Diamond in the Rough

By By Steve "Elroy" Colby | December 1, 2011
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Under the umbrella of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan works a small but highly effective group assigned to NATO Air Training Command, or NATC for short. This group’s truly coalition composition is made up of forces from the U.S., Croatia, Mongolia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Canada, Jordan and the UK.

Pledges for personnel support from Colombia, Spain, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and Greece round out this melting pot air corps assigned to directly support the Afghan Air Force (AAF). The NATC mission statement speaks volumes about their sizable and important objective: “Set the conditions for a professional, fully independent and operationally capable Afghan Air Force that meets the security requirements of Afghanistan today … and tomorrow.”

These NATO forces provide rigorous training, support and doctrinal guidance for an Air Force active since 1924. This fledgling Afghan Air Force matured through the years and was upgraded and formed more along Soviet lines in the 1950s. The AAF reached its peak size in the period between 1989 and 1996, where there were actually five Afghan Air Forces. In 2001 the remainder of the AAF was decimated and in 2005 began the rebuild process with help from U.S. and coalition forces. The NATO forces there now are an evolution of organizations from the U.S. Army’s control to today’s U.S. Air Force control of the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing. The organization will see its final growth spurt this year from 167 assigned in 2007 to a peak 477 planned for 2011.


The AAF that they support has a unique demographic in that their youngest pilot is 23 years old and the oldest is 57. The average age is 43; significantly older than the flight suit clad aviators to which most western countries are accustomed. The AAF, made up chiefly of Russian aircraft, includes 56 total comprised of: An-26, An-32, and C-27 airplanes, and Mi-17 (multiple variants) and Mi-35 helicopters. In the coming six years, the plan is to grow the fleet size to 146 aircraft and the personnel structure from 4,035 to 8,017 airmen. The growth in aircraft will be filled by Mi-17, basic rotary wing training aircraft, C-27s, L-39 replacements, fixed-wing training aircraft, basic fixed wing utility aircraft, a light airlift and ISR platform and a close air support platform. Construction for this burgeoning Air Force is under way at the three main operating bases—a little over 50 percent complete at Kandahar Air Base and almost 85 percent complete at Kabul Air base. Construction is just starting at Shindand AB in the west. Work at the detachments and Air Units has yet to commence.

The “Big Air School” teaches fundamentals, including professional military education, English language training, general education, literacy, aviation, maintenance and mission support activities.

A fascinating aspect of this training includes the immersion “Thunderlab,” a compound of coalition forces where only English is spoken. This technique, as proven in stateside DLI facilities, works exceptionally well. With syllabi and stepped professional military training tailored for enlisted and officer core development, this school stands to shine in the development of a professional air force.

In spite of the obvious challenges of language, resources and manpower, this diverse group has experienced significant successes over the past few years, including support of a non-combatant evacuation of Kyrgyzstan, rescues near Jalabad, Kandahar, and Salang, extraordinary support of regional floods including more than 2,000 saves in a single day, and the Pakistan HA/DR. They also set up a rotary wing CAS arm using the Mi-35 and Mi-17 Hind helicopters.

Within the force structure there is the Ministry of Interiors Air Interdiction Unit which, equipped with Mi-17s, have a mission essential task list that includes: air assault (counter narcotic interdiction), air movement (counter narcotic personnel and equipment), CASEVAC and general support missions in support of the Ministry of Interior. With a future force planned for four bases—Kabul (HQ), Shindand, Mazer E-Sharif and Kandahar—the future is bright.

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