The American officer responsible for helping develop an Afghan Air Force says the small corps is growing steadily, but will not be ready to even begin participating in combat operations for about five years. The officer, Brigadier General Jay Lindell, spoke from Kabul to reporters at the Pentagon Thursday, and VOA's Al Pessin reports.
Afghanistan's air corps has a total of four airplanes and 16 helicopters, and that is double what it had three months ago.
The aircraft are all old Soviet-or Russian-made models, and the Afghan military pilots are old, too, as pilots go. General Lindell reports their average age is 43. He says they are very experienced on the aircraft they fly, but they do not fly at night or in bad weather, and he says many of the 180 Afghan Army pilots have not flown for years, some for more than a decade.
General Lindell says developing a modern Afghan Air Force will be a long project, involving buying more and newer aircraft and training hundreds of new pilots, starting with English lessons.
"It's not just air frames that we have to acquire, it's obviously the training of the pilots in this close air support role. It's the development of the inter-operation with the Afghan Army," said Lindell. "We're making the plans right now on how we will do that, and we hope to have that capability developed in the year 13 (2013)."
General Lindell says the Afghan Air Force will be recruiting dozens of new pilots in the coming years, and sending them to the United States for training. While the current pilots fly older aircraft, with nearly 50 more planes and helicopters being purchased from several countries during the next few years, the new recruits will prepare for a leap into high technology aviation.
Current Afghan air operations are limited to transporting troops and supplies. Soon, General Lindell says, the corps will add medical evacuation flights. But he says it will take years to develop the capabilities needed to contribute directly to combat and counterinsurgency operations.
"Initially, what we envision, it'll be a U.S.-led squadron as we train the Afghans how to do close air support and how to integrate with the ground forces in the close air support mission," he added.
Some Afghan leaders have expressed a desire to move more quickly to air combat operations. But General Lindell says there is now agreement on how to proceed.
He says even when the Afghan Air Force moves into combat, it will use a relatively simple aircraft, packed with some 21st century technology.
"What we are looking at is a single-engine turbo-prop type aircraft, probably it'll be a two pilot type aircraft," added General Lindell. "It'll be precision ordnance capable. It'll have a laser designation capability. And we're also looking for a net-centric type aircraft that will be integrated through data link to other aircraft or a joint information operations center. So we plan to bring this air corps up to date with western technology."
And that means building a new maintenance capability, too. General Lindell says Afghan mechanics maintain the current fleet, but just as the force needs new pilots with modern training, the ground crews need refurbishing too.
The general says the United States will train about 50 new Afghan military pilots per year, starting late next year, and 350 support personnel. Overall, he says, the Afghan Air Force is expected to grow from just under two thousand people today to more than 7,000 over the next eight years, with a total of more than 100 aircraft.