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Airpower in Afghanistan

[ 5 ] February 20, 2013 |

My latest at the Diplomat concerns Karzai’s limitations on the use of coalition airpower in support of ANA operations:

Given that Afghan Army ground forces have yet to demonstrate a clear advantage over their Taliban counterparts, airpower really is the Afghan government’s“asymmetric advantage.” Whatever the Taliban may have, it lacks the tools that airpower provides, including reconnaissance, strike, and mobility.

The languorous U.S. efforts to develop Afghan airpower further complicate the problem. Embroiled in an internal contracting dispute, the USAF has yet to acquire the kind of light, counterinsurgency-oriented aircraft that would be ideal for the Afghan Air Force, such as the Brazilian Super Tucano. A different contracting dispute has slowed the delivery of Russian transport and attack helicopters.

The Afghan Air Force is hardly doomed to ineptitude and ineffectiveness; the Soviets rated the Air Force as the most capable Afghan armed forces branch during the occupation, and parts of the organization survived through the Taliban period. Nevertheless, prospects of the Afghan Air Force operating advanced jet aircraft in the near future aren’t particularly good, and in any case shouldn’t be the priority. Simple, low maintenance platforms that perform a variety of roles could help the Afghan armed forces maintain its edge.

While I generally hate being pushed into advocacy for airpower, the ANA will find it very tough going without access to either intrinsic or coalition air assets. As I suggest in the article, the wording of the ban make it unclear whether it applies to pre-planned offensive operations, defense engagements, or both. My guess is that it will be interpreted in exceedingly minimalist fashion by ANA commanders and their coalition counterparts. In other airpower news, the UNAMA report on civilian casualties came out a few days ago and has been making the rounds. Some points of note:

  • Civilian casualties are down, civilian casualties from coalition activities are down, and civilian casualties from airstrikes are down.
  • Total number of airstrikes fell from 5411 in 2011 to 4092 in 2012.
  • Drone strikes (in Afghanistan proper) increased from 294 to 506 (12.3% of total), and civilian casualties from drone strikes increased from 1 to 16 (12.6% of total).

In sum, the Coalition appears to be reducing its commitment, drones are pushing out manned aircraft, and drones have yet to demonstrate that they’re much better at minimizing civilian casualties than manned aircraft (although our numbers on that last remain very small). Again, I hasten to note that this analysis is confined to Afghanistan, and does not touch on the very different campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Comments (5)

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  1. wengler says:

    I would imagine that until, if ever, the Taliban are able to establish some sort of air superiority, drones will continue to supply some sort of air support for the mayor of Kabul.

    I can’t imagine that the US government is tired of making war millionaires yet, even with the total destruction of the budget under orders from the oligarchy.

  2. PS says:

    We can’t get out soon enough. They don’t want us there, and we’re doing nothing but throwing away money, killing civilians, and getting soldiers killed.

    There’s no need to leave any kind of presence behind — just get out and let the Afghans figure out what they want to do with their country.

  3. Wait…is this not about Star Wars?

    I’m so confused, unless “Afghanistan” is a metaphor for “Endor.”

  4. Lurker says:

    While close air support is indispensable in certain situations, I would put a lot of effort in developing Afghan artillery. A few reasons:
    * Mortars integrated in the infantry organisation (say, a mortar platoon for each infantry company), are as mobile as the infantry, and can cover with fire its area of operations. With truck or pick-up mounted mortars, you have good road mobility, and the bulk of Afghan army will not achieve anything better. For mountain mobility, light mortars can be carried anywhere a man can go.
    * Field artillery, with proper grenades, can achieve a range of 40 km. The Russian D-30 has an effective range of about 18 km. A properly trained artillery battallion can start firing from unprepared positions with good accuracy about 1 hour from its arrival and D-30 can shoot to all directions. This means that an artillery battallion can support any kinetic operations that infantry is able to carry out. In reality, an Afghan battallion will need that hour to advance on an enemy position after disembarking its vehicles.
    * A field artillery battallion can remain ready to fire at any location in the area in a couple of minutes from request for months without refueling and without incurring any additional cost compared to its normal operation.
    * Field artillery is vastly cheaper than air power, both for the capital and operational costs. It requires much more manpower but the manpower is cheap in Afghanistan.
    * Field artillery and mortars can be maintained by any trained metal worker or gunsmith, and there are plenty of gunsmiths in Afghanistan. The number of aircraft and avionics mechanics is much smaller.
    * Having a lot of field artillery means that there is a large demand for persons trained in elementary maths. This gives the government a powerful incentive to operate schools to educate a large proportion of the population. With aircraft, the mechanics are foreign contractors and the incentive is removed.

  5. JohnTh says:

    A related question: is there any detailed work that tries to explain why ANA is less effective than the Taliban as an infantry combat force? They have better weapons, supplies, body armor and formal training than their Taliban opponents, whom I believe they often outnumber also. The obvious deficiency appears to be in morale and willingness to fight, but given the obviously Pushtun-centricity and hardcore fundamentalism of the Taliban you’d think that the ANA could find enough non-Pushtun, moderate Afghans who would be well motivated (i.e. by more than just pay) to stop them. It’s our /their inability to find a few hundred thousand of such men that seems to be dooming this entire enterprise to failure, but I’ve never seen it explained what prevents this and how it can be addressed.

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