January 22, 2008

Air COIN Con

Trust me. I love the Air Force. There is nothing that gives a better sense of security to the small unit counterinsurgent than knowledge that he's got a JDAM from Uncle Sam on his side.

But, I've got to complain about the ongoing machinations to create a new Afghan National Army (ANA) Air Corps.

Now, undoubtedly Afghan President Karzai, Minister Wardak (the Minister of Defense), and General Saleh (the chief of the National Directorate of Security--NDS) want every high-faluting peon of modern airpower to carry on simultaneous conventional fights against Pakistan and Iran. That is the result of the most hard-and-fast rule of international relations: attack jets wished by a national government increases as per capita GDP decreases. Now, the kind of Air Force personnel unhappy with their relegation to an appendix of the COIN FM (and who have now published their own treatise in response) will remind you that the ANA definitely needs airlift and close air support (CAS) capabilities as force multipliers against the Taliban and other insurgent groups. But I gots to ask, at what cost?

If there is one thing that just about every pundit agrees on (excepting Rory Stewart ), it's that there are insufficient troops on the ground in Afghanistan. For an ANA force eventually slotted to reach about 80,000--a 61-aircraft force is going to require at least a few thousand troops to do everything from flying to maintenance to logistical support for the Air Corps. It will in turn rob the best and the brightest from the nascent Afghan land forces. Many of these new Air Corps officers are going to be drawn from the first class of Afghanistan's West Point, graduating this year. Given the sex appeal of being a pilot in the third-world, this virtually ensures that the very best of the very best will be in the sky supporting the fight rather than on the ground winning it.

Now, doubting Debbies (and Daves--don't want to be sexist here) are going to tell me, "If you acknowledge that they'll need an air power capability in the future, you've got to start at some point, right?" Well, yeah. But let's keep our eyes on the target. NATO countries are wavering in their support for the mission and increased casualties have curtailed the willingness of all Allies, including the US, to operate in small, remote outposts. Air support, on the other hand, comes at virtually no political cost and can continue virtually indefinitely. It seems we should be focusing our efforts to train, man, and equip the ANA to win the fight on the ground for now. Even our fickle publics can handle the fight in the air for the foreseable future instead of diminishing the ground capabilities of the ANA to build an Air Corps that they will barely be able to maintain.

After all, nothing says "legitimate government" like a Soviet-era HIND flying over an Afghan village...