts are on hand, they often disappear into the black market. It's all part of the local culture, which means that if you have Afghans operating and maintaining the aircraft, those aircraft won't be flying much.


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