ISAF Air Training Commander Describes ‘Delicate Balance’
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md., Sept. 20, 2013 The commander of NATO’s Air Training Command Afghanistan admits that he has a public perception problem: while polls show Americans have largely dismissed the war in Afghanistan as an effort that’s winding down, his mission is ramping up in size and complexity and in the number of obstacles encountered.
Air Force Brig. Gen. John E. Michel’s command is responsible for training the Afghan air force, or as he puts it, building a minimum, sustainable air capability suited to Afghanistan’s needs, terrain, development and resources.
While visiting here this week to attend an Air Force conference, Michel spoke to American Forces Press Service about the challenges his command faces in ramping up a training mission to last through 2017 as the rest of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force looks to draw down troops by the end of next year.
He acknowledges that to accomplish his mission by December 2017, he’ll need every advantage he can wring from dwindling war funds.
“It’s very easy to lose this in translation, because most people don’t realize [air trainers are] staying [in Afghanistan] until ’17,” he said. “The mindset is, ‘We’re done in ’14,’ and I got that, but the biggest challenge is just where we are in time and space. The story has shifted to another direction.
“Everyone else is leaving, and we’re growing,” he continued. “We’re building an 8,000-person force that can do what they need for Afghanistan -- humanitarian [missions], basic intelligence, troop insertion, resupply [and] casualty evacuation.”
Michel’s coalition aircrews fly alongside their Afghan counterparts during training, combat and joint missions, conducting resupply, troop and passenger movements and casualty evacuation for the Afghan army. Coalition advisors also train in maintenance, logistics, finance and communications.
The Afghan air force is divided into three wings, located respectively in Kabul, Kandahar and Shindand. The command center is in Kabul, and the Shindand Air Base in Herat province is the main training area.
The Afghan air force’s fleet eventually will include 58 Mi-17 transport helicopters, six Mi-35 attack helicopters, 20 C-208 turboprop airliners, four C-130 transport aircraft and 20 A-29 light attack aircraft. The training command staff that will grow in the next few years as Afghan air capabilities come online, Michel emphasized, will shrink as the Afghan force develops its own experts.
“We’ve got to go from 649 to 1,114 people,” he said. That number will plateau for a time, and then gradually decline as Afghan air capabilities are ramped up, brought to sustainment and handed off, the general said.
Michel said the American people are the command’s “stockholders,” along with the coalition nations and the Afghans.
His trainers are “very good stewards of every dollar we spend, every person we bring in,” Michel said. He and his staff use detailed charts that show growing Afghan air mission capability to brief NATO International Security Assistance Force leaders. They demonstrate the progress made and justify future effort, he said.
Fighting for funding is becoming familiar again in military circles, Michel said, noting the importance of what he views as a mission vital to U.S. and Afghan security.
“My goal is, ‘Let’s use data to keep us on the intellectual high ground, instead of being pulled to the emotional low ground,’” he said.
Partner commitment is as important as economic commitment in mission success, the general noted.
“There are things the U.S. Air Force cannot build in an Afghan air force, because those skills aren’t requisite [to American needs],” he said. “Where are we going to get Mi-17 talent? Where’s my Mi-35 talent? Who’s going to turn wrenches?”
American pilots have learned to fly those Russian helicopters, Michel said, and the training command relies on ISAF coalition partners, including Croatia and Italy, to teach the Afghan force how to maintain and support them. But some partners are reluctant to pledge people or funds after the larger national security mission transition wraps up in 2014, he added, partly because of uncertainty over U.S. intentions in Afghanistan.
“There’s a series of concerns, realistically,” he said, listing partner questions about final troop numbers, funding and security concerns. All contribute to an environment in which partner nations postpone commitment, Michel said.
“So we’ve got this very perilous situation setting up that, without the coalition support -- if we don’t get the right people … for the right time frame -- then we’ll have to start de-scaling capabilities,” he added.
Among other metrics, Michel said, the charts his command keeps track growth in the Afghan air force’s overall and detailed capabilities, using a green-yellow-red legend. Given the state of development the Afghan forces have achieved to date, he said, “if we stop [training] today, the only things they could sustain is what’s green.”
Those capabilities all are in the “air movement” category, and about halfway mature there, judging by the green-yellow chart pattern, he said. The yellow areas, he added, “where we are currently improving slowly, would immediately start to diffuse and be unsustainable. And then if it’s red, we haven’t started it yet.”
Red areas on the chart include advanced combat capabilities such as close air support and close air attack, which now are mostly yellow.
Likewise, he said, the air training command is still building infrastructure which will continue through 2015 if current plans hold. It was just last month, he noted, that the Shindand Air Wing Training Complex opened, adding 32 facilities from aircraft hangars to flight simulators to Afghanistan’s training inventory.
“But now there are pressures to potentially reduce infrastructure,” Michel said, noting that a recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction drew media and congressional attention when it blasted an unused headquarters building that was built in Helmand for $34 million.
“Every [inspector general] report is killing us,” he said.
The general emphasized that all new Afghan air force facilities will be designed for Afghanistan’s needs and budgeted accordingly. But, he added, “if all of a sudden we change our minds on infrastructure, that significantly impacts our ability to build a sustainable air force.”
Michel and his staff also are preparing for a scaling-back in funding on Kabul’s part; he said the Afghan air force is projected to cost its government between $600 million and $620 million a year after coalition funding support ends.
“Let’s look at their overall defense budget,” he said. “Because of the Chicago accords, it’s fixed at $4.1 billion. So as a percentage, 3.5 percent of the force -- their air force -- is going to, now, absorb as much as 15 to 20 percent of their budget.”
Planning in true military fashion for likely contingencies, Michel said, he and his staff offered to plan force structure options at a number of funding levels for Afghan leaders.
“The smart thing to do is find efficiencies [and] recommend options,” he said.
Synchronizing the systems and subsystems that are working toward a self-sustaining Afghan air force with its own training, command, maintenance and support systems requires a delicate balance, the general said.
“We think [what they can pay for] is the right question,” he said. “Because we can go to the [Afghan] leadership and say, ‘It is affordable, therefore it’s sustainable.’ … They’ve got to steward their own resources when we leave. It’s our job to create the conditions, and advise, and train.”