The Afghan Air Force doesn’t have enough pilots to fly even its modest fleet of planes, a crisis that is hindering the fight against the Taliban in a country where the hard-line militants are once again making gains in territory in both the north and south.
Ground soldiers have been urgently requesting more air support to meet the increasing demand of everything from firing on the enemy’s positions to rushing casualties off the battlefields.
The U.S.-led NATO coalition, which is training Afghanistan’s owned armed forces now that the alliance’s main combat mission there is over, is having a hard time fielding enough trained pilots and crews, according to advisers.
Over the past year, the United States has provided a number of more advanced aircraft as compensation for the withdrawal of international forces. But as the coalition has sought to build a special operations wing and train pilots for new aircraft such as the small A-29 attack aircraft and C-130 cargo planes, it has had to take experienced crews away from other units.
Such shortages are hampering the deployment of the widely used aircraft that the Afghan Air Force has long relied on. For example, among the unit that flies Cessna C-208 propeller transport planes out of Kabul, there are only six crews for 12 aircraft.
"Normally, we are supposed to conduct three to four flights every day in principle, but we carry out nine to 10 flights most of the time. Sometimes we fly from 7 a.m. till 6 p.m.," said C-208 pilot Saifuddin Popal, speaking at Kabul’s military airport as he prepared to fly another load of passengers to a base in southern Afghanistan. "At most, four to five flights are permitted, and when we make more flights of course it makes us exhausted."
The roughly 130 aircraft in the air force’s fleet are not enough, according to Major General Abdul Wahab Wardak, commander of the Afghan Air Force. The lack of trained crews for existing aircraft only compounds the issue.
"We need to have a developed, disciplined, and strong air force with technical personnel. We need to have a defending air force -- the current capability that we have is not enough. We have to have an air force that can defend the country's sovereignty and its borders," Wardak said.
Officials say that the air force lost at least nine aircraft last year, mostly due to accidents or maintenance issues. So far in 2016, two Mi-17 helicopters have been lost, which advisers said indicates pilots are becoming more experienced.
"We do our best in the Afghan Air Force to be ready to respond whenever needed. Our aim is to serve our people, day or night," said air force engineer Major Ahmad Shah.
As the NATO coalition scaled back its operations, Afghan Air Force missions more than doubled from 10,060 in 2014 to 22,260 in 2015. From January to May 2016, Afghan aircraft flew 6,930 missions.
U.S. Air Force combat sorties dropped from nearly 13,000 in 2014 to fewer than 6,000 in 2015, with a corresponding decrease in support and reconnaissance missions from around 60,000 in 2014 to just under 33,000 in 2015.
Nevertheless, the air force’s retention rate remains relatively high, with month-to-month rates usually above 90 percent, according to the U.S. military.
Reported by Reuters