Airpower: Karzai’s Ace in the Hole

Despite recent actions by President Karzai airpower remains one of the government’s clear advantages over the Taliban.

Hamid Karzai’s order banning Afghan forces from calling in Coalition air support has raised many concerns about the ability of the Afghan Army to defeat its Taliban opponents. The intent of the mandate is not completely clear, as it may be possible for coalition forces to continue pre-planned strike operations in coordination with Afghan forces. The Coalition could also use airpower in an interdiction role, striking at Taliban concentrations in transit to the front, although whether this practice would reduce civilian casualties is far from certain.

Traditionally, airpower theorists and practitioners have resisted close air support, which (in their view) fails to leverage the potentially transformative effect of air attacks on enemy organizations.  However, the “Afghan Model” and its cousin the “Libya Model” conceives of the use of airpower in close collaboration with ground forces. Given that Afghan Army ground forces have yet to demonstrate a clear advantage over their Taliban counterparts, airpower really is the Afghan government’s“asymmetric advantage.” Whatever the Taliban may have, it lacks the tools that airpower provides, including reconnaissance, strike, and mobility.

The languorous U.S. efforts to develop Afghan airpower further complicate the problem. Embroiled in an internal contracting dispute, the USAF has yet to acquire the kind of light, counterinsurgency-oriented aircraft that would be ideal for the Afghan Air Force, such as the Brazilian Super Tucano. A different contracting dispute has slowed the delivery of Russian transport and attack helicopters.

The Afghan Air Force is hardly doomed to ineptitude and ineffectiveness; the Soviets rated the Air Force as the most capable Afghan armed forces branch during the occupation, and parts of the organization survived through the Taliban period. Nevertheless, prospects of the Afghan Air Force operating advanced jet aircraft in the near future aren’t particularly good, and in any case shouldn’t be the priority. Simple, low maintenance platforms that perform a variety of roles could help the Afghan armed forces maintain its edge.

Integration of air and ground power is the most important and complex test of a military organization. Even mature organizations have problems; witness the experience of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force(PLAAF) during the 1980 war against Vietnam, where problems of logistics, doctrine, and equipment dramatically limited the ability of airpower to assist deployed ground forces. Still, airpower normally helps more than it hurts. My best guess is that President Karzai and his senior military officials understand the importanceof airpower to the war effort, and that the integration of airpower with Afghan Army operations will continue in less visible ways. At the same time, it behooves the Afghan government (and its international supporters) to make equipping the Afghan armed forces with intrinsic air capability a key priority.