The Afghan Air Force turned nine this year, and the AAF wants what every kid wants: more planes, more pilots, and more spare parts. Because until they get those fighter jets that Karzai always wanted, they figure they stand no chance of defeating the Taliban. So in learning how to do more with less, the AAF found a way to kill three times as many Afghan civilians in the first six months of 2016 as they did during the same period a year ago.
That’s according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) which puts out a bi-annual report on the protection of civilians on the battlefield in Afghanistan. The tl;dr version? It sucks to be an Afghan civilian in 2016. And it sucks even more when the AAF crashes the party.
The UN condemns this kind of behavior, which condemnation is a lot like getting in trouble with Mom’s new boyfriend. Because he wants to be your cool stepdad, he won’t get mad, he’s just really disappointed. And no, you’re not grounded, but he sees a lot of potential in you, so even though he’s banging your mom, everything’s cool, right?
Like any nine year old whose dad keeps cutting his allowance, the AAF’s trying to make do with what they’ve got. And what they’ve got for close air support (CAS) is an assortment of Russian, Brazilian, and American aircraft, to include some Mi-35s, Mi-17s, MD-530s, and A-29 Tucanos.
Since they’re fighting an insurgency whose biggest resupply problem is getting enough winter flip flops, the AAF already have what it takes to establish aerial dominance on the battlefield.
They have the firepower. Having enough guns isn’t the problem. The problem is they’re not all that accurate. It’s a problem discussed here before, and it’s getting worse.
Let there be dead babies
A 300% increase in casualties caused by a nation’s air force is troubling. And since it’s part of a larger trend of casualties increasing every year, mostly due to anti-government forces, it’s at a point where the AAF is very much part of the problem. And while Afghans are inflicting more damage on civilians than ever before, they’ve got some help.
Even though Afghans have the lead for security in Afghanistan, US warplanes are still dropping a lot of bombs on the country. In the first half of 2016, the Americans increased total weapons releases by 83% compared with the previous year. And killed 41% more Afghans in the process.
The worst part of it is that women and children account for the majority of the casualties. 30% of all casualties caused by the AAF during the first half of 2016 were women, while children accounted for 47% of the total. Which means that 77% of AAF civilian casualties were women and children.
Why are aerial operations are accounting for a 109% total increase in dead and wounded Afghan civilians? Easiest to blame for the increase would be the A-29 Super Tucano, a propeller-driven counterinsurgency aircraft developed by Brazilian manufacturer Embraer.
The versions the Afghans are flying are built in Florida in partnership with the Sierra Nevada Corporation. They’re capable of dropping bombs, and they’re new to the AAF, and anytime you get something new, there’s a learning curve.
Reasonable assumptions being reasonable, in looking at the numbers, UNAMA should have found that the new airframe caused the greatest number of civilian casualties.
…the majority of civilian casualties from AAF operations resulted from helicopter operations, as armed helicopters continue to conduct the majority of offensive Afghan Air Force operations. Of the 111 documented civilian casualties from Afghan Air Force aerial operations, **helicopter strikes caused 88 per cent** – 98 civilian casualties, fixed-wing caused 12, while UNAMA could not determine the aerial platform for the one remaining casualty.
Except that it was helicopters, and not the A-29s. Which could mean the MD-530s, an armed variant of a training helicopter which, in earlier iterations, was also known as the “Little Bird.” Those are also new to the AAF inventory, and even though the Afghans are familiar with the aircraft, shooting while flying is harder than just…flying.
For more answers about what kind of helicopter’s killing kids, here’s the always-helpful semi-annual US Department of Defense (DoD) report to Congress on security and stability in Afghanistan, with a breakdown of what aircraft were doing aerial operations during the first half of 2016:
Armed Mi-17s accounted for over 81 percent of the aerial fires missions tasked in support of ANDSF operations during the reporting period.
That’s for the time period from 01 December 2015 to 31 May 2016. During the time that helicopters accounted for 88% of air force casualties, 81% of “aerial fires” missions were flown by Mi-17s.
So it’s not the newer A-29s or MD-530s, but the already familiar Mi-17s, being used as gunships.
The problem then isn’t one of system familiarity. It’s a matter of accuracy. And coordination between a pilot in the air and forces on the ground.
Shoot first, figure out if they’re civilians later
Years ago “international forces” made a decision. And I put that in “quotes” because it should read “the Americans.” This coalition is to multi-lateralism as Olive Garden is to Italian food: just as authentic, but without the breadsticks.
The US, in partnership with a whole bunch of countries that want to stay on the Pentagon’s good side, decided to focus on training Afghans to fight, and everyone would figure out the rest later.
Which means that a poorly equipped aerial fighting force isn’t all that great with the accuracy. Because in putting together an air force, the Americans concerned themselves, rightly so, with focusing on the flying. And then tacked on some later training when it comes to being accurate with the guns and the rockets. Which means a whole lot pilots are ok at flying, kind of ok at shooting, and really not ok at not shooting civilians.
One solution would be more Afghan Tactical Air Coordinators (ATACs). Similar to the American Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTACs), they direct pilots toward targets that aren’t Afghan civilians. In theory they make it easier for a pilot to identify targets on a battlefield that’s confusing at the best of times.
Because what’s happening now is that Afghan capacity to shoot stuff is growing faster than Afghan capacity to tell pilots what stuff to shoot.
Of particular concern, UNAMA notes that the increase in aircraft capable of conducting airstrikes has not been matched with a corresponding increase in Afghan security forces ground personnel trained to coordinate and direct airstrikes, referred to as Afghan Tactical Air Coordinators (ATACs). Although the AAF is now equipped with an inventory of 41 aircraft with such capabilities, there are only “34 fully trained ATACs” and “115 additional personnel in ANA corps trained to utilize ATAC equipment and procedures.”
The Americans get that this is a problem, and they’re increasing the number of ATACs as fast as they can. And although their training is a matter of weeks, not the months that their American counterparts received, Afghans aren’t dealing with nearly as many airframes as an American in a similar role.
The challenge isn’t just getting ATACs trained, but in getting Afghan forces to understand their importance. An initial program saw ATACs sent back to their units and taking up their old jobs.
“They didn’t have positions set aside, so the newly trained ATACs were out guarding gates,” Henderson said. “We didn’t foresee that problem when we started off.”
The current ATAC program started in March, and these new ATACs are assigned directly to the air force, just like they are in the United States. Which helps make it clear to everyone that their job of talking to the airplanes is important.
But of course you need an air force
The bitter irony in all this is that the way the Afghans are fighting this war, it’s imperative that they have an air force. Because the conventional wisdom in 2016 is that all conflicts will be decided by airpower. Even though the other side doesn’t have its own aerial assets.
Which logic works well for those who want people to buy…more airplanes. And breaks down a little when you consider that the A-29s did a lot of work in Colombia. Which has been fighting its own insurgency for decades. Coincidentally, that insurgency? Also did not have its own air force.
But the Afghans learned how to fight from the Americans. Who taught them the value of good close air support. And then took that air support away when it was politically expedient and militarily pointless to do so.
That left the Afghans a bunch of nine year olds with flying machine guns.
The ATAC program means that future Afghan close air support will be more effective. And less deadly to civilians. Add this to the growing list of reasons why the Americans shouldn’t leave yet.
Unless the US is OK with leaving behind a fighting force that’s increasingly more lethal to the country’s civilian population. And is having a harder and harder time beating back Taliban forces. And the Americans might be OK with that.
Except that there’s still Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and a resurgent Taliban to contend with. None of those will go away on their own. So the price of Western security will be more Afghan lives.
And dead Afghans is a price the Americans are more than willing to pay.