Training Afghan air force pilots, 2006-2011.

Author:Marion, Forrest L.


Since 1947, the U.S. Air Force has trained pilot-candidates and pilots from nations around the world. Beginning in 2005-2006, the Air Force--under combined U.S./coalition initiatives--began attempting to rebuild the air forces of its erstwhile adversaries, the Iraqis and the Afghans. Although the Iraq war did not begin until 2003, a year after the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan had apparently stabilized the security situation there, the approval of a development program of U.S./allies former enemies' air forces began, first with Iraq in 2005, and a year later with Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's rulers had experienced air power and its effects in 1919 when the Royal Air Force employed a lone Handley Page V/1500 to bomb the royal palace in Kabul--and which apparently frightened and scattered the king's harem into the city's streets. From the 1920s, the Afghan king wanted an air service and he made arrangements with the Soviets, Italians, and British to obtain assistance in building one. A few Afghan pilot-candidates went to the Soviet Union and Italy for training. For most of the 1930s the Afghans managed to maintain a few aircraft in flying condition while functioning largely on their own--a situation not unlike the 1990s. During World War Two, the combination of Afghan neutrality, preoccupation of its aviation-partners with their own survival, and the logistical obstacles of Afghanistan's landlocked location ensured that its air capabilities remained minimal. (1)

After the war, the small Afghan air force employed largely obsolete aircraft mainly for internal policing (i.e., counterinsurgency) purposes. In 1955 a renewed relationship with the Soviet Union brought with it newer aircraft as well as a sovietized Afghan air force to include the training of Afghan pilots. Although the Soviets held sway with the Afghan government, the United States provided assistance as well, as the Afghans deftly played the two Cold War superpowers off of one another. In the early 1960s the U.S. government built Kandahar Airport in the southeastern part of the country while the Soviets constructed Shindand Air Base in the southwest. And during that decade, a small number of Afghan pilot-candidates came to the United States for training. In a poignant moment in the spring of 2009, retired Afghan Air Force Col. Ghulam Mustafa Tayer--who fifty years earlier had become the first of his countrymen to earn pilot wings in the United States--addressed the pilots and pilot-candidates of the Afghan National Army Air Corps shortly before the first group traveled to America to begin training. (2)

By the 1970s, Soviet-trained Afghan pilots flew Soviet-built aircraft, especially MiG-21 fighters and Mi-8 helicopters. Both aircraft types became mainstays in the Afghan inventory, and two decades later they were flown by the air forces of the Taliban and other factions then vying for control of the country. (The current Afghan "workhorse,' the Mi-17 helicopter, is an upgraded version of the Mi-8; in recent years most senior leaders in the Afghan Air Force have been former MiG-21 or Mi-8 pilots, all of whom completed pilot training under the Soviets). (3)

Such were a few indicators of a thoroughly sovietized Afghan air service marked by the "stovepiping' of information and decision-making generally at the highest levels. From the mid-1980s when the Afghans possessed up to 400 or more aircraft--including significant numbers of fighters, transports, light bombers, and helicopters--to the end of the following decade when perhaps only a few dozen fixed-wing and helicopter types remained flyable in Afghanistan, the training of new Afghan pilots dropped off even more precipitously than did the number of aircraft--apparently to zero by 1992, when the Afghan communist government fell to mujahideen warlords. The several Afghan factions, including after 1994 the Taliban, managed to keep a small number of aircraft flying, and almost all Afghan military pilots were the products of the Soviet training system. A decade later when the U.S. military began to assess the human materiel available for rebuilding an Afghan air force, it found that nearly all the eligible former pilots were Soviet-trained Afghan aviators mostly in their forties. Moreover, nearly all were considered limited to daytime flying under visual flight rules, or VFR. (4)

Following the reestablishment of a friendly Afghan government in Kabul in 2002, it was 2005 before U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld directed the development of an Afghan presidential airlift capability which initially was the lone objective for American air planners. By 2006, a few U.S. Army aviators based in Kabul, led by Col. John T. Hansen, conducted Mi-17 training flights with Afghan pilots on an ad hoc basis. Later that year, a U.S./coalition plan for the Afghan National Army Air Corps began to take shape. This plan, based on Hansen's work, became the basis for the U.S.-led Combined Air Power Transition Force-Afghanistan (CAPTF-A), activated in the spring of 2007, whose mission was to "set the conditions for a fully independent and operationally capable" air corps to meet Afghanistan's security needs (the term "independent" referred to the capability to conduct operations without outside assistance, not to the status of a separate service). (5)


Organizationally, the initial plan envisioned three "wings'--one for presidential airlift and two others, one rotary-wing and one fixed-wing. Meanwhile, the early 2006 International Conference on Afghanistan produced what was known as the Afghanistan Compact calling for an Afghan Air Corps of 7,000 members carved out of the much larger Afghan national army. (6)

When in 2007 the CAPTF-A began its work in Kabul, the Afghan Air Corps possessed about two dozen aircraft. Coalition partners agreed to provide additional rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft to the fledgling air corps, led by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and the Czech Republic which together contributed thirteen additional Mi-17 helicopters by 2008. Ukraine donated three An-32 fixed-wing transports, refurbished with U.S. funding. While aircraft donations by coalition partners were significant at the outset, within the next several years the assistance of those nations' Mi-17 instructor pilots became equally critical in the training of Afghan pilots. (7)

In the...

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