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Airpower in Afghanistan

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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.

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