August 16, 2020:
In Afghanistan the most effective military support for the government forces is from the air and it is largely supplied by the Afghan Air Force. The Afghans have not got a lot of combat aircraft, but their pilots have mastered the use of smart bombs and missiles. The Afghan Air Force only has 34 purely combat aircraft (24 A-29s and ten AC-208s). There are also 40 armed helicopters (11 Mi-35s and 29 MD-530F). Unlike the A-29s and AC-208s, the armed helicopters are not equipped to use smart bombs or the Hellfire laser guided missile. Instead these helicopters have machine-gun, autocannon and unguided rockets. The A-29 uses laser guided bombs while the AC-208s use Hellfires. There were plans to arm the MD-530Fs with Hellfires but that has been delayed because the 530F pilots must be trained to use the missiles. The 530Fs are mainly used as armed reconnaissance helicopters, which is what helicopters of this type were designed for.
The A-29s and AC-208s are heavily used because of their ability to deliver smart bombs and guided missiles. Most of the 130 helicopters are used for transport and recon. Most (82) of the helicopters are Russian made Mi-17s that can mount a machine-gun in the passenger door but these are for defense, not to make them attack helicopters.
TheA-29 single-engine turboprop armed trainers can also carry heavy machine-guns plus unguided rockets and guided bombs. The helicopters have very short (under a hundred kilometers) range while the fixed-wing aircraft can hit targets up to 500 kilometers from their base, though it takes an hour to go that far. Because of these limitations, the most effective air support, which can be anywhere in the country and on very short (often minutes) notice is the American or NATO fighters and bombers.
The Afghan Air Force may never get long range ground support aircraft, like the F-16s and A-10s, or heavy bombers hauling dozens of smart bombs for six or more hours at a time. While the Afghans have been able to train, and retain, enough combat and non-combat aircraft pilots, the situation is much worse when it comes to aircraft maintainers and logistics/support personnel in general. The problem is the tendency for technical people, especially maintainers, to leave the military for better paying and safer jobs in the civilian sector. Even if you try to enforce service contracts, it is common for military personnel to simply desert when they have enough money to pay a people smuggler to get them to another country, preferably in the West. Because of that the only option is to hire more expensive foreigners to maintain aircraft. Officially that is not done but in practice most of the maintainers are contractors, and most of them are from the West. About 30 percent of the A-29 maintainers are Afghan, as are 20 percent of the MD-530F maintainers. Nearly all the Mi-17 maintainers are Afghan but these elderly aircraft are being replaced by American UH-60s and that means none of the maintainers will be Afghans and it will take years to train Afghans to do the work.
American air support still provides the bulk of what the Afghan security forces depend on. In 2019 this support was one percent greater than in the record setting total for 2018. And 2020 has not seen a reduction. During 2019 there were 7,423 airstrikes compared to 7,362 for 2018. That’s about 20 a day for both years. This is a major increase from 12 a day for 2017, 3-4 a day for 2016 and 2-3 a day for 2015. Since 2018 American airpower was used more often in Afghanistan than at any other time, including the 2011 surge. In 2018 coalition warplanes (mostly U.S.) used 15 percent more bombs and missiles than in 2011. Coalition warplanes performed more sorties a month, with 15 percent of sorties resulting in weapons being used. This includes AC-130 gunships but not attack helicopters or UAVs. In some months the U.S. Air Force used more smart bombs and missiles than at any since late 2010.
The effectiveness of this air support relies on a communication system that enables U.S. air controller teams anywhere in the country to contact any American bombers or fighters within a few hundred kilometers or more, and get them to the target to deliver smart bombs. The fighters and bombers are equipped with targeting pods that enable the pilots to see detailed pictures of what is on the ground so they can assist the air controllers with sorting out what is going on down there. The communications are made possible by high flying (13,000 meters/40,000 feet) BACN (Battlefield Airborne Communications Node) aircraft that deal with the many high mountains and deep valleys found in Afghanistan and immediately connect air controllers, and any other American combat units, with U.S. aircraft. Because of this system, in use for over a decade, heavy bombers (B-52s or faster B-1Bs) can circle in a central location and quickly get to where they are needed and drop a few smart bombs. There are also F-16s and A-10 aircraft that can do the same, plus the A-10 can also come in low and use its 30mm autocannon.
There is more to American air support than the quickly delivered smart bombs. In fact, there were only 8,773 strike sorties during 2019 and only 28 percent of those resulted in weapons being used. There were twice as many air reconnaissance or surveillance sorties to keep track of the enemy. There were also 11,000 transport sorties that carried 78,700 tons of cargo and 141,000 passengers. There were also 276 tons of cargo delivered by parachute, often using GPS guided parachutes which land the cargo exactly where it is needed. Finally, there were 2,637 refueling tanker sorties, to enable the fighters and bombers to stay in the air longer by refueling 12,800 aircraft. American air support has become more efficient over the last decade, requiring fewer recon and strike sorties because of improved technology.
The greater use of American airpower has had a dramatic and damaging impact on the Taliban. Prisoner interrogations plus eavesdropping on internal or public Internet chatter show declining morale, higher desertion, fewer recruits and higher pay and benefits to keep numbers up. There is also more pressure on Taliban field commanders, by their own gunmen, to keep casualties down. This can be done by avoiding actions that will attract airstrikes. A common mistake is attacking army or police bases or staying in one place too long while blocking an army or police operation. “Too long” is often an hour or more and after that, if not earlier, the deadly smart bombs arrive. In some situations, where the Afghan forces are carrying out offensive operations, air support will arrive in minutes. This puts Taliban commanders in a difficult position as they cannot afford to stay in contact with Afghan forces for too long. Worse it often means that Taliban groups will be under attack for a while, or at least until they disperse or otherwise evade detection from the air or ground forces. Some Taliban field commanders are better at dealing with this than others and all Taliban combat commanders know that if they are too successful, they get put on a priority hit list which often leads to an early death.
The foreign air forces are providing over a hundred airstrikes a week. The Afghan Air Force provides much less (about a quarter of what the foreigners provide). Afghan airstrikes increasingly use laser and GPS guided bombs. Afghan soldiers and police are big fans of the smart bombs and missiles because it means that, if they have cornered the enemy, one such smart bomb will cripple or destroy the opposition and enable the Afghan soldiers to advance without having to deal with much (if any) defensive fire from the enemy. Afghan soldiers and police are much bolder when they have air support and that leads to more combat operations and more casualties, especially among their opponents. For the Afghans, losses are more palatable if you know the enemy is far worse off. Moreover, the Afghan Air Force use of smart bombs means they can operate effectively at night. Finally, the air controller on the ground can talk to the pilot in Dari (the common language in Afghanistan) and this is a lot more effective and comfortable than doing it in English. This makes Afghan air support preferable for Afghan forces.
Since the Afghan Air Force began using laser-guided bombs in early 2018 they were using about six a week with the number increasing as more bombs are available. Since 2018 the major limitation on the use of Afghan Air Force support has been the availability of Afghan air controllers, who have proven more difficult to recruit and train than pilots.