(Note: General Lindell appears via teleconference from Kabul, Afghanistan.)
MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Pentagon briefing room. My pleasure to be here today. And we have with us from Afghanistan this morning Brigadier General Jay Lindell, who is the commander of the Combined Air Power Transition Force in Afghanistan. General Lindell and his command are responsible for assisting the government of Afghanistan as it develops, equips and trains the Afghan Air Corps.
He's speaking to us from Kabul, where his headquarters is, at the Combined Security Transition Command. And he's here to answer your questions today, but I believe he has some opening comments for us. So with that, let's turn it over to General Lindell. Sir?
GEN. LINDELL: Well, good morning. It's my pleasure to talk with you this morning. As the opening introduction said, I am the commander of the Combined Air Power Transition Force and specifically a deputy commander for the Combined Security Transition Command- Afghanistan, working for Major General Cone in Afghanistan.
And my team of 130 personnel -- which is a joint service team from all branches of the service, and we also have Canadian officers on my team -- is responsible for building, developing and training the Afghan Air Corps, so that they may -- will maintain and develop to a self-sufficient, fully operational capable air corps in the years to come.
We have a campaign plan that we are currently executing. It'll take many years to develop the Afghan Air Corps, but I'm proud of the team in which they are performing, and we're well on our way.
And with that, I'm happy to take any questions.
MODERATOR: Okay, sir. We appreciate that.
And I'll remind you that he cannot see you, so please identify who you are.
And he said he was having a little bit of trouble with our background noise, so please speak clearly.
Go ahead, Kris.
Q Sir, it's Kristin Roberts with Reuters. I'm hoping you can bring us up to date on your acquisition program. In October you talked about equipping the Afghan Air Corps with 16 transport helicopters, some attack helicopters and four more transport planes. You said that was over a six-month period. Can you at this point bring us up to date on your progress on that program?
GEN. LINDELL: Yes, a great question. We're well on our way. In December we acquired three Czech Mi-17 helicopters, and then this month we've acquired two Antonov 32s. We're well on our way to acquiring nine more helicopters within the next six months from the Czech Republic. There will be two more Antonov 32 aircraft coming from the Ukraine, still nine more aircraft from the United Arab Emirates, and then a Slovak Republic Mi-17.
So, back in October, as you recall, we only had seven Mi-17s in the fleet. As we acquire these additional aircraft, we will more than double our present capability. And with our Antonov aircraft we are acquiring, back in October we only had two Antonov 32s that were flying. We had two Antonov 32s or 26s that we've got operational, acquired two, then we'll acquire two more by the end of March. So we've gone from two fixed-wing aircraft and in the coming months we'll have a total of six. So we've rapidly boosted the capability of this Afghan Air Corps.
Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. We have a fact sheet here that has all the numbers of helicopters and aircraft that you have, but one thing it doesn't mention is exactly what these aircraft are doing. Are they actually operational? How many airmen are in the Afghan air force? How many are conducting combat operations versus standard airlift and transport? Can you kind of give us a rundown of the basics?
GEN. LINDELL: Right. The Afghan Air Corps is engaged in operations daily. On average they will be flying five fixed-wing missions, which are transporting supplies, transporting passengers. These are Afghan military personnel at the various locations. As they come out of training schools, they'll transport to their forward operating locations. And so they are picking up every day more and more of the missions that either the ISAF forces or the U.S. forces used to fly. On the rotary wing side, they are actually performing more training missions than operational right now. We will soon start medevac operations here out of Kabul, and in three months we plan to have medevac operations established at Kandahar with the Afghan Air Corps.
So they are growing. We're training and flying missions daily to bring them up to these mission capabilities.
MODERATOR: Go ahead.
Q Do you have any -- right now any Afghan air force planes, anything flying in southern Afghanistan in offensive -- in offensive operations?
GEN. LINDELL: No, we don't. They are not conducting offensive operations per se. It's all in support currently.
Q General, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America. Can you tell us what the priorities are for the development of the Afghan Air Corps? And I'm referring to whether you're talking about support functions or combat functions. And have those priorities been agreed to between the U.S. or ISAF, on the one hand, and the Afghan government on the other hand?
GEN. LINDELL: Right. Good question. Our first priority has been to robust (sic) their mobility capability, both fixed wing and rotary wing capability.
That is the acquisition of the Mi-17 aircraft, the acquisition of the Antonov aircraft. We have a plan to acquire new -- refurbished Western fixed wing aircraft. We plan on the first deliveries in'09, continuing through year 2011.
The current aircraft that we are looking at is a C-27-type aircraft that is much like their current aircraft they are flying. However this will be a more modern aircraft. It will have a palletized cargo system.
So over the next three years, our focus has been to develop their mobility capability. That is the urgent and most critical need that the Afghan national security forces need. This plan has been agreed to with the Afghan ministry of defense and the Afghan air corps obviously, and ISAF forces are well aware of the plan. And it's coordinated with where we're going with this air corps.
And beyond the next three years, we are also planning this air corps to build more training capability, and then into light attack and then intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance capability. But it's beyond our current three-year plan, which you call the near-term plan, which is focused on air mobility.
Q To follow up, so General, you're saying it's beyond the three-year horizon before you could even think about a situation where the Afghan national army would not need close air support, for example, or airborne type of operations from some sort of foreign allies.
GEN. LINDELL: Exactly right. It'll be beyond three years before we have developed that capability with the Afghan air corps. It's not just airframes that we have to acquire. It's obviously the training of the pilots in this close air support role. It's the development and the interoperation with the Afghan army that needs to be conducted, and that's through a joint tactical controller concept. We're making the plans right now on how we will do that, and we hope to have that capability developed in the year '13.
Q Thank you.
Q Sir, it's Mike Mount from CNN.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you're selecting and training the pilots and crew? I imagine there wasn't a lot of indigenous pilots before you all, you know, got there. Are you pulling them from other parts of the world, where these Afghans lived or maybe flew? And just tell us a little bit about how you're training them.
GEN. LINDELL: Okay. The Afghan pilots that are currently flying are very good stick- and-rudder pilots. They're very competent; they're professional. They can fly the missions that they're assigned to today. It's just that they do not have the resources.
Now, I will say that they are day pilots. They don't fly a lot of night operations and they do not fly operations in the weather generally. Their current force: They have 180 pilots. Now, this pilot force is a very old force. That includes pilots that haven't flown in many years. There are some pilots that haven't flown in 15 years, and the Afghan air corps has not trained a new pilot in this air corps since 1992.
So the average age of these pilots is 43. However they have a lot of flying experience. The average pilot has over 2,500 hours of flying experience. So they're a very experienced force.
However as this force ages, it won't sustain this air corps for the long time, and we are developing plans to train new pilots and bring youth into the program.
And that training capability will take a couple years to develop. And we will rely on some outside-the-country training initially, and then we hope to develop our training capacity in country here, Afghans training Afghans to be new pilots for this air corps.
Q Do you know how many are flying --
Q How many -- I'm sorry, sir. How many are many are flying, and where are they being trained right now?
GEN. LINDELL: Well, the pilots that are flying right now are assigned here to the Kabul air wing. They fly both the fixed-wing aircraft, the Antonov aircraft and then the rotary-wing aircraft, the Mi-17s and the Mi-35s, which are your Hind gunships. Current pilots that are flying every day is roughly around the 50 pilots mark. They don't get a lot of flying time right now. As we give this air corps more assets, we'll qualify and re-qualify more pilots, so they'll be actively flying.
In addition, we have -- some of those pilots that are flying are sitting out into an English language program. So they may be currently flying today, but we will pull them off the flying schedule to start English language training, so that they can learn an adequate level, comprehension level of English, and then attend Western training and English language to check out in the C-27 program. So it's a -- it's kind of a -- we've got to have a lot of pilots to sustain and build capacity with the current aircraft they're flying yet pull some off the schedule, sit down to attend full-time academics and English language training.
So on a rough guess, it's roughly about that 50 number of pilots that are currently flying. That number will continue to grow as we gain more assets here and more capability, and then we'll also continue to put more pilots into an English language training program.
Q Sir, can you talk a little bit about -- this is Jim Garamone, from American Forces Press Service. Can you talk a little bit about the ground crew, air crew chiefs, the training they receive? And are these folks that you have to send out of the country, or are you doing the training there in Kabul?
GEN. LINDELL: Okay, our ground crews, the maintenance technicians rely on -- right now what we have hired are some retired Afghan Air Corps personnel who have a lot of experience, who do on- the-job training with their air -- with their maintenance technicians. We're currently in develop (sic) of a formal technical training school that will be developed here in Kabul.
And we will start that coursework this year. We will recruit personnel. They'll go through their military basic training, and then we'll run them through our aviation branch school training here in this technical training center as we develop these maintenance technicians.
So we hope to, by the end of the year here, graduate at least 20 personnel just this year. This course won't start till later this year. Twenty personnel, then we'll ramp this course up over the next two years, to where two years from now we hope to have at least 350 each year going through a formal course training. And largely that'll be comprised of the maintenance technicians.
Q And could I just do a follow-up? Sir, how large is the air corps now? And what is it -- by personnel? And what is it building to?
GEN. LINDELL: Okay, I heard your first question. The current number of air corps personnel is roughly 1,950 personnel today. And I didn't hear the second part of your question, I'm sorry.
Q That's all right, sir. What's the goal? What is the force building to?
GEN. LINDELL: Okay. The air corps will build to roughly 7,400 personnel during our campaign plan.
Q Through the next three years? When do you expect to hit 7,400? What's the goal?
GEN. LINDELL: Okay. We won't reach 7,400 until about year six or year seven in our campaign plan. And that's 7,400 trained and ready personnel, fully capable in their jobs. So it's not going to be a very large air corps here initially, roughly building up to about 112 aircraft and 7,400 personnel.
Q Year seven of your campaign is when? Two thousand what?
GEN. LINDELL: It's an eight-year campaign plan. So it's 2008 through 2015, and that is to a point where we -- obviously, this air corps will continue to grow and develop and enhance mission capability. But in our eight-year campaign plan is what we believe we can build this air corps at an adequate level where they are self- sufficient and they do have operational capability to meet their security needs.
Q General, you mentioned that right now you're focusing on mobility, and you won't focus on combat operations for another three years. Is there a reason you can't do both at the same time?
GEN. LINDELL: Well, the reason is pilots. And pilots are the long pole in building this air corps. And what I mean by pilots is availability. As I stated, it's a very old pilot force -- relatively old pilot force. Many of these pilots will be reaching a mandatory retirement age. It's a military service law that we expect the Afghan government to have enacted this next year. And so it's a matter of training capability for the new pilots to man these aircraft.
And currently our plan is to train -- start training 48 pilots a year during fiscal year '09. And initially that training will have to take place in the States until we develop capability here.
So we won't have the pilots to man the aircraft after we focus on the mobility assets and then focus and build light attack and an intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance capability.
In addition, it permits us to develop the needed infrastructure to bed down these aircraft also.
Q You don't have enough pilots yet in order to go to combat operations, correct?
GEN. LINDELL: Right. You're exactly right. We have enough pilots that are experienced in the Mi-17 and Antonov-32 aircraft that they're currently flying. But as these pilots age, we don't have enough in the long term to man a new weapons system in a light attack or ISR role. So it's a matter of training new pilots and developing their skills to man these platforms.
Q General, Bill McMichael with the Military Times papers. Of the 112 aircraft you'll have operational by 2015, how many of those, if any, will be combat aircraft?
GEN. LINDELL: Well, currently we're looking at approximately a quarter of those aircraft, in the 28 number or so, to be fixed-wing light attack. There will be some other Mi-17s aircraft outfitted in what's called an armed escort role, with forward-firing rocket pods, door guns. And so they will have an offensive capability, but normally only if needed in an armed escort role as they move either troops or supplies in a(n) airlift mode.
Q So do you -- you see at that point, by 2015, the offensive capability that'll be in the Afghan Air Corps at that time limited to escort missions as opposed to taking the lead in combat close air support missions -- (inaudible)?
GEN. LINDELL: Well, they -- no, they will have a close air support capability. That is our plan, to integrate, and they'll be fully interoperable with the Afghan army. So they will have a close air support capability designed for a counterinsurgency fight. So we expect that they'll be fully operational, with a light attack airframe, by 2015.
Q And a quick follow-up question, sir. The 1,950 personnel you currently have, you said about 180 pilots are currently in the air corps. That leaves about 1,770 personnel. Are the rest of those personnel maintenance personnel? And is all of the maintenance on your air corps currently being done by Afghans?
GEN. LINDELL: Right. It is all Afghans, maintenance -- with the help of U.S. advisers.
Of those pilots, there's very -- you know, less than about 30 percent of those 180 pilots are actively flying. The rest are available. They haven't flown in a few years. They have a lot of experience, can be re-qualified as we gain more assets and more training capability.
But our real -- for the long-term growth of this air corps, we're going to have to rely on training new pilots and bringing youth into the program here, obviously
Q Thank you.
Q General, this is Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse.
I assume that the reason why you're -- right now you're using basically old Soviet-made aircraft is because that's where the experience of your pilots are. But as you move forward, will you be shifting to U.S.-made helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft?
GEN. LINDELL: The answer is yes, we will. Our fixed-wing airlift is a joint venture aircraft, with a U.S. partnership in our fixed-wing airlifter that we plan to acquire for the Afghan Air Corps. Fixed-wing aircraft for both training and light attack are planned to be U.S.-made aircraft.
For the follow-on rotary-wing aircraft that we're currently robusting (sic), at this point, that will probably be an Eastern Bloc-type aircraft. And what I mean by Eastern Bloc is an aircraft very similar to the Mi-17 that we are currently flying. It'll probably be an enhanced Mi-17, with upgraded engines, that'll become the mainstay of this air corps in years to come.
MODERATOR: We have time for maybe one more. (Off mike.)
Q Sir, this is Marc Schanz of Air Force Magazine. Related to that last question, what are the sustainment issues with taking care of these older Soviet helicopter gunships and Antonovs? Are you having parts problems, or are they in good shape, or --
GEN. LINDELL: No, good question. We're not in good shape, and we do have parts problems.
However, in September, we contracted a $20 million contract to order parts for their legacy aircraft, the Antonov aircraft and their Mi-17s and Mi-35s. We've received some of those parts. We hope to robust (sic) in the current future.
We also plan to put on contract the logistics sustainment system. The logistics sustainment system will be initially a contractor that will help supply chain management with the right parts, with the right certified quality parts for these legacy aircraft, help us with the support equipment, help us with the tooling necessary to maintain them, help us with the tech orders that we need to maintain these aircraft, and some training for the Afghan maintenance personnel.
And we have a team currently with us, 14 members of a team from the States that are currently assessing and surveying what the Afghan need -- to develop this sustainment capability. And this will probably be about a two- to three-year process on this sustainment system, equipping and training contract, until the Afghans can manage it themselves.
So yeah, we're taking a hard look at it. We do not have a good capability today to maintain aircraft. We are short of parts.
Q General, can you just clarify where, in your eight-year plan, the Afghan air corps begins to do combat operations?
GEN. LINDELL: Well, our light attack capability in our eight- year plan is not developed till 2013. And initially that will be a U.S., what we envision is, it will be a U.S.-led squadron, as we train the Afghans how to do close air support and how to integrate with the ground forces in the close air support mission. So it will be through a process of training. It will be about that 2013 to 2014 year before the Afghan air corps is certified in a close air support mission.
MODERATOR: Sir, very quickly, can you describe the aircraft that they'll use in close air support missions?
GEN. LINDELL: Yes.
The aircraft will -- what we are looking at is a single-engine, turbo-prop-type aircraft, an aircraft that probably will be a two- pilot-type aircraft, that will be precision-ordnance-capable and will have a self-laser-designation capability. In other words, it can acquire targets and it can designate targets and guide precision weapons to a target. And we're also looking for a net-centric-type aircraft that will be integrated through datalink to other aircraft or joint information operation centers.
So we plan to bring this air corps up to date with Western technology and do business similar to how the best air force in the world does it -- the U.S. Air Force -- and teach them how we do close air support, so they can take over this mission in Afghanistan.
MODERATOR: Well, sir, we appreciate your time today. We are at the end of our half hour. We would like to give you an opportunity to provide any final comments or information that you might have forgotten to mention. Throw it over to you.
GEN. LINDELL: Okay.
I'm just extremely proud of the 133 personnel assigned to the Combined Air Power Transition Force, as we build and develop this Afghan air corps. You can be very proud of the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen that are all part of this organization, that work hard every day with their Afghan counterparts. In a few short months, we've come a long way and we nearly doubled the capability of the Afghan air corps here since October. And in the next six months, we'll plan to double it again.
And so we're progressing very fast. The Afghan Air Corps is -- they're progressing very fast as they develop capability. And we're extremely proud of them. And especially day to day, I get so energized when I'm out there with the Afghans and you see the look in their eyes; they have the will, the desire, and they want to do this mission. And so my people take great pride in what they're doing, and you can be very proud of them also.
So thank you very much. And it is a great privilege to talk about the Afghan Air Corps with you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir.
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