Training is just getting under way of the first military fixed-wing pilots to be taught to fly in Afghanistan since the early 1990s. The initiation of the first course follows the delivery of three Cessna 182T basic trainers in September, and three Cessna 208B Caravans for advanced instruction on October 22.
An undergraduate pilot training (UPT) facility is being established at Shindand, with construction due to be completed next spring. Pilot training courses are being overseen by the U.S. Air Force’s 444th Air Expeditionary Adviser Squadron, part of the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing entrusted with rebuilding Afghanistan’s airpower. Instructors come from the U.S., Hungary, Italy and Afghanistan.
When complete, the Shindand UPT center will operate a mix of types for both fixed- and rotary-wing training. Six Cessna 182Ts will provide basic fixed-wing training, and a similar number of Cessna 208Bs will provide more advanced instruction. For helicopter instruction the center already operates six Russian Mil Mi-17 “Hips,” and is receiving six MD Helicopters MD 530Fs.
The Afghan Air Force, which was renamed from the Afghan National Army Air Corps (ANAAC) in June last year, aims to be self-sufficient with Afghan instructors within three years. In the meantime, some pilot candidates continue to train in the U.S. UPT program. The “Thunder Lab” has been established at Kabul to provide intense English language immersion to candidates prior to their transfer into the U.S. training network.
The Afghan Air Force has established three operational wings, at Kabul, Kandahar and Shindand. They are in the process of building up a capable air arm that, ultimately, is scheduled to take over internal security duties from the large international force. Helicopters and airlifters are already heavily involved in operations, and they currently form the backbone of the AAF inventory.
Most important of the current types is the Mil Mi-17, which has proven itself to be highly dependable during operations in Afghanistan’s taxing environment. Deliveries of 21 new Mi-17V5s are augmenting older aircraft, the new machines being modified to AAF requirements here in the United Arab Emirates before being airlifted to Afghanistan. By 2013 the AAF plans to have 53 Mi-17s in service for armed assault duties, plus another three Mi-17DVs for VIP/staff transport. From 2014, however, the older aircraft will need replacement based on current utilization rates, and it is expected that a Western type will be procured.
Augmenting the Mi-17 is the Mi-35 “Hind,” of which six are believed to still be operational from 15 delivered. These aircraft, armed with 12.7mm machine guns and 57mm rockets, are useful for providing on-call security during key events, such as the recent presidential elections, as well as providing support and transport during special operations.
Air transport around Afghanistan’s large territory is a vital aspect of the AAF’s mission, and capability in this area has been significantly enhanced. The ANAAC began post-2001 airlift operations with the Antonov An -26 (two) and An-32 (three), survivors from the Soviet era. Four refurbished An-32s were bought from Ukraine by the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command and delivered in 2008, allowing the older aircraft to be retired by 2010.
The refurbished Antonovs allowed operations to continue until new equipment could be received, which arrived in the shape of the Alenia C-27A. Twenty aircraft were purchased by the U.S. for the AAF, the first arriving in Afghanistan on Nov. 12, 2009, after refurbishment in Italy. The first operational mission was flown on Mar. 24, 2010, and since then the fleet has grown steadily, allowing the An-32s to be withdrawn this summer. Two of the C-27s are outfitted for VIP transport.
On order for the AAF are 20 Cessna 208 Caravans to be used for utility transport and liaison work, distributed around the country.
In terms of fixed-wing combat capability, the AAF currently has just three Aero L-39 Albatros light attack/advanced training aircraft on charge, although their serviceability is questionable. These are the survivors of 26 delivered in Soviet times.
To replace them, the U.S. is to supply an initial batch of light attack/armed reconnaissance aircraft under the Light Air Support program, in turn part of the Building Partner Capacity drive. Current plans call for 20 aircraft, either Hawker Beechcraft AT-6s or Embraer Super Tucanos, to be delivered, with further procurement likely.