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Afghan Air Force spreads its wings

NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

30 Sep. 2011

In order to prepare Afghanistan for the future, NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition partners have been working with Afghan forces to train them to carry out various types of mission necessary to promote stability in their country. At the moment, NATO coalition forces provide almost all aviation support in southwestern Afghanistan

Demonstrating the progress made so far, the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) Air Force recently completed its first unassisted helicopter-borne medical evacuation, or “medevac”, flying a stabilised patient from Camp Shorabak in Helmand province to Kandahar Airfield.

“They’re able to do everything from mission planning to launching missions, all on their own,” says U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Steven Guillen, a flight medical advisor with the 441st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron based at Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Learning from ISAF expertise

A successful aerial medical evacuation requires well-trained pilots, medical staff, and aircraft maintainers. So when the Afghans began training their own troops for aerial medical evacuations, they were still receiving significant support from ISAF troops.

In the past, NATO mentors were responsible for preparing and checking the patients and flights, but during recent months, the troops of the Afghan Air Force have become more proficient.

Today Afghan pilots command their aircraft across the country and fly daily providing transportation for those in need of medical aid. Locations include Kabul, Kandahar Airfield, Camp Bastion and the ANA Camp Shorabak in Helmand province.

“Now you’ve got Afghan pilot instructors,” says Guillen. “They train themselves.”

Progressing to Afghan autonomy

Created in 2008, the Afghan Air Force currently numbers more than 4,000 personnel and nearly 60 aircraft, including the Mi-17 helicopters used in medevacs. By 2016, the air force is expected to be fully operational with a force of 140 aircraft and more than 8,000 troops.

Guillen’s squadron trains and assists Afghan forces as they work toward capable air power in Afghanistan. He explains that units such as the 441st are spread throughout Afghanistan, with the collective goal to allow the Afghan Air Force to operate independently.

Afghan Air Force Major Abdul Wadud, an instructor pilot, said he has seen continued growth in Afghanistan’s military evolution with support from NATO troops.

“The pilots weren’t even allowed to fly from Bastion to [Kandahar],” Maj. Wadud says of Afghan forces before ISAF training began. “Now they can fly to other places they couldn’t have. People think we have a good air force, so it’s very effective.”

Wadud sees the NATO troop drawdown as an opportunity for Afghan’s native forces.

“Everyone on the team wants a brighter future for our country,” he says. “That’s when our own force can stand on its own.”

But both Afghan and NATO troops agree the Afghan forces are not yet fully independent. NATO forces will continue to provide logistical oversight and general support for the Afghan Air Force, even though they have successfully reduced their dependence on the coalition.

An optimistic outlook

NATO medical staff still support patients who require immediate medical treatment that, “would require different medical skills they might not have the experience to handle yet,” explains Guillen. However, the Afghan medical staff is motivated by the opportunity and eager to learn.

“We’re so fortunate to have Afghan medics and providers,” says U.S. Air Force Maj. Charla Morgan, a flight surgeon with the 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group, based at Kandahar Airfield. “We’re lucky to have individuals who demonstrate the professionalism we need them to have to function as medics,” she adds.

In addition to medical proficiency, aircraft availability and aircraft maintenance are also challenges the Afghan forces must overcome as they strive for autonomy. In spite of this, those directly involved with Afghan’s future are optimistic.

“It was a good feeling to see [the Afghans] do this alone,” says U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class James Briggs, a mentor to the 215th Afghan Corps surgeons. “The Afghans being able to do their jobs is our ticket home.”

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