Forces: January 8, 2004

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Afghanistan may not have an air force, but it does have an air service that provides air support and transportation for the newly created Afghan National Army. The Air Service will be made up of 8,000 troops according to current estimates. In the long-run, the Air Force Commanders plan to operate a completely independent service. 

There is already an organized structure. However, most of the new squadrons still dont have any aircraft. A great problem facing the new organization is lack of spare parts and trained personnel to operate the few aircraft they do have. So far, the Afghan air force is made up of 28 aircraft in flying condition. Hundreds of qualified pilots have joined its ranks, with some 430 spending most of their time in classrooms instead of aircraft. The Air Force School has so far closed enrollment , arguing that it has more than enough pilots.

While U.S. forces have directly supported the creation of an Afghan National Army, it has not shown any interest in developing local air power. Russia remains the main source for aircraft. Most available pilots where either trained by the Russians or have trained on Russian machines. Russia provided two Mi-8 Hip helicopters right after the Taliban fell and in 2002  agreed to overhaul and provide a further six Mi-8 Hips and three Antonov An-24 transports by early 2004.

India has provided instructors and mechanics. Their objective is to restore as much as the Talibans aircraft to flying condition. India is also quite interested in developing a commercial trade route that links the sub-continent to Central Asia, particularly the young ex-Soviet Republics of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The Indian government donated three Airbuses to Afghanistan's Ariana airlines. In September 2003 it announced that would donate up to 60 MiG combat aircraft (probably either MiG-21M or MiG-21FL) and 8 Mi-17 helicopters.

The Afghan army air service has put together a combat element of eight  Mi-24 Hind assault helicopters that operate from Kabul International Airport. A further six Mi-35P Hinds have been ordered from Russia.

In this region of the world, with neighbors like Iran and Pakistan, Afghanistan will need a full-strength air force with fighters, fighter-bombers, SAMs and recon aircraft once the US forces are withdrawn. A complete American lack of interest in building a strong Afghan air force or even some sort of cooperation between resident US units and the local air arm, are a clear indication the USAF plans to stay in theater in the long run. Permanent USAF air bases in Afghanistan directly threatens the Balance of Power in the region, putting Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China in an uncomfortable position.

Old and New air bases

The first coalition air base was constructed by American engineers and workers from the Northern Alliance near Golbahar, some 80 km north of Kabul. The base received hundreds of flights with war material destined for the Northern Alliance fighters a few weeks before the fall of the Taliban.

Bagram Air Base was originally constructed in 1976, and considerably expanded by the Soviets during their 1979 invasion, to allow the operation of large bombers and heavy transports. It was completely reconstructed by November 2003, and now has three large hangars, a control tower and five dispersal parking areas. 

Current Inventory of the Afghan Army Air Service

1 Antonov An-2 Colt transport
1 Antonov An-12 Cub transport
1 Antonov An-26 Curl transport
1 Antonov An-32 Cline transport
16 Mil Mi-8 Hip  transport helicopter
8 Mil Mi-24D Hind-D helicopter gunship

The new Afghan Air Force has an excellent source of aircraft specially tailored for its necessities. During the 10-year Soviet occupation, Russias main aviation bureaus designed a range of aircraft optimized to operate in Afghanistan performing specialized Counter-Insurgency missions.

Since the 1970s, both the USAF, and American companies have concentrated in supersonic fighter bombers and so called multi-role fighters. They have neglected an important market niche, specially in the age of little wars. Afghan and Iraqi operations have shown that what a modern army needs in the field are dedicated Close Air Support aircraft. Fairchild A-10, Boeing AH-64 Apache, Bell AH-1W Super Cobra, Boeing AV-8B and Lockheed-Martin AC-130 have been dubbed as Counter Insurgency aircraft. However, all of these are extremely expensive to buy, fly and maintain. While the A-10 and AV-8B are no longer in production, a new Apache costs around $22 million, a Cobra about $16 million and a C-130 gunship roughly $80 million. New light fighters which can dub as trainers seem to be the answer for several countries. The last American aircraft designed for this kind of task was the A-37B Dragonfly, which is now nearing the end of its career without any American replacement in sight.

On the other hand, equipment such as Kalashkinov, MiG, Su-25, Mi-8 and Mi-24 are words that have been a part of local culture for the past 20 years. These will be the main aircraft used by the new air force for at least a decade. For the next few years, the Air Forces western influence will be limited to the way it organizes its command structure. -- Iigo Guevara y Moyano

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