It’s not clear how this will work in practice, but the drop from over 16,000 contractors to hundreds could have a bigger impact on security than sending the last 2,500 U.S. soldiers home as the Afghan Air Force scrambles Their planes and helicopters keep the sky in the air, Taliban fighters chase.
“The Biden administration is committed to doing everything in its power to continue to support the Air Force,” said Lisa Curtis, former director of the National Security Council for South and Central Asia and now director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “It would be like pulling the rug out from under the Afghans. Not only are we withdrawing our troops, we are also depriving them of the ability to maintain the capabilities we have provided.”
Kabul’s small but active air force of 162 aircraft and helicopters is given the monumental task of supporting tens of thousands of Afghan troops in the field with air strikes, resupplying distant outposts and evacuating the wounded without American help or local repair know-how. Still, billions in US cash and dozens of replacement helicopters will continue to pour into the country.
These planes and helicopters are Kabul’s best hope of repelling the Taliban while government forces continue to lose territory in the countryside.
“You have capacities. You have skills. You have an air force – by the way, an air force that we continue to fund and support, ”Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on CNN on Friday. “You have modern weapons. You have had a lot of training and the ability to field with American forces over the past 20 years. … Now is the time to have that will. “
Over the past decade, the U.S. has built an Afghan air force modeled on its own strengths and preferences, spending $ 8 billion on the use of fighter jets like the A-29 Super Tucano and the AC-208 Combat Caravan, both of which are propeller-driven have planes that can fire laser-guided ammunition at ground targets. The US has also sent new Black Hawk helicopters.
Black Hawk’s decision came after the US announced that it would stop delivering Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters to Kabul in 2014 as part of the sanctions imposed on Russia. The Mi-17 is a version of the old Soviet Helos Afghan Airmen have decades of flying and maintenance experience, but the Pentagon decided to replace it with 53 US-made UH-60 Black Hawks that are more difficult to maintain and not the high altitude capability of the older Russian helicopters.
The Black Hawks also come with long logistical tails and complex maintenance requirements that Afghan crews cannot handle on their own. This is where the loss of contractor support hits the Afghan military hardest.
However, with more helicopters, commanders can spend fewer hours on their existing platforms, which would likely save some routine maintenance and allow for successive missions.
“However, the Afghan Air Force has a bad habit of exceeding these maintenance schedules in order to provide the army and police with more hours of air support,” said Jonathan Schroden, director of the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at CNA.
But with these additional airframes “should allow them to do the maintenance as needed while providing maximum support for the army and police,” he added, which will be crucial as the army fends off multiple Taliban offensives across the country.
The staff shortage is already an issue. A general report from the inspector in April found that “most AAF aircraft now have nowhere near the number of qualified personnel (instructor pilots, co-pilots, mission system operators, etc.) required to fill the flight crew positions that each cell requires . “
With the departure of contractors, U.S. defense planners are now turning to remote work technology and adding local supervisors via phone or video chat. Aircraft in need of heavy repair are now being shipped to facilities outside of Afghanistan.
“The impact on the readiness of the Afghan fleet will result mainly from the increasing reliance on Afghan military observers who perform routine airline maintenance and receive on-the-job training,” said Pentagon spokesman Maj. Rob Lodewick. However, it remains unclear how quickly these effects will be felt.
To compensate for the loss of broken or destroyed helicopters, the US will send 37 more UH-60 Black Hawks into the country in the coming months, which are to be stored until they are used. They’ll likely be cannibalized for replacement parts if fresh deliveries can’t be sent in early enough.
Other potential problems continue to pile up. In January, NATO’s Train Advise Assist – Air command in Kabul informed a Pentagon Inspector General that none of the Air Force airframes could “be considered effective for more than a few months” without continued support from contractors.
The A-29 and AC-208 will be key components in the Afghan Air Force’s success in meeting the Taliban from the air, but as with the rest of the service, options for pilots and ground crew are limited and likely not to grow. The American program to train A-29 pilots in the United States was completed in November 2020, with only about 30 pilots being trained between 2015 and 2020.
In addition to the growing problems, there is an apparently coordinated attack by the Taliban targeting these pilots. Reuters reported Friday that at least seven pilots have been murdered off-base in the past few weeks, putting pressure on an already small pool of qualified officers.
More than 16,000 DoD contractors were working in Afghanistan as of April, including more than 6,100 US citizens, according to a report from the Inspector General. A Pentagon official confirmed the number is now in the “hundreds”. POLITICO reached out to two of the largest US contractors working in Afghanistan, Leidos Holdings and DynCorp International, now part of Amentum Services Inc., for comment. Leidos put questions to the Pentagon and Amentum didn’t answer.
In May, the heads of three trade groups representing the state contracting industry sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power asking for clarity on where and how their members do their work for the Afghan Military and government. None of the government officials answered the letter according to officials from the Professional Services Council.
It’s not clear what role the U.S. military will play in the coming months, but President Joe Biden has promised to keep pumping money into the Afghan military, and the Pentagon on Thursday proposed some more intelligence and surveillance support .
“I think you can assume that we are planning on a number of [intelligence and surveillance] Opportunities that are available to us, ”said Kirby on Thursday. “We also intend to capitalize on the strong relationships we have with the Afghan armed forces who will still be on the ground and who still have information they can provide to us,” suggesting that the US is using air strikes could to help Afghan troops on the ground.
The Biden government asked for $ 3.3 billion to support the Afghan military in its 2022 budget, a price that Washington will continue to bear as long as the Kabul government is struggling to survive.
But over the years this support could be difficult to sustain, not only because of competing priorities at home, but also as rampant and well-documented corruption in the Afghan government sucks some of that money away.
“The biggest challenge will be congressional demands for accountability and oversight of this funding,” said Curtis of CNAS. “As we are reducing our presence and we have fewer resources on site, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get Congress to approve this funding due to corruption” in Kabul.