WASHINGTON — Afghanistan's young air force has nearly tripled the number of casualty evacuation missions it has flown this year, coalition officials say, a critical step in efforts to get the country's security forces to operate independently.
The ability to remove injured soldiers from the battlefield without U.S. assistance is a key test for the country's small air forces and a measure of its independence. Until recently, it has relied heavily on the U.S. military to evacuate casualties from the battlefield.
"We're encouraged with how they're doing," said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, the top coalition air officer in Afghanistan.
The progress comes as Afghanistan's military is assuming a lead role in the war against the Taliban and suffering the bulk of casualties on the battlefield. Afghan soldiers and police were killed at a rate of 50 to 100 a week during the peak fighting season this year.
So far this year, Afghanistan's air force conducted 1,104 casualty evacuation missions, up from 391 last year.
Afghanistan still relies on U.S. assistance, however. About half the casualty evacuation missions are still conducted by coalition forces, Wilsbach said.
That may be changing. "Last week they actually did more than we did," Wilsbach said in a telephone interview from Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's armed forces have also shifted to using vehicles to rescue wounded troops. About three-quarters of their casualty evacuation missions are conducted with vehicles, as they have lessened their reliance on U.S. aircraft.
Developing air capabilities is critical analysts say because it allows Afghan forces to sustain its troops in the field and reinforce them when needed, giving confidence to troops in the fight who have relied in recent years on America's sophisticated air capabilities.
"The last thing you want is for them to be afraid of them going after the Taliban," said Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at Brookings Institution.
Afghanistan's formidable mountains and lack of improved roads makes mobility difficult and allows the Taliban to find sanctuary in remote areas. Air mobility allows Afghan forces to reach those areas quickly.
Afghanistan's air force has also dramatically increased the amount of cargo and personnel it is capable of carrying, achieving near self-sufficiency.
"In the long run it's helpful for Afghanistan to get some air capabilities, at minimum logistics capabilities to move soldiers and supplies around the battlefield," said Seth Jones, an analyst at Rand Corp.
The Afghan air force ferried 35,500 personnel around the country this year, an increase of about 10,000 personnel over last year. Afghan aircraft carried 1.1 million kilograms of cargo this year, nearly twice what it moved last year.
The United States has poured billions of dollars into building and maintaining Afghanistan's military. It spent about $5 billion this year alone in training and equipping Afghan forces.
The country's air force is low tech by Western standards, consisting of helicopter and propeller-driven aircraft. But analysts say such a force is compatible with the type of counterinsurgency fight Afghanistan is involved in and will be cheaper to maintain over time.
The workhorse of the Afghan air force is the Russian Mi-17, a transport helicopter that can ferry troops and evacuate wounded.
"Last year they might have had 12 or 15 helicopters available on any given day," Wilsbach said. "Next fighting season we're expecting them to have nearly twice that many."
Afghanistan's air force remains a small — only about 7,000 of Afghanistan's 340,000 security forces — and it has not developed as fast as other branches of Afghan's armed forces.
Purchasing aircraft and training pilots and maintenance personnel, particularly in an impoverished country like Afghanistan, is an expensive and lengthy process.
The price tag for training a fixed-wing pilot is about $216,000 a year, according to Pentagon budget documents. The training takes years.
Less than 30% of the population is considered literate, making recruitment difficult. Student pilots must be able to speak English and have the aptitude to master complex subjects.
Wilsbach said the air force have largely mastered existing aircraft, such as the Mi-17, the Mi-35 Hind attack helicopter and the C-208, a small propeller aircraft.
But it will take longer to absorb the U.S. C-130 cargo aircraft and the A-29, a turboprop aircraft that can perform attack and surveillance missions. Those aircraft will not be operational until 2016, according to a Pentagon report.
O'Hanlon said the coalition has also had to investigate allegations of corruption and improve leadership within the ranks of the air force, which also delayed its development.
O'Hanlon said the need to support the Air Force in coming years argues for leaving an adequate sized post-2014 residual force in place. A "bridging force" would provide robust support on a temporary basis to ensure that security gains are not lost, he said.
"I just think it's crucial that air power be developed," O'Hanlon said. "It's going to happen if we just stick to it."
Under a current agreement, the United States will withdraw most of its forces by the end of 2014.The White House has not made a decision on the size of a residual force and has yet to reach a security agreement with Afghanistan that would provide the legal framework for such a force.